Peter Corrigan: Welcome, America, to the land of your forefathers! (Sorry it's a bit soggy)
It is not well known but of the 56 signatories to the Declaration of Independence in 1776, 17 were of Welsh descent including Thomas Jefferson
Thursday 30 September 2010
To the thousands of Americans who are taking their first soggy steps into Wales for the Ryder Cup this week, this is a faraway country of which they knew little. They would know a darned sight more if William Penn had gone ahead with his original name of the state he founded.
He wanted to call it New Wales. We don't know what changed his mind but he finally called it Pennsylvania.
We would hesitate to criticise a fellow Welshman, particularly one so distinguished, but he could have given Wales a much higher profile in the United States and saved many generations of us the trouble of having to describe who we are.
There was another Welshman who could have sewn our name into the star spangled banner but Roger Williams decided on the name of Rhode Island for the state he founded.
Having a state named after Wales would have earned far more awareness not only for our long and proud history of bristling individuality and the rugged beauty of our countryside, but for our contribution to the new world over several centuries.
In our national anthem we call it the "land of my fathers". The Americans could well call it the land of their forefathers because Messrs Penn and Williams are not isolated instances of an influential Welsh presence at the birth of the nation.
It is not generally known that out of the 56 signatories to the Declaration of Independence in 1776 there were 17 of Welsh descent including the man who wrote it, Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson, whose family came from Snowdonia, went on to become one of nine Presidents of the United States who were Welsh.
If you climb the Washington Memorial stairway in the Capitol you can read, about halfway up, a stone inscribed: "Fy iaith, fy ngwlad, fy nghenedl Cymru – Cymru am byth."
It means: My language, my land, my nation of Wales – Wales for ever. Jefferson had that put there as an enduring memory of his Welshness. There are many other legacies, not so tangible, left by Welshmen such as those who founded universities like Yale, Princeton, Brown, William and Mary, Johns Hopkins and Andover.
The President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, was Welsh as was John Marshall who shaped the first US Constitution and a Welsh American, Oliver Evans, invented the self-propelled automobile with a steam-powered engine.
This is not meant to be merely a litany of Welsh achievements in the US, rather a presentation of credentials to those who have, at best, a vague knowledge of a country propelled into the sporting spotlight because it is staging the Ryder Cup.
With a population of just under three million and covering a slightly smaller area than Massachusetts, perhaps Wales has no right to a high degree of recognition and, to be fair, the number of Welsh people who migrated to America were far fewer than those from Ireland, Scotland and England.
But what the Welsh have contributed in all walks of life to the shaping of American history is out of all proportion to its size.
There's evidence that the Welsh discovered America long before Christopher Columbus and 20 per cent of the Pilgrim Fathers were Welsh as was the captain of The Mayflower.
There are many Welsh societies in American cities but the number of St Patrick's Day parades demonstrates the much higher profile of the Irish. It is no offence to the Irish to point out that St Patrick was born in Wales and spoke Welsh.
It could be that this neglect of Wales is due to a lack of self-promotion but Wales is not known as a bashful nation – after we beat England at rugby you would think the very opposite – and we don't struggle to make our voice heard.
Wales is the undisputed land of song, with a choral tradition going back centuries that manifests itself in the highly rated Welsh National Opera and such luminaries as Bryn Tyrfel, Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey are world-renowned.
The singing of the Welsh national anthem before a rugby match remains one of the most stirring calls to arms in the world.
John Ford's epic film How Green Was My Valley (1941) was based on Richard Llewellyn's best selling novel about the hardships of a Welsh mining family in the South Wales valleys at the end of the 19th century. It won five Oscars but tended to give the impression that the Welsh spent more time singing than digging coal.
This was certainly not the case. At the time those valleys could hardly keep pace with the demand for Welsh steam coal and the capital city Cardiff was the biggest coal exporting port in the world.
Seventy years earlier, Merthyr Tydfil – named after Tydfil, a Welsh princess murdered for her Christian beliefs in 480AD – was the largest iron producing town in the world and immigrants were flocking to the area to look for work.
It was never on the scale of the hordes who went to America but hundreds of thousands flocked to dig coal and make iron and steel and, in the process, added new dimensions to the Welsh character.
This invasion of Wales was different to previous incursions in that it was welcomed. The others were not. The Romans were the first and it took them fully 35 years to conquer Wales, finally defeating the Silures under Caratacus in AD50.
Not a mile from the Ryder Cup venue at Celtic Manor is the site of the Roman fortress of Isca, one of the biggest in the UK, and its remains, including the amphitheatre, can still be clearly seen.
On the Montgomerie course, adjacent to the 2010 course where the Ryder Cup is being played, is the site of a gladiators school which is preserved as sacred ground.
The Saxons, and to a lesser extent the Vikings, were the next invaders followed by the Normans in the 11th century and Edward 1st of England in the 13th century but the mountainous Welsh landscape enabled the locals to remain fiercely inhospitable and maintain their culture and their language.
Castles were built by the invaders to keep the Welsh under control. For that purpose they turned out to be a colossal waste of stone but what remains is the finest collection of genuine battlements to be found anywhere and not the least of Wales's many tourist attractions.
Owain Glyndwr led a successful rebellion against English rule in the 14th century and was crowned King of Wales but this revolt was eventually subdued and the most effective attack on the Welsh way of life came in the shape of Henry VIII's Act of Union in which the Welsh language was outlawed in favour of English for all official purposes. Defiantly, Welsh not only survived, but is flourishing in a bilingual nation.
The man who financed the American War of Independence was a Welshman, Roger Morris, which is ironic because no one ever funded Wales's various attempts at independence during the last two thousand years or so.
But when it comes to independence of spirit, the country has few equals and it was such spirit that led to Prince Madog sailing west from Wales in 1170 and landing at Mobile Bay in what is now Alabama.
There is a wealth of evidence among native American tribes along the Tennessee and Missouri rivers of a strong Welsh influence.
In the 18th century one tribe was discovered, the Mandans, who claimed Welsh ancestry and spoke a language remarkably similar to it. They fished with coracles, a type of boat still used in Wales today.
In 1953 the Daughters of the American Revolution placed a plaque at Mobile Bay.
It reads: "In memory of Prince Madog, a Welsh explorer who landed on the shores of Mobile Bay in 1170 and left behind, with the Indians, the Welsh language." America could return the favour and make this the start of discovering Wales.
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