This verse serves as my defense for all of us who claim our Celtic roots in the face of naysayers and buffoons. All of us who get jeered at for not having the right surname, degree, or passport. If the Net's to claim its territory as truly global, it's both a particular site and a world without borders for us to debate-- nationalism in a networked realm. A perfectly complicated, contradictory subject?
There does not appear from my limited and largely anglicized searching on the Net many places for sustained consideration of Welsh republican and national movements from an Irish (if diasporic by default) perspective. (For a circumscribed example of a pan-Celtic comparison from Wales, try: http://www.balchdercymru.com ) I’ve revived a dormant interest in seeking out such ties lately, as background for studying such themes in a handful of novels that treat the Welsh rebel of the 1960s generation in light of the Irish exemplar. This essay today's a sample of a few of my thoughts, to serve as a place for recording such a topic and perhaps to spark connections among others so tuned.
I searched the nearly hundred hits on ProQuest the past dozen years via my work database under ‘Free Wales Army’. I was curious, having re-read recently my well-worn copy of Roy Clews' To Dream of Freedom: The Story of MAC and the Free Wales Army (Talybont, Dyfed, Wales: Y Lolfa, 1980 although I have on backorder a revised 2005 ed. of this once-infamous title), how recent press had covered such figures as Julian Cayo Evans, Dennis Coslett, and Antony Lewis-- all three having died in the past few years. Also, there'd been Dic Edwards' play satirizing Cayo, ‘Franco's Bastard’, and another recent play in Welsh, Manon Eames' ‘Porth y Baddar’ about the flooding of Capel Celyn to provide water for Liverpool: this catalysed opposition to English incursions through the rise of Cymreithdas yr Iaith (The Welsh Language Society) and then the Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru & FWA. The early 1960s saw nascent sabotage begin at the dam. Mainstream commentators suggest that such destruction as the loss of the Tryweryn valley led to three decades later the establishment of hesitant devolution and the Welsh Assembly.
However, veteran radicals, whether at The Blanket or the Welsh ‘alternative nationalist’ Gethin ab Iestyn (Keith Griffiths) would counter such moves prove but constitutional detours. Obvious if not precise parallels to the controversies that continue among die-hard dissidents who claim to be the Welsh Republican Army, or those who might make the analogy Sinn Féin: SDLP = Plaid Cymru: Labour Party. The squabble may never end among the few in the Celtic lands and their far-flung supporters who insist on a more revolutionary, less conciliatory, campaign. What distinguishes, of course, the Provos from Plaid was that PIRA upheld physical-force nationalism, while Plaid under Saunders Lewis and his principled leadership continuing under Gwynfor Evans MP chose a pacifist stance, at odds with the Fenian strategy. Evans in fact appears many times on the pages of Clews’ history, with considerable chagrin disavowing Plaid’s responsibility for Welsh republican factions. (Perhaps Saunders Lewis, one of the Penyberth Three who in 1936 set fire to the RAF training camp for bombers on the historic Llŷn peninsula, secretly sympathised– as did Thomas for those half a century later who torched second-homes owned by in-comers. A leading Nationalist was said to have been disheartened when the Cymric people failed to rise up after Penyberth to incite their version of an Easter Rising.)
As John Jenkins conceived it, violence could be deployed theoretically or in reality against the State, not for a military victory, but in hopes of inciting 'indiscriminate retribution' against 'sleepers' and innocent neighbours. By increasing the level of Crown oppression, Jenkins reasoned that his MAC would gain support from infuriated Welsh folks. Again, study into their similarities with insurgent strategies sought by the Official IRA and republican socialists would prove worthwhile. If any reader of The Blanket knows of such, kindly respond in kind.
This tension between conventional, non-violent nationalism and the appeal to real or mock violence dramatically demonstrates a key distinction between the Irish rebels who linked to Cayo Evans and his friends versus the Welsh resistance that based itself on Christian values, a legacy of the Chapel and of the 250-year-old traditions of education and community formation based in the Welsh Bible and the literate labourer. The Rebecca Riots and the 'War of the Little Englishman' predated the Black & Tans by nearly a century, and much of subsequent Welsh agitation had been subsumed into organised labor actions and Marxian paradigms.
Also, perhaps echoing more Pearse and the 1916 rebels than their camouflaged hirsute comrades in postwar liberation fronts, the FWA selected a logo, a uniform, and a carefully planned public persona. The IRA may have donned balaclavas and stuck or pinned their lily, but boyos lacked the sartorial flair that the ‘Byddin’ sported. Cayo Evans defended these choices as designed to attain Geneva Convention status for the members as enemy combatants with insignia in the language of their nation, with the country’s flag as their badge. They more immediately gained for the few and the proud Double Eagles with straight-armed salutes considerable notoriety. For wags, the old saw of an army of generals but no privates persisted. Historians today (post-1980 Clews) suggest that no more than a couple dozen FWA soldiers filled their ranks, contrary to Cayo’s catty claims of thousands ready to march. Not to mention Coslett’s classic dodge that convinced Fleet Street that his dog, 'Gelert,' was one of a pack of trained Alsatians strapped with magnetised boxes of live ammo ready for suicide missions across Offa’s Dyke.
Also, on a more serious note, a distinction between the Irish and Welsh republicans emerges from this Situationist stance. The threat of violence, as Coslett stressed, remained the impetus for his allies. Unlike the Irish, the goal of driving the British out and achieving a socialist state was not realistic. The Welsh lacked the international suppliers of arms, know-how, and agitprop that the Irish could rely upon with over 150 years of contacts and experience. And, unlike the Irish, only two deaths from the Welsh late-1960s challenge resulted: two FWA men in Abergele, forty miles from the site of the Investiture, the night before were blown up by the gelignite they were planting. The bombs the Welsh set were always intended to attack symbolic or economic targets. Perhaps the Christian principles gained these activists fewer ‘spectaculars’ but arguably higher moral ground? Meibion Glyndŵr’s arson against holiday homes in the 1980s, similarly, sought to discourage English outsiders moving into Welsh-speaking enclaves, but eschewed personal injury. While P. O Neill and many other spokesmen claimed similar caution in the Troubles, the persistence of rogues, provocateurs, double-agents, and incompetents all damaged the Cause.
The infiltration of Special Branch into the Welsh radicals damaged their defenses too early on. Unlike the Irish, the Welsh lacked guerrilla guidance. Their contacts, heightened after leaders had visited the 1966 commemorations for the Rising in Dublin, rarely earned the success that has often been assumed for the Welsh pupils who sought sage advice and potent gear from their Operation Harvest mentors. Cayo denies, in fact, that the IRA gave away its arms. He counters Cathal Goulding’s claim. Cayo told Clews that the arms were handled by an American firm, ARMCO, who acted as a go-between, so the IRA could modernise its arsenal. Evans explained that while FWA nodded longingly at the glossy brochures ARMCO proffered, the Welsh could not afford even second-hand stores of weaponry. FWA lacked the money available to the IRA. The Welsh fought a propaganda war more than an armed assault against the solid Crown.
Further contrasts can only be listed here, perhaps to goad readers towards their own lists. I suggest a few: the language issue, the self-improvement tradition, and rural literacy rates differed greatly between the two nations. Other distinctions include the Famine vs. massive industrialisation, a powerful Marxist appeal to Welsh proles vs. middle-class urban Irish nationalism, and the strength of trade unions & workmen's institutes vs. a Gaelic League & GAA ideology of local support. The language itself united many activists for further cohesion throughout a contiguous Welsh enclave, unlike the Gaeltachtaí with their comparative isolation from urban republican operations. The So Armagh vs. Limerick, Dublin vs. Six Counties, tensions that hastened the splits in leadership and tactics in the IRA may have been mirrored in the South vs. North Walian rivalries or those of Cardiff vs. Gwynedd, but the FWA took advantage of the cellular structure and anticipated the infiltration of a hierarchical command that would weaken the IRA a decade after the rise of the FWA and MAC and Patriotic Front.
One nation found itself overwhelmed with massive industrialization in the 19th century while the other encountered millions of its countrymen and women as dead, emigrants, or destitute. The Irish endured sectarian tensions, not a Nonconformist-inspired self-help system. The Welsh kept their culture and tongue alive in an austere but devout and intelligent set of guidelines to learn and live by, while the Irish found themselves victimised by clerical lordships and capitalist lords. Not to minimise the power employed by the capitalists over the Welsh, but many of them worked– albeit horrifically– rather than starved thanks to a dark, mined commodity that the Empire demanded more than praties. Finally, note a difference in diasporas that ensured American support for Fenians yet provided little ideological or financial continuity for Welsh militants-- who had no uprising in every generation to mark their past seven centuries under the rule of the Crown.
For too long, and my ProQuest search uncovered multiple repeats of this assertion, the only link most of us ever forge between the IRA and their Welsh counterparts remains that the Stickies dumped their arms on the hapless FWA, therefore leaving the OIRA helpless when the Troubles ignited in that tense summer. Weeks apart, in the North of Ireland and the North of Wales, July 1969 roused Celtic rebellion and British reaction. For the Welsh, major celebration and minority protest both occurred when Charles Windsor came– after a crash course in Welsh by a leftist tutor formerly hostile to him who was won over by the young man’s charm: a double dose of symbolism or irony-- to Caernarfon Castle to be invested as the Prince of Wales. I was still a child then, but I remember an early lesson in pan-Celtic rebellion. I heard the news of FWA counter-demonstrations with glee and their leaders’ sentencing on explosives charges – scheduled with exemplary discipline on the first of July– with sadness. Jenkins, who played the strategist and thinker to the more publicised FWA contingent with aplomb and intelligence (see his 'Prison Letters'), has not received the notoriety or folk-hero status of the more flamboyant Cayo, but any account of the lasting legacy of Welsh republicanism must take the actions of both men, as well as Lewis, ab Iestyn, and Coslett among others, into account. The press still appears to sensationalise the statements of activists in Cymru and Cornwall today, and perhaps the activists themselves play into this as a necessary method in generating attention for their cause.
By the way, Gethin ab Iestyn played a leading role in the Patriotic Front– a group of Plaid dissidents seeking political action– and FWA, as Clews narrates. Gethin's critiqued the 'Franco’s Bastard' send-up of colourful Cayo--as Carlo Lloyd Hughes-- on his blog 'Welsh Patriot'. Steve Dube reported 6 May, 2002, in the Western Mail that at a Cardiff performance:
On the opening night an old friend of Cayo Evans leapt onto the stage at the end of the performance to rebuke the writer and his play.
"Freedom of speech is one thing, but this is an abuse," Gethin ap Iestyn told the audience.
Ap Iestyn served a nine-month prison sentence alongside Cayo Evans in Cardiff after the high-profile Free Wales Army trial in 1969.
This issue of proper representation of the FWA -- who did have a welcome sense of humor and a keen sense of performance art often lacking in their more embattled IRA comrades-- appears in need of deeper investigation. You can even glimpse it in Dube’s attribution of the patronymic in the common 'ap' rather than the preferred form of 'ab' preceding the Cambrian form of this activist’s surname. A minor detail perhaps pedantic, but like the Ó vs. O’ before a Gaelic clan, a telling instance of Anglo-Saxon Attitudes. Gethin's first-hand testimony, amidst his related blogs, had proven for me a valuable resource. I'm intrigued by his PF association, and the tensions that split that Plaid ginger group from the party over the fact many younger Welsh in the 60s had grown up hating the mother language, and that this attitude differed from many in Ireland who imbibed the Christian Brothers form of nationalism along with an teanga.
The appeal to the English-speaker rather than a Celtic heartlander contrasts the Irish republican family tradition with a Welsh one that, as the thoughtful John Jenkins tells Clews, rarely thrived within such a domestic setting from one decade to the next. You can find much about the Welsh campaigns of the late ‘60s under Gethin’s blogs. For example, consult this entry, 31 Dec. 2007. Read his explanation of the influence of Irish radicalism on how he became a Welsh Nationalist of the socialist denomination here:
On becoming Welsh: Why a Welsh Patriot & Nationalist?
Yet others taunt, on the blogs or in the papers, the antics of a media-savvy, Fleet Street-baiting few provocateurs who goaded the British press into thinking that thousands of Cambrian patriots armed with German shepherds and IRA arms were out to overthrow the Principality and overwhelm the Prince at his investiture in 1969. While Mario Basini for the Western Mail and Meic Stephens for the (London) Independent produced thoughtful journalistic tributes, many other English reporters jeered in their obits at the band of merry men uniformed, posed with weaponry, and eager to tell tall tales to gaping journalists. Both the FWA and the press they baited appeared to thrive on the sport in an era that predated the worst of the Troubles, and the relative innocence of that period soon dissipated. The Crown jailed many Welsh activists under 'Operation Cricket', both among the more provocative FWA and the less publicised MAC.
In a jittery era when Jamie Oliver and Rick Stein (celebrity chefs who've moved into Cornwall) gain the ire of shadowy Kernow agitators from An Gof (renamed Cornish National Liberation Army), perhaps the whole pan-Celtic movement may, to jaded observers, take on the air of 'The Pirates of Penzance'. Or that scene every splinter-group ex-member memorises from 'Life of Brian'. But, reading Clews and skimming the dozens of accounts of continued resentment against relentless cultural and linguistic assault against the remaining Celtic homelands, I sympathised with what R.S. Thomas expressed above, among 'The Lost' in his eighty-second year. Justin Wintle and Byron Rogers’ biographies of this poet were my holiday reading, and my reactions vary about this contradictory if eloquent defender of Cymru and infuriatingly irascible character.
But, in my long effort studying all things Irish and my renewed inquiry into Welsh, in Mr. Alan Jones' ardent eloquence at the Independence Cymru blog, in the efforts of honest people (as at The Blanket) I know in the diaspora and in those isles of the North Atlantic archipelago (to use that Council of the Isles phrase!), I also recognize a gentler spirit. Informed and articulate, neither New Age blather nor dryasdust philology, such idealism and activism partake of the wish that Thomas articulates for all of us.
Whether or not born into a Celtic-speaking home or homeland, we can learn from the example of a confederation who, in ancient times, considered its members not by DNA but by language. Not by complexion, but by culture. Politically, despite our capitalist hegemony, there's a counter-argument that often romanticizes a communal economy and decentralized identity. Many ridicule such a vision, but like monasteries and communes, there survives a notion of a more humane, less frenetic place together to live and learn. We long for a recovery that we yearn for almost illogically, atavistically, and still genetically-- the power of some ancient nature over our post-modern, usually urban, and anglophonic nurture.
Read more of Seaghán Ó Murchú at his blog, Blogtrotter.
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