Nadolig Llawen oddi wrth Gwlad y Gân… A Merry Xmas from the Land of Song
I am Welsh. Not English. Welsh. I am very lucky.
Now this is something of which we on the Celtic Fringe are well aware. All the Celts are lucky; the Welsh are especially so. In fact, we are so aware of it that it is something which we reiterate on a regular basis.
Let me introduce you to a much-quoted phrase: “To be born in Wales: not with a silver spoon in your mouth, but, with music in your blood, and with poetry in your soul, is a privilege indeed.” It comes from a poem written in 1967 by Brian Harris called ‘In Passing’ and it could not be a truer description of my nation.
It is a small country – about 160 miles north to south and about 80 miles east to west – but it is a land of lush, green valleys, occasionally snow-capped mountains, craggy coastlines and lonely, almost undiscovered beaches. It is often said that if you flattened Wales out it would be much bigger than England! We have a population of 3 million people and 13 million sheep; and although we have been politically unified with England for over 450 years (150 years earlier than Scotland), we are very different, in culture, thought and deed – not least in so much as we have our own language, football and rugby sides!
The national musical instrument is a harp (ours is a bit bigger than the Irish), our national past-time is singing and our national game is rugby (at which everyone sings and tends to start with…someone playing the harp). The sound of 75,000 Welsh people singing the National Anthem, Mae Hen Wlad fy Nhadau (Land of My Fathers), at the Millenium Stadium has beaten many an international rugby team long before a ball has been kicked (most recently, South Africa: 12-6).
Our national festival, held in the first two weeks of August, is called the Eisteddfod. What other nation has a national festival in which people come from the length and breadth of the land to compete in categories like poetry, singing and dancing? The blue riband event is not the 100m sprint, but the Chairing of the Bard, and the festival starts with all of the attendees intoning in loud voices, ‘Heddwch!’ – ‘Let there be peace!’
This year is the centenary of the birth of Dylan Thomas; it was he who wrote in ‘Under Milk Wood‘: “Praise the Lord! We are a musical nation”, and it was his great friend and actor Richard Burton who wrote in ‘A Christmas Story‘: “of all the instruments known to man, it was widely agreed by the cognoscenti of Wales, that there was no sound more beautiful than that of the human voice”.
In one of my other lives, I run a small-scale touring theatre company, and we have the privilege in the run-up to every Christmas of touring Wales performing in small theatres, village halls and community centres. Wales is surprisingly remote for such a small nation and for some communities it will be the only theatre they get from outside in the whole year. This year, we have just finished touring an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ festive tale The Chimes, and every time the tour finishes I can reflect on how beautiful, how inspirational and how in love with the spoken and sung word our nation is. The locals flock to performances in the smallest of chapel, in the tiniest of village hall, or the ‘dwttiest’ (Welsh dialect word!) of community centres. They are greeted with great enthusiasm, and the benefit of knowledgeable constructive criticism (‘great tenors, but the choreography could do with some work’!)
I lead many tours in Wales; usually with university alumni Celtic Studies’ groups, rugby teams or choirs. If I am completely honest, we lack the self-confidence of the Irish and the Scots and we are not very good at publicising ourselves, so commercial large-scale tourism has not taken hold in Wales but every group that leaves falls in love with our land and its music; and our love and appreciation of the music of others.
In 1947, after the Second World War, we instigated the International Eisteddfod in Llangollen to promote friendship and peace through the medium of music and to this day choirs, dance troops and orchestras from all over the world come to Wales to compete and entertain us. Some world-famous performers have made their debuts on the stage at llangollen, Luciano Pavarotti and Monserrat Caballe to name but two.
So it could be said that we like a good sing, and it could be said that we know a good song when we hear it.
It is a perfect land for an Encore trip. Where the croeso (welcome) is cynnes (warm) and the cerddoriaeth (music) hudol (magical). Dewch i’n gweld ni….That’s ‘come and see us!’ by the way.