"Cofiwch Dryweryn": 65 years on

Rhiannon Paton
12 min readJul 2, 2021

“Er gwaetha pawb a phopeth,

Ry’n ni yma o hyd.”

(English: Despite everyone and everything, we are still here.)

Dafydd Iwan, “Yma O Hyd” (1981)

“Arguably the most dramatic hydro-political event in the history of the United Kingdom,”[1] the drowning of Capel Celyn near the town of Bala sparked violent nationalist and international outcry. However, it is a mistake to see Tryweryn as an anomaly in the interactions between Parliament and rural parts of Wales throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There had arguably been a pattern of London-led imposition upon sparsely populated villages in Wales, following on from common perceptions of North Welsh rural schools having “defective education” as set out in the Blue Book of 1847.[2] But the events and aftermath of Tryweryn were unique in their circumstance of juxtaposing rural and urban cultures: the Welsh monoglot communities of Wales and the bordering Anglo-Welsh counties. This magnifying glass into Anglo-Welsh relations ultimately defined what ‘Welshness’ ought to entail, as well as clarifying the need for the political reinvention of the country.

The early 1900s were a series of unsuccessful attempts to mobilise support for Welsh nationalism, despite various flares of uproar and vigilance. The 1891 census was the first to include statistics about the proportion of Welsh speakers, and the evidence up to 1930 demonstrated a steady decrease in monoglot Welsh speakers, with the younger generations tending to speak both English and Welsh.[3] Industrialisation trundled on; gradually, the country was becoming distanced by livelihood as well as time from the days of the Princes of the March and their fierce Welshness which characterised much of the Mabinogion and folklore written at the time. For many, the 1536 Act of Union “had won,”[4] in the words of Saunders Lewis; Wales was becoming a satellite of England through systematic slimming down of the curriculum to fit the homogenous desires of the English Government.

The 1925 establishment of Plaid Cymru, a party based on the idea of the Welsh language as a path to nationalism, was therefore against the evolving political grain at the time. Pitching to a nonconformist culture, any idea of a separated political entity was unlikely to be met with much zeal by the Anglo-Welsh and Welsh communities living in the country. The efforts of Lewis and his colleagues did little to alleviate the general misgiving, with Lewis including de-industrialisation of the South, who heavily depended on industry to earn a living, rather than the agricultural tendencies of Monoglot areas in the North. His speeches were filled with “antipathy” towards the South Welsh Valley regions, seeking to “eradicate English from Wales.”[5] Although the argument of systematic Anglicisation as a wrong to the Welsh people as a whole was not unfounded, the political tactic of expressing an absolutely impossible goal to cleanse a majority Anglo-Welsh country was not astute. Apart from its sheer unattainability, it left a sour taste in the mouth when regarded in a context of systematic persecution of ethnic groups by fascist states. Fears of fascism were not helped by W. Ambrose Webb, an erstwhile editor of the party’s magazine, Y Ddraig Goch, concluding in 1923 that “it is a Mussolini that Wales needs.”[6] Thus, wartime exacerbated holes in the political strategy of the welsh nationalists. Creating further unnecessary divisions was a step backwards for Welsh nationalism and its general agenda.

The divisions upon which Lewis based his party policy would, throughout the first half of the 20th century, divide his supporters and opponents very geographically. This dichotomy was well represented following his 1936 protest at Penyberth against the English imposing a military bombing school on a rural area on the Llŷn Peninsula. He and two others were incarcerated for 9 months following a transferral of the hearing from Caernarfon to the Old Bailey. Following the three prisoners’ release, 12,000 came to support the nationalists in Caernarfon. However, Swansea university, further South, discharged and condemned the actions of Lewis. An event and political opportunity of similar context to Tryweryn, with Baldwin ignoring the will of the Welsh people and imposing military furniture on a nonconformist and pacifist community, was therefore wasted by the Welsh Nationalists due to their divisive policies over who ‘counted’ as a Welsh person. On a national scale, this would have impacts upon the Welsh devolution’s progress. Despite the audacity of the event on the part of Baldwin creating some political sympathisers, Lloyd George and other potential allies would vote against measures for greater Welsh self-government in 1945–50. Instead of an elected Secretary of State for Wales, the 1948 Council for Wales and Monmouth (unelected) was proposed and passed.

Lower down the political ladder, the people were often noticing hardships and repressions of Welsh culture which may have been linked to English Government. However, these were talking points and areas of satire rather than serious political lobbies. The success and film franchise of Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley is a good analogy for Welsh self-perception at the time: themes such as “fighting the Bloody English”[7] and mining accidents were a big part of Welsh experience, but more seen as a part of coming-of-age than as a source of violent uprising. The Welsh-speaking dimension that Lewis and the early nationalists applied to the political situation were negated by the casting of non-Welsh actors in the leading roles. The Southern Welsh political players were therefore happier to accommodate questionable Anglicisation despite occasional complaints. Meanwhile, Y Ddraig Goch remained focused on ‘the Welsh Question’, writing symbolically in Welsh against a backdrop of Welsh speaking officials converting to English for nationally printed works.

Saunders Lewis’ political action at the time leading up to Tryweryn’s drowning, therefore, may not have reflected the practical challenges facing the Welsh people working in industry, a large political demographic suffering great hardship at the time. Lewis’ poem “Y Dilyw,” which worked to criticise the English government for a lack of intervention in industrial disasters in the Valley areas such as Senghennydd in 1913, had a widely anti-Semitic and classist ring to it.[8] This diverted the focus of the poem from the practical deaths of 439 men and mass unemployment in the Valleys towards the nationalist agenda where it was not appropriate. Despite the Welsh nationalist party addressing the poverty and malnutrition in the Rhondda area by setting up free dinners for the unemployed, Y Ddraig Goch’s description of the “proletarian flood” in the appeal for donations made the move politically problematic. The dehumanising nature of the rhetoric surrounding these South Wales workers deemed them un-Welsh and impure. Saunders Lewis corroborated this by responding to anglophone culture as “not a choice” by these Welsh people, but rather “the choice of every high court through the centuries of slavery.” Treating and condemning the “frail rabble” of their own country as weaklings incapable of self-determination gave the Welsh nationalist party a lower political standing in the context of Parliament, where “Welsh socialist members of Parliament denied Plaid an atom of importance.” Thus, the Welsh politicians’ fragmentation would prove a hurdle in preventing the Liverpool Corporation’s Private Bill from becoming ratified by Parliament.

The schismatic political climate within Wales also prevented united opposition which may have curtailed the ease with which the Liverpool Corporation were able to drown Tryweryn. Sources of correspondence from the South Wales Union of Mineworkers to residents of Capel Celyn looking to oppose the Bill were representative of a choice for non-Welsh speaking areas as to whether or not to “endorse [their] protest.”[9] There is a significance in the response of the South Wales branch of the National Union being written in English when the protests from Capel Celyn were solely Welsh. The Anglesey branch responded in Welsh, on the other hand.[10] This visible language and politics barrier was arguably the result of the failure of Welsh nationalist politics to make all Welsh residents feel a part of the same struggle. The miners’ rhetoric ought to have been “our protest” if the Welsh nationalist political wing was to stand a chance of providing persuasion in the Commons, dominated by non-Welsh MPs, against the Bill. As Saunders Lewis said when acknowledging his own failure, the blame lay not with the Welsh Affairs representative, Henry Brooke, who had no strength in the end to oppose the Bill on 1 August 1957. The system of voting over the Bill was set out in such a way that the failure of Brooke to oppose it like the 35 other Welsh MPs did was irrelevant when it came to the dominating power of the English, Scottish and Northern Irish MPs. Had the nationalist movement been more widespread and successful in Wales, perhaps the non-Welsh MPs may have sympathised with the cause a little more. What happened instead was a national disgrace and source of shame, where the rest of the UK belittled all Welsh people to a country easily imposed upon. This truth accounted for the long-lasting resonance of Lewis’ “Tynged Yr Iaith” speech and its pessimistic tone regarding Welsh language, individuality and culture.

Poetry and protest music from the time reflects the sombre mood following the work on Tryweryn, but also acts as a cultural turning point in the evolution of ‘Welshness’ as a uniting factor. As Meic Llewellyn argues in his article named “Popular Music in the Welsh Language and the Affirmation of Youth Identities,” the protest ballads following the establishment of Cymdeithas Ir Iaith Gymraeg (The Welsh Language Association) in 1962 were more culturally embracing of anglophone culture previously reviled by the likes of Saunders Lewis.[11] “Drawing on elements of American protest-folk rock” and “native musical and poetic traditions,” the new iteration of accessible Welsh nationalism in fact was the bestselling subgenre of Welsh pop in the late 20th century. Despite the fiercely Welsh lyrics, the language used throughout is fairly simple and repetitive- Even non-Welsh speaking residents of Wales can learn and participate in it. This turning point is irrevocably linked to the Tryweryn disaster by Dafydd Iwan’s “Wrth Feddwl Am Fy Nghymru.” The most significant lyric is “Mae argae ar draws Cwm Tryweryn Yn gofgolofn i’n llwfrdra ni” or “The dam across Cwm Tryweryn Is testament to our weakness.”[12] Iwan, who famously dropped the anglicised ‘Jones’ from his name and only wrote his songs in Welsh, was making the point that the lesson learned at Tryweryn was the failure of Wales to be united in the face of “bowen y Sais” (the English paw) confining them to subservience, something that the likes of Glyndŵr would never have stood for. Since the Princes of the March and other images that Iwan uses, Welsh culture had lacked a unifying feature like politics or rule, causing it to fragment and play into the hands of the English Government. The success of Iwan was a testament to the return of the Welsh language as a cultural force throughout Wales; the 1967 Welsh Language Act and success of Welsh Language schools in cities such as Cardiff created a willing audience everywhere to the monolinguistic music. The success of the movement to unite the factions of Wales through common experiences of shame, pride and “yr Iaith Gymraeg” meant that Anglo-Welsh poets such as R.S. Thomas were able to similarly communicate with the Northern monoglots through poignant poems such as Reservoirs (1968.)

Politically, the cultural change resulted in a move forward for Welsh Nationalism in its more unifying capacity. The undeniable lack of say of Welsh councils and individuals in the overall Government of the United Kingdom was a crucial theme in poetry and songs of the time. The sum of this movement was a Plaid seat win in 1966 by Gwynfor Evans against a Labour candidate in Carmarthen, a seat within traditional Labour heartlands. However, the pitting of Plaid against Welsh Labour was initially a problematic one in finding the perfect balance of Welsh nationalism to bring in a united demographic of voters. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Plaid’s response to issues such as the English monarchy would swing the vote away from Welsh nationalism due to its divisive stance. Indeed, while Dafydd Iwan was chairman of the Welsh language society, the official feeling was that the party should ignore the 1969 investiture of Charles due to its incorporation of Welsh language, with Charles learning some Welsh being a suitable promotion and compromise for the colonial nature of the event. However, Iwan’s protest song ‘Carlo’ made no such bargain. The title is a Welsh form of ‘Charles’ normally reserved for a common dog, a role reversal to indicate Welsh indiginance at this privileged attack on Welsh culture.[13] There is also a play on words that allows the mutation of ‘Buckingham’ palace to become “ym Mycingham Palas,” using the Welsh language as a means of counter-attack. However, this move proved too far, making Iwan “the most hated popular singer in Wales.”

In the short term, therefore, there were setbacks for the Welsh nationalist movement which Tryweryn had catalysed. The results of the 1979 referendum on a Welsh Assembly mirror the geographical schisms in Welsh nationalism, with the Gwent region and other southern counties having the highest proportion of the electorate turning up to vote ‘no.’[14] While Gwynedd, the county which encompasses Tryweryn, had a relatively high proportion of ‘yes’ voters, the traditional Labour Heartlands were once again diverted away from the agenda of Welsh cultural preservation through politics, because what Welsh culture meant in the modern era had become such a grey area. It was miles away from the Manichean reality of ‘good versus evil’ implanted in many Welsh Nationalists’ rhetoric by Lewis. The Anglo-Welsh were being wilfully ignored in the cultural definition, which led them to lean away from a reality in which they may be regarded as the sub-humans.

However, in the long term, the slogan ‘Cofiwch Dryweryn’ would carry Wales through to a vote for devolution in 1997, with Merthyr Tydfil’s turnout to vote ‘yes’ significantly increasing. While counties such as Monmouthshire remained relatively negative towards the assembly, the change in an area so profoundly affected by national disaster towards Welsh Nationalism as a solution demonstrates the success of the party line. The rhetoric of Welsh unity as a defining feature of nationalism borne by the “patronising indifference” of England’s Government in its dealings with both demographics’ councils.[15] It was a tactic that, once reverted to by Plaid leaders, would prove as popular as ever. Iwan’s “Yma O Hyd” which praised the fact that Wales as a people were “still here” following years of imposition, encapsulates this political movement. The success of his song, as well as the spreading of murals with “Cofiwch Dryweryn” on them from Aberystwyth to the Southern regions of more Anglo-Welsh Wales demonstrates the success. The phrase acts as a poignant synecdoche for the Welsh experience as a whole nation at the hands of English Governmental practice. It was also at this point that English companies and officials began to recognise Welsh nationalism as a serious political force. A key example of this was the founding of S4C by the BBC in 1982; Welsh culture finally had enough significance to the Anglo-Welsh majority to warrant its own vernacular television channel.

In summary, the legacy of Tryweryn as a unifying factor for all Welsh people to rally around proved a dramatic turning point in the political standing of the Welsh Nationalist movement. The universal indiginance at being wholly ignored by Parliament brought a country on the brink of total submission to Anglicisation as set out in the Blue Books of 1847 towards taking control of its own heritage and language as a political stand for autonomy. The nationalists’ handling of the outright loss of control as a political tactic, once wholly adopted, was to prove unifying and effective. A good outline of Tryweryn’s nature as a political catalyst is set out in Harri Webb’s 1966 poem, Colli Iaith, which concludes with “A Chymru’n cychwyn ar ei hymdaith.” (And Wales begins his march.) The united fire in the Welsh political conscience was reignited and (once successfully channelled) would prove a force to be reckoned with.

[1] Hywel M. Griffifths, “Water under the Bridge? Nature, Memory and Hydropolitics.” Cultural Geographies, vol. 21, no. 3, 2014, pp. 449–474. Accessed online 27/07/20 via JSTOR.

[2] Henry R.V. Johnson, Reports of the Commissioners of Inquiry into the State of Education in Wales “Part 3: North Wales, comprising Anglesey, Carnarvon, Denbigh, Flint, Meirioneth and Montgomery” p. 10. Accessed online 27/07/20 https://www.library.wales/discover/digital-gallery/printed-material/the-blue-books-of-1847/north-wales-comprising-anglesey-carnarvon-denbigh-flint-meirioneth-and-montgomery

[3] Hywel M. Jones, “A statistical overview of the Welsh language” (Welsh Language Board: 2012)

[4] G. Aled Williams, translation of Saunders Lewis “Tynged Yr Iaith” (BBC Radio: 1962)

[5] Darryl Jones, “‘I Failed Utterly’: Saunders Lewis and the Cultural Politics of Welsh Modernism.” The Irish Review (1986-), no. 19 (1996) p.31 Accessed 27/07/20 via JSTOR.

[6] Jones, “‘I Failed Utterly’: Saunders Lewis and the Cultural Politics of Welsh Modernism.” p.29

[7] Richard Llewellyn, How Green Was My Valley, (ed. NEL 1972) ch. 3 p.26.

[8] Jones “‘I Failed Utterly’: Saunders Lewis and the Cultural Politics of Welsh Modernism.” pp. 33–37.

[9] Meirionnydd Archives, Gwynedd Archives Service, “Letter from the South Wales Area of the National Union of Mineworkers’ to the Capel Celyn Defence Committee, 14 February 1957” Accessed online 27/07/2020 https://www.peoplescollection.wales/items/1157

[10] Meirionnydd Archives, Gwynedd Archives Service, “Letter from the Anglesey branch of the National Farmers’ Union to the Capel Celyn Defence Committee, 24 February 1957” Accessed online 20/07/2020 https://www.peoplescollection.wales/items/1156

[11] Meic Llewellyn, “Popular Music in the Welsh Language and the Affirmation of Youth Identities.” Popular Music 19, no. 3 (2000): 319–39. Accessed July 27, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/853639.

[12] Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru, “Caneuon Dafydd Iwan / Dafydd Iwan Songs” accessed 27/07/20 https://archives.library.wales/index.php/caneuon-dafydd-iwan-dafydd-iwan-songs

[13] E. Wyn James. “Painting the World Green: Dafydd Iwan and the Welsh Protest Ballad.” Folk Music Journal 8, no. 5 (2005): pp. 601–602. Accessed 27/07/20 via JSTOR.

[14]Richard Dewdney, “Results of Devolution Referendums 1979 and 1997” Social and General Statistics, (House of Commons Library)

[15] Kenneth O. Morgan, “Welsh Nationalism: The Historical Background.” Journal of Contemporary History 6, no. 1 (1971): p153. Accessed 27/07/20 via JSTOR.

Rhiannon Paton