The remarkable resilience of Welsh culture


Yesterday I had a really great time celebrating Saint David’s Day. St David lived an awful long time ago – most people think he died in 589, though there is no agreement on his date of birth, and most of the details of his life are sketchy. But the main outline is clear: he was a monk, lived a very strict life, and he devoted his life to evangelising the people of Wales and further afield. He lived in what was then called Menevia, where he founded his monastery, and was later buried, and which of course is nowadays called St David’s. There is a Wikipedia article about him here. There is also an article about him in the Catholic Encyclopaedia which can be read here.  This relates that St David was baptised by Saint Elvis of Munster, a fact that surely ought to be more widely known.

But why celebrate Saint David so many centuries after his death? This custom is a remarkable survival, and must count as one of the few British practices to have survived the Reformation. (There are some analogous celebrations in Scandinavia, but not, curiously, in England, at least that I can think of.)

There is something very resilient about Welsh culture. The Welsh have held onto their language, and indeed the number of Welsh speakers is growing; this is no doubt helped by government subsidy for various Welsh-language projects, but it would not have happened without Welsh people actually wanting to preserve their language and culture. This strong attachment to national consciousness, and close affinity to the land, is something that I admire.

This cultural nationalism is not a closed nationalism either. Saint David was a Welshman, but he sent monks to evangelise Brittany and parts of England and Ireland. He was not bound by national borders, being, after all, Catholic. Lots of Welsh people have gone beyond Wales: the commonest surnames in England are in fact Welsh ones; and there are of course Welsh people to be found as far away as South America. (Here I declare an interest, being the great-grandson of a ship’s captain from Swansea settled in the north of Chile.)

Moreover, just as people have left Wales, many have entered and in the process become Welsh. One such was Bernice Rubens, the great friend of Alice Thomas Ellis. Of Jewish-Russian parentage and born in Cardiff, she was thoroughly Welsh, and very much at home in Wales. She once pointed out to a friend that Wales was an ideal home for the Jews, because it was full of valleys and hills, and on each hill side were buildings with names like Bethel, Shiloh, Elim and Rehoboth. Alice Thomas Ellis herself came from Liverpool and had Scandinavian blood. She was always coy on the subject, but I suspect she had no Welsh ancestry: but she too was thoroughly Welsh by adoption.

There is so much that is worth admiring in Wales, so, a day late, may I hope you all had a happy St David’s Day, either in Wales, or elsewhere. For the flourishing of one culture can only be good for all cultures.