“Dafydd Iwan’s Yma o Hyd overtakes Stormzy and Lewis Capaldi to top iTunes chart...”

, by William Glenn Lamb

“Dafydd Iwan's Yma o Hyd overtakes Stormzy and Lewis Capaldi to top iTunes chart...”
A St David’s Day parade in the national capital, Cardiff. Photo credit: Gareth James

This was the headline on the front of the North Welsh local newspaper, The Daily Post, in mid-January. It probably means nothing to you, but to many Welsh language speakers, it was a big deal.

For a Welsh-language song to reach the top of a music chart in a mostly English-speaking society, it was an exciting moment for many Welsh speakers. More importantly, it was a big political statement that we are “still here”.

Yma o Hyd (‘Still Here’ in English) is one of many Welsh language protest songs written between the 1960s and the 1980s – the height of the Welsh independence movement. The song resonates in any Welsh-speaker’s heart – it is our anthem for independence.

“Dwyt ti’m yn cofio Macsen/ Does neb yn ei nabod o” You don’t remember Macsen/ Nobody knows him

The song is about Macsen Wledig (Magnus Maximus), who led an army of Britons against the Roman Empire in 383AD. Since then, songwriter Iwan says, the Britons, in the form of the Welsh, are still here. We’re still a nation of people. We still speak our native language, Welsh, a language evolved from the language Macsen would have spoken, called Brythonic. It is an anthem for the Welsh nationalists, a group of people who believe in Welsh independence and the right to be able to learn in Welsh.

This song was recorded in 1981 - why did it reach the top of the charts now?

Welsh independence is a frequent theme in Welsh history. Ever since Edward I defeated Llywelyn Ein Llyw Olaf (Llywelyn “Our Last Hope”) in the Battle of Cilmeri in 1282, many Welsh people have yearned for the right to govern themselves and live in their own language. Welsh identity, or being “Cymraeg” is very important to the Welsh and has kept us together and united against the English.

This “us and them” culture all begins with the old English name given to the Welsh – Walha, meaning “Romanised stranger”. Meanwhile, the Welsh called themselves the “Cymry” – friends.

The Welsh worked hard to maintain their right to their identity and landscape. But ultimately, it failed. Wales became a part of the Kingdom of England in the 16th century and English became the official language. Despite this, over 90% of the population spoke only Welsh up until the Industrial Revolution.

“Er dued yw’r fagddu o’n cwmpas/ Ry’n ni’n barod am doriad y wawr!” Despite the blackness around us/ We are ready for the breaking of dawn!

By the Victorian era, the United Kingdom had become established with English as its dominant language. Welsh and its Celtic cousins – Scottish Gaelic, Irish, Cornish, and Manx – were under threat. Speakers of Scottish Gaelic and Irish numbers heavily declined in this period. Cornish and Manx speakers were virtually wiped out altogether.

Welsh fared better than all of them, but it also lost many speakers as a result of emigration out of the country, English migration into the country, and a sense of English superiority over the “brutish” languages, despite Welsh being one of the oldest languages in Europe. This was especially apparent in schools, where children were taught only in English. In Wales, the “Welsh Not” was a particular punishment where the last child to speak their native tongue would have to wear this humiliating sign. If you were the last to wear it at the end of the day, you would be caned.

Ultimately, England viewed Wales as a resource to be used. Valleys were flooded to provide water, mostly to English cities. Coal mines and slate quarries scarred the land and brought little prosperity to the locals, while reaping big profits to their English landowners to power the growth of English cities. The Welsh continued to revolt with strikes to no avail. But all changed in the 1960s.

The catalyst of this change was Aberfan, one of the worst disasters in Welsh history. If you have yet to see the latest series of Netflix’s The Crown, here is all you need to know: after heavy rain, a spoil tip from a local mine slipped down the valley and flattened a part of the village, including the school. 144 died, including 116 children.

This disaster happened soon after the flooding of Afon Tryweryn valley, which resulted in the loss of Capel Celyn, a mainly Welsh-speaking village. The flooding was planned, in order to provide water for an English city, Liverpool. But if you ask any Welsh person, it was not a flooding – it was a drowning. It was a sign that Welsh culture truly was in trouble.

Within a century, we had become a minority culture within our own country in an increasingly globalised, Anglicised world, with no voice and no rights over our nation. With the destruction of our landscape came the slow death of our language, and ultimately the loss of identity. We needed to show that we were ‘still here’.

After an increase in support for Plaid Cymru - The Party of Wales, an explosion of interest in Welsh music and poetry, the commissioning of a Welsh language TV channel (S4C), bilingual signage, and bilingual teaching in schools, we have finally gained official recognition for the language in Wales.

So why did “Yma o Hyd” become number 1 on the iTunes chart this year? Why are the Welsh revolting again?

“Byddwn yma hyd ddiwedd amser/ A bydd yr iaith Gymraeg yn fyw!” We’ll be here until the end of time/ And the Welsh language will be alive!

It’s over 20 years since the Welsh language act, and things still aren’t perfect in Wales. There is deep polarisation between the mostly Welsh-speaking north, and majority-English speaking south of the country. Not everyone is happy about living in a Welsh-language society. “Immersion” teaching is controversial and Welsh is still not used in daily life in many places in Wales today after its decline and indeed deliberate discouragement over the past few centuries.

Much of the criticism towards this policy comes from the Welsh population itself. Many citizens argue that in today’s globalised world, Welsh is now obsolete. We sometimes forget that the Welsh decline was not a natural occurrence, but a planned policy of language domination.

The British media love to pick on the language. The BBC ran “a debate” about the language without any Welsh speakers involved, The Sun made fun of learners abroad, while even The Guardian used Welsh as the butt of a joke in an article about exercise. The final one especially hurt – The Guardian, a newspaper devoted to liberal thinking and often a voice for marginalised people, used Welsh as a cheap joke.

More recent events have reawoken the Welsh nationalists and reopened the feelings of having no control over our land or nation. Last year, a much-loved memorial to remember the drowning of Tryweryn was vandalised. In contrast, a Banksy artwork that popped up in Port Talbot at around the same time was given instant protection.

To add even more salt to the wound, Wales is expected to lose £5bn of funding from Westminster due to the new HS2 line, a high speed train in England, which is expected to negatively affect the Welsh economy. If you have ever tried to travel through Wales, you know that the transport infrastructure is not fit for purpose in the 21st Century. So why are we essentially paying for a project that will negatively affect us?

Alongside this, there is a growing confidence and voice in global popular culture with the successes of Welsh television shows such as Y Gwyll/Hinterland and Craith/Hidden, the Welsh language featuring prominently in The Crown, and Alffa becoming the first Welsh language band to reach a million streams on Spotify.

The wave of nationalist independence is no longer limited to Welsh speakers either. The pressure group YesCymru, along with the online news service nation.cymru, has bridged the gap between Welsh speakers and non-speakers. Last year alone, they successfully organised three independence marches in Wales and have grown exponentially since then, riding the wave of disenfranchisement from Westminster during Brexit. This was also the group that successfully organised the move to push “Yma o Hyd” to number 1 in the charts, inspired by a similar movement in Ireland. It is a movement growing from the work of the nationalists in the late 20th century.

In a society where minority languages are increasingly muted, history is being forgotten, and the value of a medium’s effectiveness is a priority over the loss of culture and identity, to quote the song, it’s important to remind people that:

“Er gwaetha pawb a phopeth, ry’n ni Yma o Hyd.” Despite everyone and everything, we are Still Here.

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