The more things change…

You probably don’t know much about Wales. I didn’t either, until I investigated my Welsh great-great-grandfather, inspiring my second trip to Wales in two years.

I discovered that, while there are significant differences between the U.S. and the tiny land of Wales, which has 3 million people and 12 million sheep, there are lots of similarities politically, as with Great Britain as a whole.

Wales, which juts out to the west of England, has historically been treated by the British government as a troublesome colony of uncivilized people who speak a strange, garbled language. I find the language beautiful and have been learning it with gusto. The centuries-long English political and economic domination of Wales nearly extinguished the language, but today the number of fluent Welsh speakers is on the rise.


When I arrived at the airport in Cardiff, the capital of Wales, I bought a British national newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, which cost £1.80 ($2.32) but came with a free bottle of Evian water. The headline reported the latest outrageous pronouncement by Boris Johnson, who could be a stand-in for Donald Trump, except Johnson is only Secretary of State, not President. As you may have heard, Johnson was chastised by Prime Minister Theresa May for describing women in burkas as looking like “bank robbers” and “letter boxes” (i.e., mailboxes). Johnson, who had been foremost among politicians pushing for Brexit, the British exit from the European Union, refused to apologize for his comments. 

Other stories also reminded me of home but with a quirky British twist. For instance, police have been criticized for tolerating cannabis clubs, of which 160 have popped up around the U.K. Originally founded as places to use medical marijuana, they have become social clubs for recreational smoking. “At least two police and crime commissioners (PCCs) have visited or endorsed the clubs,” stated the Telegraph, although marijuana use is still technically illegal and can carry up to a five-year prison sentence.

In environmental news, so many people have been scattering the ashes of their loved ones on Mt. Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales, that scientists fear the ashes are altering the soil chemistry. Ash-scattering is legal but is now being discouraged in that region.

A breeder of exotic junglefowl claims conservationists rescuing fish in drought-strapped Worcestershire have deprived the local mink population of food, causing them to prey on his birds. The man reported 80 deaths among the flock he raises to sell feathers to a fly-tying factory in Kenya. (Fly-tying, in Kenya as in the Catskills, refers to making fishing lures.) Furthermore, the mink are an American species, descended from escapees from mink farms established in the 1920s. The junglefowl, in turn, are a variety rescued from deforestation in India. Like refugees fleeing war, animal species, both fish and mink, have been disrupted by human intervention in the environment. The recent drought — unprecedented in Britain — may be seen as a consequence of climate change. 

Like Americans, the British have a concern for animals. Ads for dog and cat rescue encourage “rehoming.”

On my second day in Wales, I stumbled across the welcome-home celebration for Geraint Thomas, a native of Cardiff and the first Welsh cyclist to win the Tour de France. As thousands of us waited for Geraint to ride his bicycle down to Cardiff Castle, I passed the time by asking a few spectators what they thought of Donald Trump.

“When I’ve seen him on the telly, he’s talking up his backside,” said Carolyn Tickner. “He doesn’t seem to know what he’s talking about. He’s anti-gay, and I’m gay, so I don’t like that.”

A more tempered response came from Claude Vallée, a Frenchman who has lived in Cardiff since 1963 and has picked up a Welsh accent. “In the news today, he’s sticking to Great Britain about Russia for trying to kill some spies. I’m glad about that. He’s got good and bad.”

A radio reporter approached with a microphone. I asked the young man what he thought of Trump. “I don’t think it’s good overall. I’m obsessed with him but for the wrong reasons,” he said, before dashing off to nab a Welsh person to interview.

“Trump seems to change his mind every day,” Graham Thomas commented. “He hasn’t got a good grasp of world politics. It’s a bit scary.” 

The next day, I went to the National Eisteddfod, the annual Welsh cultural festival, where Welsh speakers gather for poetry and music competitions. Smaller versions of the Eisteddfod have been held in Welsh towns since the 11th century, belying the English view of the inhabitants as uncivilized. Classical Welsh poetry is devilishly complex, while the choral tradition is deep and resplendent. Booths on the grounds offer goods for sale or promote the agendas of organizations, from Welsh Water, a non-profit company delivering water to residents, to the Welsh Place-name Society, which seeks to preserve the Welsh names of towns and rivers.

I stopped in at the tent of the Welsh Conservative Party, which has obtained the second largest share of the regional vote in every general election since 1931. A young man behind the table, Aaeron Giboney, declared, “Trump speaks his mind, and he’s taken a hard stance with the EU. I’m a Brexiteer, really looking forward to getting out from under the EU. We need to know other countries around the world have our back.”

John Williams was on his way to a meeting of a group strategizing the withdrawal of Wales from Britain. Disturbed by the passage of Brexit, which will mean the loss of huge amounts of EU funding for Wales, the group hopes independence will free the country from its status as a largely neglected territory of Britain and enable Wales to rejoin the EU on its own. The process will probably take a couple of decades, said Williams. As for Trump, he observed, “I think it’s better to ignore him. He thrives on attention. But unfortunately, he holds the levers of power.”

A resounding endorsement of our president came from David Rees, a western Wales racehorse trainer. “I like him very much. He speaks his mind. If you vote for someone to run the country, you want someone who says what he’s thinking.”

I paid a visit to my Welsh friend Eifion, who has been helping me research my family. Before emigrating to the U.S. in 1851, my ancestors went to the church Eifion now attends, Goppa Chapel in the village of Pontarddulais. He has tracked down a newspaper article from 1893, revealing that my ancestor William Davies, a carpenter, had made a trip back to Wales. After returning to Ohio, he had sent a letter to a friend, asking him to get it published in The Western Mail. The letter refers to what was, in the late 1800s, the main industry of Pontarddulais, the plating of sheets of iron with tin. William McKinley had been bumped from Congress to the governorship of Ohio, and not yet been elected president.

Change McKinley to Trump and Wales to China, and most of my ancestor’s words could easily have been written in 2018: “About two years ago, the Republicans in Congress passed the McKinley high tariff law on manufacturing goods, and the main and uppermost was the tariff on tin-plate….It was a hard blow against South Wales, since pretty nearly all the tin-plate used in this country [the U.S.] comes from South Wales…The people of this country who consume tin-plate and other goods with high tariff on, have to pay this tariff, and they come to see the point. The greater part of the profits go into the pockets of the capitalists and the manufacturers and a very small part to the working man. It is amazing to behold how rapidly men are getting rich.”

I’ve always thought of my family as right-wing, so it was a pleasure to discover that William was a champion of the working man. And what a surprise to learn from my Welsh immigrant forebear how vividly U.S. history is repeating itself!

There is one comment

  1. suzette green

    Cool article, especially the comparisons. Can’t imagine what the pro-Brexit people are thinking, it is a disaster. My ancestors came to North America in the mid-1600’s. and settled in the Cape. I am 25% English, and from my study of history, they can keep it. Now I live part time in the Netherlands, and there are many similarities between the Welsh, Scots, and Dutch, especially the Fries. The languages are quite similar. All the best with your travels.

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