Home Is Where The Art Is - Elaine Jones


Home Is Where The Art Is returns with our Senior PR Account Manager Elaine Jones from Wrexham, Wales. In this post which is a slightly different format to the usual one, she’ll talk about Welsh culture’s journey from the various attempts to suppress it, a folk song that changed everything and ‘Cool Cymru’ in the 1990s.

Check out previous entries in this series from FrankGeorge, Flavia and Alistair.

Wales - the land of song, famous for rolling green valleys with 600 castles and the home of legends like footballer Gareth Bale and singer Tom Jones. It’s also my home. I was born and grew up in Wrexham, North Wales which these days is probably best known for our football team that Deadpool himself Ryan Reynolds co-owns with Rob McElhenney from the award-winning TV comedy It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. But it wasn’t always sunny for Wales, though its story is certainly one fit for Hollywood….

To understand the cultural output of a country, I think it’s important to know its background. The history of Wales is the history of a culture and language consistently under threat, so it isn’t surprising that it produces Art and artists who are full of passion, patriotism and defiance. As far back as 48AD when Wales was first invaded by the Romans, there have been multiple attempts to suppress Welsh culture and language. The Laws in Wales Acts (1535 and 1542), passed by the then King of England Henry VIII integrated Wales with England and banned the language from any official role or status, despite the vast majority of people in Wales not speaking English at the time. And yet, not for the last time, Wales wasn’t going to just go away. Critical events such as the first translation of the bible into Welsh by William Morgan in 1588 and the Welsh Methodist Revival in the 18th Century, were vital for the language’s survival and the culture’s future.

It wasn’t until the Welsh Language Acts of 1942, 1967 and 1993 that these four hundred year laws started to be overturned. The 1967 act was the most significant because Welsh was allowed to be used in all legal proceedings (some were allowed if necessary in 1942) and more importantly, the rule that the term ‘English’ should include Wales was overturned.

But despite these positive developments, the late 1970s/1980s were full of more disruptive events including the rejection of a devolved Welsh Government in 1979 as well as policies that would cause the 1984 miners strike which saw mass unemployment and hardship. One small win around this time was the launch of S4C, a Welsh language free to air channel in 1982 that still exists today. But even this was a struggle. Activists had campaigned for years for such a channel and when the Conservative Party went back on a promise to start one when they got into power, there were many acts of civil disobedience, refusal to pay TV licences and the attacking of TV sets in Welsh speaking areas.

This unrest would lead to a seminal piece of Welsh culture about the consistent fight for survival and recognition, folk song Yma O Hyd. Translated to ‘Still Here’, it was written and performed by Welsh singer and Nationalist politician Dafydd Iwan. Sung in Welsh, the song parallels the threats Wales had faced as far back as the 4th Century from Roman Emperor Magnus Maximum with then UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Iwan sought to remind everyone through his lyrics that despite all these recurring attempts at suppression, ‘we'll be here until the end of time, and the Welsh language will be alive’/Byddwn yma hyd ddiwedd amser, A bydd yr iaith Gymraeg yn fyw’.

The song had such an impact that it inspired a resurgence of support for the Welsh language which continued to build until the 1993 Welsh Language Act which placed Welsh on equal footing with English in Wales for the first time. The Welsh Language Board was also formed and it became mandatory for public bodies in Wales to use a Welsh language scheme. Just like the many centuries before, Wales still wasn’t going away. Neither would the song but more on that later.

A few years after this final overturning of the restrictive laws, Welsh culture really burst into the mainstream. Part of Brit Pop, Welsh acts were making their mark with Cool Cymru, a phrase which would have seemed impossible hundreds of years previously. I was in my teens at this point and totally unaware of the difficulties Wales had navigated to get to the point where we were cool. I was just proud these people from my small part of the world were making it big. I remember The Manic Street Preachers headlining Glastonbury with their Welsh flag proudly flying high on the stage, The Stereophonics, led by Kelly Jones and their lyrics about Aberdare in South Wales and Catatonia’s Cerys Matthews - singing in her very broad Welsh accent - was one of the biggest pop stars in the country and my personal favourite. One of the band’s most famous songs is International Velvet where the verses are in Welsh and the chorus in English that goes ‘Everyday when I wake up, I thank the Lord I’m Welsh’. At one point, the album was number one in the UK charts. A number one album with Welsh lyrics! If they were all proud of where we came from, I could be too.

And it wasn’t just music, Welsh language film Solomon & Gaenor featuring then Welsh star on the rise Ioan Gruffudd was nominated for Best Foreign Language film at the 2000 Oscars and over at the Old Vic, a certain Michael Christopher Sheen was playing Mozart in a revival of Amadeus, before making his way to the National Theatre to play Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger.

It took a lot for Wales to get to the point of Cool Cymru where our culture and language were celebrated, not restricted. And it’s kicked on since then with many more important moments including Gavin & Stacey, Hinterland which became the first BBC TV drama in both English and Welsh and Keeping the Faith which became the most downloaded non-network show on BBC iPlayer. Importantly, all these shows were aired internationally and there were even local adaptations. Wales was going global.

Unfortunately attacks to the language continue with regular posts on social media - and even a high profile newspaper article - about how it’s a pointless language. But Wales stands firm with initiatives such as the Welsh Government’s Cymraeg 2050: A Million Welsh Speakers which is aiming to achieve a million speakers of the language by 2050. Our cultural output is still going strong with even Netflix taking note buying thriller Dal y Mellt (Catch the Lightning) which became the first Welsh language-only show to be bought by the streaming service. Just last Christmas, drama Men Up about the first ever clinical viagra trials in Swansea aired on BBC One. Ryan Reynolds speaks a bit of Welsh and even Taylor Swift is mentioning Dylan Thomas on her latest album The Tortured Poets Department. Cool Cymru continues.

And of course Yma O Hyd got in on the action hitting number one on the iTunes charts in 2022 when it was named the official song of the Welsh football team at that year’s World Cup reigniting the interest in the message of the song and Dafydd Iwan himself.

I’ve been lucky enough to have worked with The Sherman Theatre here at Mobius and feel the responsibility when Welsh work lands on my desk knowing the struggle it’s taken to get here. It’s always a happy moment to walk around the city and see posters and flyers for Welsh shows here in London like On Bear Ridge at the Royal Court, Trouble in Butetown at the Donmar Warehouse and The Corn is Green at the National Theatre.

And what next? Well the future is always uncertain but one thing is for sure, Wales will still be here. It always has been. Cymru Am Byth*

*Wales forever


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