The fakery of Celtic myths are part of a long tradition of nation-building in these islands, argues Chris Bambery
One of my favourite places in London is Primrose Hill. Fans of Mary Poppins will know it as the place to go to fly a kite. At the bottom of the hill a plaque marks Frederick Engels’s house and I can imagine he and Karl Marx taking a stroll up the hill before retiring for a pint or two.
At the summit there is a plaque of Anglesey Stone which reads in English: This is the site of the first meeting of the Gorsedd of the Bards of the Isle of Britain 22.6.1792. And in Welsh: Yma y cyfarfu Gorsedd Beirdd Ynys Prydain gyntaf
Here, on the summer solstice of 1792, was the very first Gorsedd (assembly of the bards), which two decades later became an integral part of the annual eisteddfod, the key Welsh festival.
The plaque also commemorates, Iolo Morganwg. Iolo claimed that the traditions of Wales were the oldest of Europe and that their guardians were the druids who had died out everywhere except in his native Glamorgan, where there were only two people who knew their secrets. He just happened to be one of them. He persuaded the Gwyneddigion (a London based Welsh language club formed to champion the language and culture) of the validity of this.
They helped produce the Myvrian Archaiology, three volumes of Welsh poems, which were crucial to keeping the Welsh language alive and to the study of it. That in turn would be crucial to shaping Welsh nationalism as it emerged at the close of the 19th century and, more importantly, following the First World War.
Yet much of the material in them was not ancient but was written by Iolo. When the plaque was erected on Primrose Hill in 2009 the Friends of Regent's Park and Primrose Hill objected. Its chair attacked Iolo claiming, “this chap was bankrupt and a forger. A bloody criminal.”
Iolo did serve time in jail for debt but that wasn’t uncommon then. So did Charles Dickens’s father. In response to this attack on Iolo the Welsh poet, Danny Abse, pointed out that:
“Morganwg was a legendary Welsh poet.
“He did forge poems. But he was a great, great scholar – and he fooled everybody. I’m not sure if he was a drug addict, but he was certainly the best poet that went to Cardiff jail.”
He added: “Christopher Marlowe died in a pub brawl – but we celebrate him don’t we? Lord Byron was a womaniser, but he is buried in Westminster Cathedral.”
Abse is making a valid point here but he could have added something else; Iolo was not exceptional. Nations and nationalisms are human constructs and involve the creation of a supposed national identity stretching back into the mists of time.
In my native Scotland the romanticism of the Highlands was the product of James Macpherson, Seumas Mac a' Phearsain, who claimed in 1761 to have discovered a Gaelic epic, Ossian, which he translated into English. It became an international best seller and started a craze for tartanry and the supposed noble savages of Gaeldom. Of course they were complete forgeries but that did not stop him being buried in Westminster Abbey, too.
Incidentally, Macpherson, who owned lands in Inverness and evicted his Gaelic speaking tenants, contributing to the Highland Clearances, and enforced English place names.
Building on this romanticism of the Scottish Highlands the great novelist Sir Walter Scott integrated it into his construction of a new Scottish identity which expropriated much of Gaelic culture. When King George 1V visited Edinburgh he laid on a pageant of the Highland Clans led by their supposed chiefs. They were evicting their tenants and forcing them onto emigrant ships, but no matter. Everyone wore kilts, a recent invention, and ancient tartans, actually created for the occasion and bought off the shelf.
The English Tory historian, Hugh Trevor-Roper, made great fun of all this in an entertaining essay which attacked the myths of Scottish nationalism.
Yet, what he and the guy chairing the Friends of Regents Park didn’t say is that the creation of myths extends to English and British nationalism. Take a walk around the Palace of Westminster and the murals on the walls portray a very 19th century Whig interpretation of British history (actually mainly English history).
So we have King Alfred, the Saxon king who burnt the cakes, putting Danish invaders to the sword (imagine the reaction if in the Welsh Assembly there was a mural of the British/Welsh King Arthur slaughtering Saxon invaders). Or Richard the Lionheart, who has a big statute outside, is here as a noble knight. In truth he was a brute who didn’t speak English and did not want to spend any time in the country. King Charles II is hiding up an oak tree from Cromwell’s soldiers and Indians are paying homage to Elizabeth 1, a rather unlikely event.
The version we are served of the Second World War with Britain in the forefront of resisting Hitler contains huge dollops of mythology (a polite word for fakery).
Returning to the plaque on Primrose Hill, it talks of the bards of the “isle of Britain.” That’s because prior to the Saxon conquest, Britain was the Welsh (British) speaking lands of what is now England, Wales and Southern Scotland. Those who now regard themselves as Welsh long saw themselves as being British and the Arthurian legend (fakery) spoke of a day when he would rise and drive the Saxons back across the North Sea. British history is a bit confusing, isn’t it?
Fakery is central to all nationalisms because they have to be created and re-invented. Just take the Royal Family as an example. It has been re-invented constantly yet we have to believe it stretches back uninterruptedly to King Alfred and Richard the Lionheart.
And one last thought. Iolo and his London Welsh friends are worth remembering because they were radicals, enthused by the French Revolution – though later faced with intense state repression they’d dive for cover (not unlike Scotland’s own national bard, Robert Burns).
When later Iolo returned to Wales to set up a shop in Cowbridge in the Vale of Glamorgan, a sign outside told customers the sugar sold there was not produced by slaves. He refused an inheritance from his brother because he owned a plantation in Jamaica worked by slaves.
That explains, perhaps, why he is not interred in Westminster Abbey. I prefer it that way and if you’re in London on the 1st of March why not go to Primrose Hill on St David’s Day to raise a glass in his honour?
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.