LOCATION: United Kingdom (Wales)
POPULATION: 2.8 million
LANGUAGE: English; Welsh
RELIGION: Methodism; Anglicanism; Presbyterianism; Roman Catholicism; small numbers of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs
Wales is one of the four countries of the United Kingdom. (The others are England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.) The Welsh people are Celtic (central and western European) in origin and have their own language and cultural heritage. The southern part of Wales was colonized by Normans during the eleventh century AD . The last independent principality—Gwynedd, made up of most of North and Central Wales—was conquered by Edward I of England in 1284. Edward's oldest son was given the title Prince of Wales. That title has been held by the oldest son of England's reigning monarch ever since. Wales was officially joined with England in 1707 by the Act of Union, which established the United Kingdom.
South Wales became heavily industrialized in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with the development of coal and iron mining. In the twentieth century, much of the Welsh population has emigrated to England and other countries in search of better job opportunities. In recent decades there has been a renewal of Welsh nationalism (patriotism). Political and cultural groups have worked to strengthen a unique Welsh identity separate from a British identity.
Wales occupies the western part of the island of Great Britain. It is slightly smaller in size than the state of Massachusetts. It has such beautiful farmland, mountains, valleys, and rivers that one-fifth of the country is designated as national parkland. The country's vegetation is mostly grasslands and forests. The rugged Cambrian mountains dominate the northern two-thirds of the country. The central and southern parts of the country are made up of plateaus and valleys. Roughly 80 percent of the Welsh population live in cities. The most populous area is the south, an industrial region containing the cities of Swansea, Cardiff, and Newport.
Both English and Welsh are the official languages of Wales. The use of Welsh has declined gradually since the late eighteenth century. Almost all Welsh people speak English. Welsh is a Celtic language, closest to the Breton language spoken in a part of France. Welsh was recognized as an official language in 1966. Since the 1960s there has been a movement to increase the use and recognition of Welsh. It is now taught in schools, and there are Welsh radio and television broadcasting facilities.
Welsh is known for its long words, double consonants, and scarce vowels. English-speakers find the language quite difficult to pronounce. The Welsh language contains what is probably the longest place name in the world: Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, a town name that means "Church of St. Mary in the Hollow by the White Aspen near the Rapid Whirlpool and Church of St. Tysilio by the Red Cave." (It is usually referred to as Llan-fair.)
Welsh culture is full of myths and legends. Even the country's national symbol—the dragon—is a mythical beast. Almost every mountain, river, and lake, as well as many farms and villages, are associated with some legend of tylwyth teg (fairies), magical properties, or fearful beasts. The Welsh claim that the legendary British hero King Arthur, as well as his magician-counselor Merlin, were from Wales. Another popular subject of Welsh legend is the prince Madog ab Owain. He is said to have discovered America in the twelfth century AD .
Most of the Christian population of Wales is Methodist (also called Nonconformist). Wales also has an Anglican Church, a Presbyterian Church, and one Catholic province. The Welsh are generally quite strict about religious observance. Wales also has small numbers of Jews, Muslims (followers of Islam), Hindus, Sikhs (followers of a Hindu-Islam religion), and other religious minorities. These are concentrated mainly in the large cities of South Wales.
Legal holidays in Wales include New Year's Day (January 1), St. David's Day (March 1), Good Friday (March or April), Easter Monday (March or April), spring and summer bank holidays, Christmas (December 25), and Boxing Day (December 26). St. David's Day commemorates Wales' patron saint. On this day, daffodils are sold everywhere and are either worn on lapels or taken home to adorn houses. Every January, the Festival of St. Dwyhwon, the Welsh patron saint of lovers, takes place. However, it is gradually being replaced by St. Valentine's Day (February).
The Welsh live in a modern, industrialized, Christian country. Many of the rites of passage that young people undergo are religious rituals. These include baptism, first communion, confirmation, and marriage. In addition, a student's progress through the educational system is often marked with graduation parties.
The Welsh are known for their warmth and hospitality. People are friendly with their neighbors. Acquaintances always stop to chat when they encounter each other. Invitations to tea are readily offered and accepted.
Rural dwellers have traditionally lived in whitewashed stone cottages and farmhouses. In the past, many cottages consisted of only one or two rooms, plus a sleeping loft. Another type of traditional dwelling was the long-house, a single-story structure that housed the family at one end and livestock at the other. Housing in the coal-mining areas generally consists of row houses built in the nineteenth century. They have slate roofs, stone walls, and outside bathrooms. Much of the older housing lacks the modern amenities (such as central heating) that people in the United States take for granted. As recently as the 1970s, it was common for people living in older housing to use coal-fired stoves for heat. Fireplaces or electric heaters were used to heat rooms other than the kitchen.
Family and kinship are extremely important in Wales. The Welsh dote on their children. Special occasions are spent with members of one's extended family. When Welsh people first meet, they often ask each other questions to find out if they have relatives in common. The Welsh traditionally married late and had lengthy courtships. In farming communities, adult sons generally remain at home working on their parents' farms until they marry, and a younger son usually inherits the farm.
Most families today have between one and three children. Welsh families spend a lot of time at home. Life in rural areas tends to be very secluded, and a 20-mile (32-kilo-meter) trip to a neighboring village is considered a major undertaking. On Sunday, many attend church, which is followed by Sunday dinner, the most important meal of the week. After dinner, men often meet their friends at a pub (bar). In traditional working-class families, few women have traditionally been employed outside the home.
The Welsh wear typical Western-style clothing for ordinary casual and formal occasions. However, at festivals one can still see women wearing their traditional national costumes. These consist of long dresses, checkered aprons, white collars, and tall black hats (something like a witch's hat but less pointy and with a wider brim) worn over white kerchiefs. On such occasions, men may wear striped vests over white shirts and knee-length breeches with high white socks.
Traditional Welsh cuisine is simple, down-to-earth farmhouse cooking. Soups and stews are popular dishes, and the Welsh are known for the excellent quality of their lamb, fish, and seafood. The well-known Welsh Rarebit is a genuine Welsh dish. It consists of toast coated with a mixture of milk, eggs, cheese, and Worcestershire sauce—the original toasted cheese sandwich. One dish that some visitors prefer to avoid is laverbread, a type of seaweed traditionally prepared with oatmeal and bacon. The Welsh bake a variety of hearty desserts including bara brith, a popular bread made with raisins and currants that have been soaked in tea overnight, and Welsh ginger-bread—made without ginger!
Welsh education follows the same pattern as that in England, with schooling required between the ages of five and sixteen. Students take an exam at age eleven. After that, they attend either middle schools that prepare them for college, comprehensive schools that provide a general education, or technical schools for vocational training.
Welsh-language literature is among the oldest continuous literary traditions in Europe, with some of its earliest masterpieces dating from the sixth century AD . Welsh poets have gained recognition in the English-speaking world since the seventeenth century. Wales' most illustrious modern poet was Dylan Thomas (1914–53), author of the beloved A Child's Christmas in Wales, the radio play Under Milk Wood, and many well-known poems.
The Welsh are a very musical people. Their choral tradition includes celebrated male choirs, a variety of soloists, and pop singers including Tom Jones. Rock bands like the Alarm and the Manic Street Preachers also come from Wales. Several famous actors are Welsh, the best-known being Anthony Hopkins and the late Richard Burton.
Between the mid-1800s and the mid-1900s, coal mining and iron and steel production flourished in Wales. However, workers suffered deprivation and harsh working conditions, as much of the wealth went to industrialists based outside the country. Other major Welsh industries included textiles and slate quarrying. Many Welsh emigrated to England in the early 1930s due to mass unemployment as a result of the Great Depression. Since World War II (1939–45), traditional Welsh industries have been replaced by light industry, plastics, chemicals, and electronics. Many people are employed in service industries including construction and power production. Dairy, cattle, and sheep farming still thrive, and the Welsh still fish in their traditional boats—called coracles— constructed from willow and hazel branches covered with hide. Workers in Wales' industries have a high level of unionization. Wales has recently experienced a significant increase in foreign investment. However, it remains economically behind the more prosperous regions of England.
Rugby is the most popular Welsh sport. It was introduced to Wales about a century ago from England, where it originated. International matches, especially those against England, generate great national spirit. They are accorded the same status as are the World Series or the Super Bowl in the United States. Soccer (called "football") and cricket are also widely played, and dog racing and pony racing are popular as well.
In their spare time, Welsh people enjoy movies and television. Many people participate in some type of music-making. Choral singing is especially popular. Men commonly spend many of their leisure hours socializing in neighborhood pubs (bars). Women's circles with weekly meetings are widespread in rural Wales, as are young farmers' clubs. In Welsh-speaking areas, the youth organization Urdd gobaith Cymru (The Order of Hope of Wales) organizes summer camps, recreational outings, and musical and dramatic productions, and carries a message of peace to world youth. Popular outdoor activities include hunting, fishing, mountain climbing, pony trekking, (horseback riding) golf, swimming, rock climbing, and hang-gliding.
Such traditional crafts as blacksmithing, tanning, clog-making, and copperworking had virtually disappeared by the 1950s. Woodwork, metalwork and pottery remain strong, however. The use of ancient Celtic designs is popular with many artisans.
The Welsh have a great tradition of choral singing. Their musical and poetic traditions are preserved through a series of competitive folk festivals throughout the nation. The culmination is the Royal National Eisteddfod, an annual contest for poets and musicians attended by tens of thousands of people every August. The festival includes folk dancing and all types of music, from brass bands to Welsh rock groups. Competitions also take place in the fields of poetry, literature, drama, theater, and the visual arts. Events are conducted in Welsh with instantaneous English translation. The festival functions as a major force for the preservation of Welsh cultural identity. The International Eisteddfod at Llangollen, held every July, invites competitors from all over the world to compete for prizes in traditional singing and dancing. The event attracts a wide variety of participants. Another competition is the Cardiff Singer of the Year, which attracts some of the brightest young talent in the opera world. Its prestige has launched a number of highly successful careers.
Unemployment, especially in rural areas, is a serious problem in Wales. Like Scotland, Wales has had a high level of emigration by people seeking better employment opportunities abroad. Concern exists on many fronts about the preservation of Welsh culture. Many are worried that English values and culture will increasingly dominate, and that indigenous values and traditions will be lost. Even with the success of the movement to promote the use of the Welsh language, there is still concern about the survival of rural communities in which the language thrives. Conflicts of interest between monolingual English-speakers and bilingual Welsh-speakers are becoming important issues in many areas.
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