on 20 December 2005
Even in the great 'Celtic revival' of the past generation, where the cultures of the Celtic fringes of Britain and continental Europe have re-exerted themselves in various political and non-political ways, the Welsh revival has been late in coming, and a little less forceful in affect and event.
Perhaps history is to blame here -- the Welsh have been only marginally protected by geography; the mountainous area was difficult terrain to conquer, but the supply lines to those mountains were relatively easy to maintain and sustain, unlike the trek to the northern reaches of Scotland or crossing the sea into Ireland, areas that (however much English history might want to contradict this statement) never were completely conquered and subdued, remaining under the hegemony but outside the total control of Londinium/London from Roman times to the recent past. Wales was never so fortunate. Indeed, it is a miracle that the Welsh survive. The Scots lost land, language and independence, but retained administrative and legal systems separations that preserved many aspects of nationhood. The Irish never completely lost independence. The Welsh, however, lost everything of nationhood, and barely sustained an independent culture. Thus, when the 'nations' of the British Isles began to re-exert their independent interpretations of history, the Welsh were among the last.
However, sometimes the last shall be first. In terms of quality of writing and interpretation, the volume by John Davies, `A History of Wales', is indeed in a class of its own in terms of Welsh history. Dafydd Elis Thomas read into the `Hansard' (the British Parliamentary equivalent of the `Congressional Record') that this is 'the greatest of book of Welsh history ever written'.
It was, in fact, originally published in Welsh, under the title of `Haynes Cymru' in 1990. From the Ice Age to the 1980s miners strikes and efforts to reassert a national identity, Davies traces in some detail a history of Wales from a Welsh perspective, inextricably tangled with English and continental history, but nonetheless deserving of its own perspective as one of the last major surviving Celtic groups.
`A number of factors, the increasing prominence of the European dimension in particular, have caused the devolution issue to return to the political agenda.... From 1911 to 1981 the number of Welsh speakers declined census by census. In 1991, however, those claiming a knowledge of the language were marginally more numerous than had been the case in 1981, and the increase among the younger age groups was especially remarkable.'
Davies confesses that he contemplated writing a different book in English, as this was meant to be a Welsh book, and he would have envisioned a different book had his first thought been in English. However, given the demand of non-Welsh readers to read the same history treatment as those who do read Welsh, Davies consented to a translation rather than a re-write.
The time frames are not the same as those of standard British histories, which tend to follow the broad sweep of royal affairs. While there is some parallel of necessity, the time factors and dates here have far more interest to the direct concerns of Wales than to the rest of Britain.
The reader should also be prepared for an array of names, of both persons and places, that are very confusing to the average reader of English -- Gwydir, Llangeitho, Aberffraw, Catraeth, Llantwit, Penmynydd and Llyn Cerrig Bach. However, it is worth the effort to learn these names and places. Particularly in America, where so many people have Welsh ancestry (the Jones now outnumber the Smiths in America as the greatest number of people by last name, and Jones is a Welsh name by and large), this is part of the collective history of America, too.
Well written, well researched (Davies was educated in Wales and at Cambridge, taught Welsh history at University College in Wales), this is perhaps the currently-accepted definitive history of Wales available today.