Why Yma o hyd is a song relevant to football in Brittany as well as Wales
Jonathan Ervine, Senior Lecturer in French at Bangor University
The popularity of Dafydd Iwan’s song Yma o hyd among Welsh football fans has received significant media attention since Wales qualified for the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup in Qatar. Indeed, the coverage has stretched beyond media outlets here in Wales and featured in several London-based British media outlets.
In addition, it can be argued that many of the sentiments evoked in Yma o hyd are relevant to lands other than Wales. When recently researching sport and identity in Brittany, I was struck by parallels between how Breton athletes have been perceived in France and some of the ideas that are present in Dafydd Iwan’s song.
Although temperatures of 40C have recently been recorded in Brest, Brittany is not an area renowned for good weather. Indeed, Brest is one of the wettest cities in France. French historian Michel Lagrée argued in 1999 that this climate has contributed to how Breton athletes are perceived within France.
In his chapter of Grant Jarvie’s book Sport in the Making of Celtic Cultures, Lagrée stated that “according to columnists, a Breton athlete can be nothing other than stubborn, courageous, resistant to bad weather”.
Given its lengthy coastline, it is perhaps unsurprising that iconic sportspeople to have emerged from Brittany include yachtspeople such as Éric Tabarly who have had to battle against the elements when competing.
The concept of battling against the elements is evident in Yma o hyd, notably in lines that refer to winds from the East, storms at sea, and thunder (Chwythed y gwynt o’r Dwyrain / Rhued y storm o’r môr / Hollted y mellt yr wybren / A gwaedded y daran encôr). Enduring and fighting the elements is something very much associated with long-distance cycling events, and Brittany is a region that has produced four Tour de France winners: Lucien Petit-Breton, Jean Robic, Louison Bobet and Bernard Hinault.
But where does football fit in which such an image of endurance and resistance in a Breton context? Can it be said that Breton teams have achieved notable successes over the years despite challenging conditions? Have teams from Brittany historically demonstrated strength in adversity and staying power?
On the face of it, some might say that the successes of Breton men’s football teams over the years have been relatively modest. Collectively, teams from the four départements that make up Brittany today have won the French Cup six times thanks to victories by Rennes (three times), Guingamp (twice) and Lorient (once). However, no team from the present administrative region of Brittany has ever won the French league.
Nevertheless, Breton clubs can be said to be notable due to their longevity, continued presence in the upper tiers of French football, and successes against the odds. Stade Rennais, from Rennes, were founded in 1901 and are one of France’s oldest teams. Given that France’s population of over 67 million includes under 5 million people living in Brittany, it is worth underlining that the number of Breton clubs in the top tier of French men’s football in recent decades has compared favourably with other regions.
If one is searching for a Breton footballing story of success against the odds, then Guingamp is the obvious place to look. The town – whose population is just over 7,000 – is the smallest place in France ever to have been home to a side in France’s top division. En Avant Guingamp are an iconic underdog in French football, having initially captured sports fans’ imagination in the 1970s when they eliminated several bigger teams from the French Cup whilst an amateur lower division team.
Guingamp first appeared in the top-flight of French football in 1995, and have only spent two seasons outside the top two tiers of French football in the last forty years. They first won the French Cup final in 2009 when they were in the bottom half of the second tier of the French leagues and was achieved against their more illustrious Breton rivals Rennes.
Hen Wlad fy Nhadau
On the day of the 2009 French Cup Final between Guingamp and Rennes, the front page of France’s renowned national daily sports newspaper L’Équipe was almost entirely written in Breton. When Guingamp repeated their French Cup triumph five years later – again against Rennes – the final at the Stade de France was preceded by the singing of the Breton anthem Bro gozh ma zadou by Brittany-born singer Nolwenn Leroy.
The title of the Breton anthem can be translated into English as ‘old land of my fathers’, is sung to the same tune as Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, and also features similar lyrics. Given that France has historically been reluctant to recognize regional languages, the significance of Breton appearing on the national stage in France at iconic events should not be underestimated.
In 2015, Stade Rennais replaced their home stadium’s previously mundane name of Stade de la Route de Lorient with a new name – Roazhon Park – that features the Breton word for Rennes. Several Breton teams include the Breton flag – known as the gwen ha du (literally, the white and black) – within their crest and the flag is an important symbol for many fans.
In other words, symbols of Breton cultural identity are being embraced by Breton football teams and becoming both visible and audible on the national stage in France. Brittany’s teams may not be from the largest or most economically prosperous part of France, but they have a long history of competing against much richer teams from France’s major cities.
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