Wales and the Welsh National Anthem

by JoHarrington

The story behind 'Land of my Fathers' ('Mae Hen Wlad fy Nhadau') is one of poetry, bardic awen and the refusal to lay down and play dead.

Wales is a country on the Western coast of Britain. It's sustained repeated attempts by England to become assimilated.

But the Welsh have kept their name and their language.

Their culture has endured, even been resurrected at times. The Celtic spirit remains battered but still there, even under the onslaught of centuries of Anglocization.

Their national anthem reflects all of this and more.

The Harp of my Country Survives

A personal view on the Welsh National Anthem, Mae Hen Wlad fy Nhadau; and why it should stir all freedom loving people.

There's Welsh blood, I'm biased. But even so there is something about the national anthem of Wales that must grab everyone by the solar plexus and run.

It's a song of defiance; a rebel yell which flashes two fingers at all who tried to destroy them. While so many anthems are aggressive - the US one would read the same, if you just swapped the lyrics to 'we hate the British'; while the English one is mostly about killing Scots - Land of my Fathers yells 'come and get me, if you can'.

And I was quite deliberate in mentioning the whole hand gesture there. That's Welsh. Medieval longbow archers, captured in battle, would have their two fingers cut off. It stopped them ever being able to draw back another bow. The Welsh lined up to intimidate their opposition by demonstrating that they could still release a deadly volley of arrows. They showed their two fingers to the enemy.

The whole of Welsh history is a study in self-defense and fighting back in order not to be obliterated. That a national anthem exists at all must be viewed as something of a miracle. As it does, it's little wonder that the whole ethos of it is one of exultant pride, tinged with relief, echoing the very Welsh sentiment of 'yma o hyd' - We're still here.

The muse has eluded the traitors' foul knives, The harp of my country survives.

In translation, those are the last two lines of the last verse, before the uplifting, screaming 'Nation! Nation! True am I to my country!'  It's the part that always gets me.

Of course, any translation is going to be indistinct. I've heard it rendered, The spirit wasn't hindered by the awful, treacherous hand, Nor the sweet harp of my country, or the part about the harp substituted for the language of my country goes on.

They're all right. Words and sentiments are intertwined in the lyrics, 'Ni luddiwyd yr awen gan erchyll law brad, Na thelyn berseiniol fy ngwlad.' It means all of those things.

This was a land and people founded upon the bardic traditions. The harp wasn't just a musical instrument. It told the histories, genealogies and legendary tales; it touched spirituality and knowledge; it reported the current news and found precedents in the past; it encapsulated a whole culture. At least it did, in the right hands.

Language is important. National self-identity can only exist where there is a shared, common language. Other tongues may enter to enrich it, but the invaders have only won out, when the lexicon of the subdued is finally dead.

But language is more than just words. It's in the non-verbal communication and the unspoken understanding too. Old friends or close family wouldn't need to even look at each other to know what is being thought. Experience and personal history tell them enough. Thus it can be with nations too.

The bardic harp of Wales is its language. No matter what was thrown at the country and its people, the awen, the spirit, the muse, the cultural inheritance, the spiritual life and inspiration goes on. No invader managed to kill what it fundamentally meant to be Welsh. Yma o hyd.

So indulge me. If you've never heard this anthem before, then hear it first in the original Welsh; because, in so many ways, that is the point. If having a national anthem was a miracle, then the fact that it was written in the native tongue is something beyond that. Any gambler would say that it shouldn't exist at all, and if it did, then it has to have been in English by now. It's not - The harp of my country survives.

Listen to the Welsh National Anthem

Performed by Cardiff-based Only Men Aloud!

Download Only Men Aloud!'s 'Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau'

Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau

Lyrics in Welsh

Mae hen wlad fy nhadau yn annwyl i mi,    
Gwlad beirdd a chantorion, enwogion o fri;    
Ei gwrol ryfelwyr, gwladgarwyr tra mâd,    
Tros ryddid gollasant eu gwaed.     

Gwlad, Gwlad, pleidiol wyf i'm gwlad.    
Tra môr yn fur i'r bur hoff bau,    
O bydded i'r hen iaith barhau.    

Hen Gymru fynyddig, paradwys y bardd,  
Pob dyffryn, pob clogwyn i'm golwg sydd hardd;    
Trwy deimlad gwladgarol, mor swynol yw si    
Ei nentydd, afonydd i mi.    

Os treisiodd y gelyn fy ngwald tan ei droed,    
Mae hen iaith y Cymry mor fyw ac erioed,    
Ni luddiwyd yr awen gan erchyll law brad,    
Na thelyn berseiniol fy ngwlad.

Land of my Fathers

Lyrics in English

Old land of my fathers is lovely to me,
Land of bards and singers, people so proud,
Her brave warriors, loyal countrymen
Shed their blood for freedom.   

Land! Land! True I am to my land!
While the sea is a wall for this land so pure,
May the old language endure.

Old mountainous Wales, paradise of bards,
Every hill, every crag, looks so beautiful;
With patriotic feeling, enchanted voices seem
Her streams, her rivers to me.

Though violators trampled my country underfoot,
Old language of Wales as alive as ever;
The muse has eluded the traitors' foul knives,
The harp of my country survives.

NB While I've done my best to render this well enough in English, a lot of the passion and poetry got lost along the way. Other translators have got around this by capturing the spirit, while not precisely retaining the same wording.

Some of those terms and phrases don't work at all in English (and certainly don't scan!). I thought it more important for you to know, as close as possible, what was actually being said. However, I have altered some sentence structure, as the literal translation just looked too weird in English.

Wales in the 1850s: The History Behind Land of my Fathers

Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau was written in 1856, by Evan and James James, a father and son from Glamorgan.

It's difficult to pinpoint any moment in the history of the past millennium when Wales hasn't been bitterly defending itself against English interests. Therefore it should come as no surprise that this period was one of them.

The problem this time was the railways. Even today, driving around Wales, it's easier to dip in and out of England than to drive north and south. Every major transport artery, excepting the coastal and some country roads, was designed to export Welsh resources across the border.

Just look at this modern map. How would you drive, quickly and economically, from Swansea to Colwyn Bay? 

(The blue lines are motorways; the green ones, in Wales, are generally winding, country roads. Get stuck behind a tractor and you'll be there for hours. The red lines should be approached with due care, and knowledge of how to drive up and down mountains without burning a hole in your brake-pads.)

Chester, Shrewsbury, Hereford and Bristol are in England. Everything west of that meridian is Wales.

In the 1850s, there were no cars, but the railway lines did pretty much the same thing. This was the great age of steam engines, where produce could be efficiently delivered to distant markets on the same day.

With such guaranteed business opportunities, land owners immediately switched to the most profitable modes of agriculture. Fields of corn were out; mountain-sides covered in sheep and cattle were in. Meat brought a greater price at market.

It should have been a time of huge prosperity for Wales. There has rarely been a country more suited to farming sheep. Famously so, in fact. The rugged landscape, particularly in the north and west, is useless for crops, but the sheep grass abounds.

Huge piles of cash were being made, but not by the Welsh. The landlords were largely English, living in London town houses, while agents did their dirty work for them. As more railway tracks appeared, this increasingly meant evicting tenant farmers, laying off employees and generally clearing the land for sheep.

Far fewer people are needed to care for livestock, than to tend a harvest. Samuel Roberts, a Welsh journalist of the time, wrote that landlordism 'soiled, and burdened, and slandered, and humiliated, and degraded, and trampled underfoot the most diligent and hardworking farmers that our old valleys have ever seen.' (John Davies, A History of Wales, p 411)

The danger wasn't merely in eviction, hunger and all those vital sustenance needs. It was cultural too. Left with little other choice, many Welsh people emigrated to the United States, Argentina, Russia and Australia, which depleted an already struggling population.

It left fewer people to defend their national self-identity and to speak the language. This was a particularly pertinent point, as many English speaking families used the railways to escape their polluted cities for the Welsh countryside. They, of course, got precedence in the available work.

Moreover, high unemployment renders people desperate for the jobs that were on offer. 19th century English landlords lost little time in imposing their conditions. English language schools sprung up all over Wales aimed at educating Welsh children out of their own culture. If you wanted work, then you put your off-spring into them.

Delve More Deeply into Welsh History

I particularly recommend the John Davies book. I have shelves full of Welsh history books and this is the one I reach for time and time again.

The Writing of the Welsh National Anthem

The day that Evan James shouted ENOUGH!, so loudly that we're still hearing the reverberations.

It was against this back-drop that two weavers in Pontypridd, South Wales, came up with their song. Evan James had lost two brothers to the emigration ships.

They'd written to him in praise of the United States and urged him to join them. He must have looked around himself, at the beautiful Rhondda Valley, and fretfully thought, 'I don't want to.' 

His son, James, was inspired to write the melody first, on the banks of the Rhondda River. (The song's original name was Glan Rhondda, which translates as Rhondda's Riverbank.) He hummed it to his father, who promptly added lyrics.

It was a great bardic reaching into the past, invoking every poetic and blood-splattered battle ever raged in the defense of Wales. It screamed out to his brothers, who had fled, that Evan James would not be prised from his home too! The very idea of it felt like a threat. It made everything around him seem just that bit more dear and precious.

Invoking the old adage, where there is breath, there's life, Evan perceived the threat to his language, his harp, his culture and called upon all Welsh people to keep them alive.

In this, he had an unwitting and unexpected ally. The very railway tracks, which were causing all of the problems, were also able to transport people. More to the point, they were able to facilitate huge gatherings of Welsh people. These festivals were called the Eisteddfod (pron. Ess-steph-vod) and the first was held in 1861, shortly after the coming of the railway.

Eisteddfodau are still held today and for the same purpose. They strengthen and protect Welsh culture, with songs, stories and performances in the native language. This is where politics, religious/spiritual meetings and debates can all take place, in order to form a united front against all attack.

By 1866, so many people had heard of Glan Rhondda that it already had a huge following - a sort of chart-topping mega-hit, before either charts nor hits were invented. At the National Eisteddfod in Chester, it was sung with so much passion and gusto that no-one present was left unmoved.

There and then, it was voted into becoming the Welsh National Anthem - Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau.

The National Anthem, with Welsh and English Lyrics

It's not usually heard like this. It's generally being roared by several thousand sports fans or slurred in a pub sing-song.

Downloads, CDs and Sheet-music for Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau

Buy your own versions of the Welsh National Anthem, Land of my Fathers, to share in the defiance and pride of this patriotic song.

More Wizzles about Wales

On March 1st 2012, I visited the capital of Wales for the city-wide party that is St David's Day. It didn't disappoint.
Feeling a little Welsh today? Check out these ideas for outfits which invoke the national pride of Wales.
For centuries, Welsh women have got the message when presented with a hand-carved wooden spoon. It means he's very interested indeed.
Grab a daffodil or a leek and boil up some cawl! March 1st is St David's Day and all of Wales will be partying.
Updated: 03/01/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 01/27/2013

We'll be glad to have you here; and I'm confident that you'll enjoy it. You often see Dr Who being filmed in Cardiff, so you have a chance of catching that too.

Thank you for learning a bit of Welsh. it will be appreciated, even though everyone speaks English there. Shout up if I can help with some basic words and phrases.

JoHarrington on 03/03/2012

Diolch! <3

catherine2255 on 03/03/2012

As a fellow welsh girl who can also siarad gymraeg, this is a great page!

JoHarrington on 02/26/2012

Oh nice one, Lissie! I didn't realise that the Eisteddfodau happened as much in New South Wales, as in the old one. No, the Eisteddfod is very Welsh.

We're talking a similar time-frame to the Highland Clearances, for much of the same reasons.

Lissie on 02/26/2012

Eisteddfod are alive and well in Australia - that was where I cam across them - I must admit I thought that they came from Ireland - given the number of Irish immigrants that came to Oz in the 19th century.

It sounds like a similar story to the Scottish clearances - but sounds like people left "voluntarily" rather than by being removed force-ably by the landowners.

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