Yesterday’s Past, Tomorrow’s Future
I remember it well. It’s the 23rd of April 2019 and I’m running up the cliff path in trainers that are too small for me. News has just hit.
The monument overlooking Port Eynon Bay has been defaced, spray-painted bright red with bold white lettering: “Cofiwch Dryweryn”.
The sight of it makes my heart beat faster.
It’s not the first time I’ve seen a mural like this one. I’ve grown up driving past the same graffiti on a wall on the A487. In my mother tongue, it demands those who pass it to Cofiwch Dryweryn. Remember Tryweryn.
Tryweryn is the name of a Welsh valley that was drowned in 1965 to supply water to Liverpool. Remarkably, 35 out of 36 Welsh MPs opposed the bill, but the measure still passed.
A total of 48 people from the Welsh-speaking community of Capel Celyn were evicted.
Their homes, a school, a chapel, and its graveyard were all submerged under 140 feet of water. That year, Meic Stephens, a Welsh writer, painted the original graffiti in protest. Ever since, the Cofiwch Dryweryn mural holds a very particular place in Welsh memory.
Over the years, generations have dipped their paintbrushes in red paint, taking on the ritualistic task of conserving the mural.
In 2019, a movement replicating the graffiti swept across Wales and beyond. A total of 115 examples of Cofiwch Dryweryn murals were recorded, stretching as far as Chicago.
One of which came to be on the clifftop of Port Eynon Bay, where I was raised, and is home to only a handful of Welsh speakers. Perhaps, one of the most unlikely places for a Welsh-language protest movement to reach.
Brittle with relics
R.S Thomas famously wrote of how “There is no present in Wales, and no future; there is only the past, brittle with relics”.
In 2008, the mural was altered to spell ‘Anghofiwch Dryweryn’ (Forget Tryweryn). It was swiftly restored to its original state, but the vandalism speaks a wider truth about the role of memory in Welsh identity.
Welsh identity seems to be entirely based on ancient grievances. The year 1282 is a date I grew up reciting. It’s the date Llywelyn ein Llyw Olaf, one of Wales’s last independent princes was killed. The English put his head on a spike.
Every year, on the anniversary of his death, a ceremony is held where he fell. For £19.30, you could even have your own ‘Cofiwch 1282’ t-shirt.
Recently, a Welsh protest song, ‘Yma o Hyd’, made headlines after topping the iTunes chart nearly 40 years after it was first released. It’s now the unofficial anthem of Wales.
The chorus goes: “despite everyone and everything, we’re still here”.
Wales has much more to celebrate than simply surviving. Since the Government of Wales Act in 1998 granted devolved powers to Wales, the Senedd has been doing things differently to its English neighbour.
Since 2007, prescription medication has been free. The Future Generations Act requires public bodies to consider the long-term impact of their decisions to prevent problems like poverty, inequality, and climate change in the future. It’s one of the only policies of its kind.
In 2019, the Welsh Government launched its plans to become the world’s first ‘Nation of Sanctuary’, recognizing its ambition to welcome refugees to the country. It’s since welcomed 200 Afghans and over 3,000 Ukrainians.
It doesn’t stop there. Two years ago, Plaid Cymru and Welsh Labour signed a Co-operation Agreement, a joint policy programme covering an impressive 46 areas. The two parties demonstrate a collaborative form of doing politics that Westminster can only dream of.
Wales is leading the way, prioritising values like co-operation, social equality, and sustainability. Yet, these achievements are too often overshadowed by memories of its troubled past.
Wales is no longer struggling to survive, but fighting to be an ambitious, innovative, and inclusive nation. Clinging to the “brittle relics” of the past will only prevent it from achieving those aims.
The graffiti that appeared in Port Eynon lasted just short of a week. After a day or two, the local council had already tried removing it with paint stripper, but it wouldn’t budge. Before long, black paint covered the mural.
A part of me couldn’t help but feel it was for the best.
This article, winner of the Orwell Society and NUJ’s Young Journalist’s Award 2023 (column category), is republished here by kind permission of The Orwell Society.
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