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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This walesonline story reports on the Cofiwch Dryweryn paint job at Port Eynon cliffs. The monument commemorated my grandfather Dr Gwent Jones who was an environmental campaigner and co-founder of the Gower Society. He was also a Welsh Language activist and close friend of Saunders Lewis. As a family Doctor he fought for the establishment of the NHS in 1948. Tragically he died aged only 51 with the same heart trouble I have inherited. I like to think his Ghost would encourage the painting of Cofiwch Dryweryn murals.
The brittle memories of the past…To me, the newly learned pieces of the Cymro and Celtic past have enlightened and strengthened me in ways that please my heart and mind. I feel this in me, I FEEL it! I clench a raised fist and declare myself CELTIC.
Yes but history repeats itself, because people don’t really change, unfortunately. We wouldn’t insensitively tell someone suffering from Amnesia, ‘forget your past, start from today’, that would be mental-cruelty. Our present self is built on our past, it’s what we are, a continuum of the self. It’s the same with a people, a nation, they need their past to get a future. We learn from our mistakes, so does a nation. I know the Left like to say ‘it’s all about now’, but this is decisive in my opinion, because they’ve got double-standards as they’ve told us only Black history… Read more »
I disagree with the notion that all if our past is irrelevant. In the most obvious of ways, all of our histories make us who we are. What’s important is that we use our past that forms the present to form our future. We must use every brick of our brittle relics to help build our collective future. And talking of ‘Brittle with Relics’ – Richard King’s excellent book with this borrowed title is testament to this.
Obsession with the past damns the present and potential of the future; ignoring the past sees us doomed to repeat worse of it. I think there is a fair point in saying that if our identity becomes fixed on survival rather than growth then this carries flaws, but so much of our history has gone unreported (or under-reported?) or treated as insignificant. Surviving through those bad conditions has allowed us to think about growth and can be remembered for we will face bad conditions again. What’s that saying used by our cousins in Ireland? “The problem with the English is… Read more »
The English have Jones as their second most common surname. Thomas and Williams also make the top ten. Striking the correct balance indeed. There are more people of Welsh descent in England than Wales. Bloody English are nearly Wrlsh.
I think you mean “ Welsh NATIONALIST identity seems to be entirely based on ancient grievances“
Cofiwch Epynt. 214 people evicted in 1940. Still not allowed to visit places my fanily lived.
Ah Lerpwl prif Dinas Cymru. Where Welshmen were proud to be mariners not seamen.
This article won an award? Really?
Free prescriptions and the Future Generations Act… is this supposed to be satire?
I can understand R S Thomas’ point. It’s not good to cling onto negatives and for the record our new rugby anthem isn’t my thing and I get where you’re coming from. It leans towards the negative. I don’t think dwelling on past grievances is healthy. Not to sound too much like Yoda but anger leads down a bad path if you don’t also count blessings and embrace hope. However, who says we (the Welsh) aren’t aware of positives in our present and prospects in our future? R S Thomas’ implied it, but with all due respect to him, he… Read more »