Often in my blog postings I’ve traced the trajectory of the barbed arrows that R. S. Thomas shot over Offa’s Dyke into England, all the while neglecting to say that he was using re-barbed arrows – arrows the English had been lobbing into Wales for centuries.
Many English children were weaned on this rhyme:
Taffy was a Welshman,
Taffy was a thief;
Taffy came to my house
And stole a piece of beef.
No wonder kids grow up prejudiced.
In Shakespeare’s Henry IV, part 1, the Welshman Glendower speaks some Welsh words, and Hotspur says, “Now I perceive the devil understands Welsh.”
Centuries later, R. S. Thomas responds:
Even God had a Welsh name:
We spoke to him in the old language; . . .
In 1905, British Prime Minister H. H. Asquith said: “I would sooner go to hell than to Wales.”
Perhaps he got his druthers.
One of the characters in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Decline and Fall (1928) opines: “I often think that we can trace almost all of the disasters of English history to the influence of Wales.”
Perhaps, then, England should’ve kept its bloody nose out of Cymru.
In 1998, A. A. Gill identified the Welsh people as “loquacious, dissemblers, immoral liars, stunted, bigoted, dark, ugly, pugnacious little trolls.”
Well, now, ain’t that nice.
In 2010, an associate editor of The Spectator magazine described the Welsh as “miserable, seaweed munching, sheep-bothering pinch-faced hill-tribes.”
By comparison, Thomas shot spatterings from a paintball gun at the English.
Wales has been called “England’s first colony.” It was defined by Offa’s Dyke around 790, largely ruled by Norman lords after 1066, invaded by Edward I in 1282, and annexed to England during Henry VIII’s reign in the middle of the sixteenth century.
To live in Wales is to be conscious
At dusk of the spilled blood
That went to the making of the wild sky,
Dyeing the immaculate rivers
In all their courses. . . .
Thomas saw the situation of the Welsh as being similar to that of the Native Americans, who were viewed by their European conquerors and colonizers as savages unworthy of being the proper occupants of a rich land; as pagans, and as a cultureless people.
The Native Americans resisted, of course, were ruthlessly punished, and penned up in ‘reservations’ for daring to defend their land, their spirituality, and their culture.
Perhaps the anti-English attitude of Thomas that most galled the English was his refusal to condemn the firebombing, from 1979 to 1994, of unoccupied English-owned holiday cottages in Wales.
“Wales has been dominated by England for 400 years,” Thomas reminded Gareth Parry in 1993. “People get all worked up if there’s any suggestion of violence . . . this is what is so ridiculous.”
“I always take this position, you must confront the English with the fact of the matter; they are the most unashamedly nationalist people in the world.”
Of all people, Americans should understand what Thomas is saying: They celebrate the dumping of tea chests laden with English property into Boston’s harbor.
Poem of R. S. Thomas quoted in this blog:
“Even God had a Welsh name” – “Welsh Testament,” Tares, 39.
“To live in Wales is to be conscious” – “Welsh Landscape,” Song at the Year’s Turning, 63.
The prose quotes are from an article by Gareth Parry titled “Poet-priest with fire in the belly,” published in The Guardian, Monday, March 29, 1993.