What makes us who we are?
It’s a central question that we have tried to answer in order to comprehend key ideas about human purpose and existence.
For anthropologists like me, it is an increasingly difficult one to answer, complicated over recent centuries by the formation of nation states and how these entities can be seen as increasingly insignificant in a world of global interconnectedness.
But being Welsh is a bit different, isn’t it? Sure, we are not immune to globalisation and shared traits or technologies, but if someone were to ask “What makes someone Welsh?” I am sure there would be similar themes in people’s answers: our glorious rugby team, the green grass of our countryside, or our precious language.
Stereotypes perhaps, but valid ones nevertheless. After all, these are markers that arguably separate us from other countries in the UK. Although I am sure the Scots, the Irish and the English would have something to say about who is more secure and proud in their own skin.
But this is why it’s so surprising we don’t take our identity that seriously, or at least think about it in great detail. Welsh media are more interested in generalising Welshness: “47 things every Welsh person has done at least once” read a headline from WalesOnline in December.
And then there are our some of our most famous exports, like actor and writer Ruth Jones, who proudly proclaimed that being Welsh was “very special” on Desert Island Discs without articulating coherently what being Welsh meant.
Perhaps that’s what’s special about our Welsh psyche: its vagueness and fluidity mean it’s an interchangeable concept, defined to subjective experience.
I’ve been thinking more about my own “Welshness” while being away from home, at the most traditionally-English university in the world: Oxford. It’s a bit odd to think about it anthropologically; after all, it’s simply thinking of the little traits and behaviours that define us and our personhood.
But I have decided it to explore more formally in a project due to be released in 2020, largely because I think being Welsh is a strange predicament in our current political environment.
I am learning new things every day by observing how Welsh people behave in certain situations and from people who tell me what “Wales” and its idioms means to them.
More recently, what has captivated me is the response to the defacing of the “Cofiwch Dryweryn” mural, 55 years after the flooding of Capel Celyn by the Liverpool Corporation Waterworks.
I’m not necessarily interested in who painted “Elvis” or why the mural was repainted. Moreover, the defiant calls for a permanent monument tell us a lot about Welsh identity in the 21st century.
If you take Welsh government minister Dafydd Elis-Thomas’ word, for instance, there are already relics to remember the event in the form of the Remembrance Chapel and a bilingual remembrance slate above the dam, which tells the history of its building.
Of course, it’s understandable to see why this isn’t sufficient a tribute to those who lost their homes and their community during this event, but calls to “keep our collective memory alive” through new monuments exposes how Wales and its people are desperately obsessed with celebrating when we have lost, especially in relation to our English neighbours.
This is not to devalue statues and their place in society, or the marvellous architectural designs that have been proposed for a Tryweryn monument. But why are the Welsh focused so helplessly on elevating a moment in our history which showcases Wales at its low-point?
It was an event when we were completely dominated by England and Westminster. To some extent, one could argue that the calls for a statue have exposed our tendency to hide behind these relics rather than confront the socio-political processes behind the event itself.
It’s as if we struggle to articulate the matter at hand (Welsh dominance by England, for example) without a physical manifestation of our feelings. It’s telling that even (as of the start of this week), readers of Nation.Cymru have voted overwhelmingly by 93% in favour of personally donating to a campaign to build the permanent Tryweryn Memorial.
We are clearly haunted by these moments in our past, and cling to them to define our story as Welsh people today.
Recent developments, such as Betty Campbell’s victory in a national poll to get a statue of a leading Welsh woman, show that Wales is starting to think more about success and positivity in how it remembers the past.
Why does this matter? Because we need security and grounding in our own skin now more than ever. We cannot be distracted by giving martyr-like status to moments in our past, however tempting and popular it may seem to the usual crowd.
Today, we face greater challenges: key pillars of our identity like our language are challenged by the British media, and the Brexit process threatens to turn us into a speck on the fragmented map of the UK, even more isolated on the British and European stage.
Above all, it’s fascinating from an anthropological perspective to see how we react to these moments. The resurfacing of the Tryweryn issue has exposed how beneath the surface, Wales still finds it difficult to find assurance and confidence in itself as a nation, largely because we also define ourselves in relation to England’s role in our history.
I am more interested in Wales as a nation standing on its own two feet. This doesn’t mean ignoring the events of the past, or other nations’ role in our development. But our identity is ours, and should be investigated in a way captures Wales in a way that looks at ourselves before looking at others.
At the moment, our identity may appear strong on the surface, especially when the 6 Nations season is around and we can come alive on the pitch as a nation. Yet, this strength and security in our Welshness seems far from the reality in our day-to-day lives.
While a permanent memorial to Tryweryn may provide some with closure of the event, the harsh reality for us in Wales is that recent developments merely expose the deeply fragile and underexplored nature of Welsh identity today.
Theo Davies-Lewis is a 21-year-old Welsh anthropologist at the University of Oxford. He tweets at @TDaviesLewis.
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