Welsh History – Who Controls the Past?

welsh notLlywelyn, Owain Glyndŵr, Tryweryn , The Welsh Not.  If you didn’t learn about these topics in school, then perhaps you went to school in Wales.   Many young Welsh students leave school knowing more about ancient Egypt and Chinese history than that of their own nation.

The elimination of Welsh history in some locations is nothing short of a national tragedy.  History is so many things to a nation:  the understanding of communities, culture, and the rise and fall of civilisations.  History gives us a collective memory; a sense of connection to our land and community.

As Eric Hobsbawm  described it:

“The destruction of the past or, rather, of the social mechanisms that link one’s contemporary experience to that of earlier generations, is one of the most characteristic and eerie phenomena of the late 20th century. Most young men and women at the century’s end grow up in a sort of permanent present lacking any organic relation to the public past of the times they live in.”

In place of a well-crafted foundation of Welsh history, students are given a smattering of British history, often taught with the same England-centric textbooks used by students in England.
Gwynfor Evans, Plaid Cymru president from 1945 to 1981, wrote about the history of Wales, (Aros Mae / Land of my Fathers: 2000 Years of Welsh History) a tale of English oppression and linguistic heritage, though his passionate writing was not much concerned with historical complexities.

Such tales of the survival of Wales against the odds helped inspire a new generation of activists who were even willing to go to prison in the name of their nation. One such person was Dafydd Iwan who wrote the popular song “Yma o Hyd” (Still Here), a song demonstrating the appeal of a simple historical message to the nation.

In 1959 in Flintshire the director of education was condemned for promoting Welsh history. “They fear that you are creating in the mind of a child an awareness that there is such a concept as the Welsh nation,” he said of his critics.

Since devolution, Welsh is no longer a nation that has to look backwards to see that it exists. Yet the fact that a Welsh government has come about at all seems due to the historical perspective people have drawn from Wales’ past, even if their reading of that history was sometimes rather slanted.
In 2003, the Welsh Assembly Government established Curriculum Cymreig, a wide-reaching national curriculum embracing cultural, economic, environmental, historical and
linguistic lessons.

The Curriculum Cymreig expects these elements in every school’s history syllabus:

• Understanding how lives and localities have been shaped by the past,
through learning about the history of Wales, its political, economic,
social and cultural aspects.

• Visiting historical sites, using artefact’s, making comparisons between
past and present, and developing an understanding of how these have
changed over time.

• Learning about the relationship of Wales with other parts of the UK
today and in the past.

• Learning about past and present links with Europe and the wider world,
using a range of scales of reference – local, regional, national, British,
European and world history of Wales, its political, economic,
social and cultural aspects.

That sounds very well and good but for one important problem:  the actual lessons and subjects are decided by local districts, many of which are struggling for  resources and under pressure to achieve higher scores in standardised student assessments.

This matters because of what students are missing. “The soft bigotry of low expectations,” an assumption that those students in locations of historically low educational attainment should not be academically challenged, literally means students are being denied the patrimony of their story, an understanding of their country and society.

George Orwell’s 1984 sums this up well.  “Who controls the past,” according to the party slogan, “controls the future.  Who controls the present controls the past.”  A lack of history or false history breaks down the psychological independence of its subjects.

Though devolution is marching slowly along, Wales needs a firm focus on full independence, so we may control our own future.  And to control our own future, we need to control the past—and affirm our own history by making Welsh history a requirement for every student in Wales.

Catherine Severson

Catherine Severson

Catherine Severson is a boat builder and sailor, having studied traditional Celtic wooden boat building in Wales and Ireland.  She has worked in both the USA and Japan as a radio presenter and magazine editor.




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Sign the petition to the Welsh Assembly Government

“We call on the National Assembly for Wales to urge the Welsh Government to make Welsh History Compulsory in our schools from the age of 7. Teaching about Wales from the Celtic times right through to the present Day, including for example Llywelyn, Glyndŵr, all other Welsh native princes, Tryweryn, The Welsh Not, The Norman conquest, Act of Union and Industrialisation. As It appears that not all of Welsh history is being taught and is selective to cover certain periods and events.”



  • Kieran

    I’ve just left a Welsh secondary school and this was not the experience I had at all. Not only have I been taught about Llywelyn, Owain Glyndŵr, Tryweryn , The Welsh Not; I know about the Merthyr Rising, Rebecca Riots, Chartist Movement in Wales, Rhys ap Gruffydd, Santes Tybie, Aberfan, Llywelyn Ein Llyw Olaf and so much more that I can’t possibly remember all of them. Who and what exactly are you referring to? What are you basing this article on?

    I’m now in University in the Netherlands and I now realise that there is a vast amount of knowledge that I should know, but don’t, because I was too busy learning about Rhys ap Gryffudd’s tantrum rather than globally significant historical periods. It’s ridiculous that I have done an A-level in history and don’t know anything about the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, the Age of Discovery, Eastern Empires and the founding and growth of some of the worlds most influential religions. I felt so stupid that I had to Google “Mesopotamia” during a lecture, the first agrarian society.

    Further to this, part of my course in university is based on nationalism and who writes history. I should now be able to tell who wrote the history that was taught at my school. There was plenty of nationalist ideas, to the extent that “Wales should be independent” wasn’t an uncommon phrase. There was nothing to counter this.

    Before I get slated, I’d like to point out that knowing about your culture is useful and worthwhile, I am first language Welsh and I like having an unique history. But this is not the experience I had and the extent to which I experienced the opposite was absurd.

  • Catherine Severson

    RESULT: Today (26 October 2012) it has been announced by the Welsh Assembly government that “a review of the way the history and culture of Wales is taught in school has been ordered by the education minister.” Curriculum Cymreig will also be examined closely to determine whether “there is enough emphasis on the history of Wales in classrooms.”

    For more information on the Welsh history review announcement:

    Kieran, I hope you can take a look at this information and realise your education was the exception rather than the rule!

  • Kalen

    Kieran, can i say count yourself lucky for what you did learn and for the fact you are a first language speaker. I went to school in the 70s & 80s in swansea, absolutely no Welsh history taught and i knew no-one who spoke Welsh. I understand your point about needing to learn about ‘globally significant historical periods’ but there is no reason why both those events and Welsh history can’t be taught! I believe the Pennal letters are significant as international events. and to refer to Rhys ap Gruffudds fight to hold his land and not have it stolen by the normans as a ‘tantrum’ is quite frankly an insult. everything i know about our history i have ad to learn for myself as an adult and i am now seeking to rectify the final insult and am trying to learn what should have been my first language

  • Meryl

    A good cause and parents must be the key ones to push for inclusion of Welsh history in the curriculum, but I agree with Kieran’s query as I would like to have seen research and statistics and not several quotes as any good article should contain. What magazines did the author edit for in the US? A quick google search comes up with no results.

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