has fought for six decades in defence of a once beleaguered language. In March 2022, he thrilled the nation when he sang his song ‘Yma o Hyd’ (‘Still Here’) – which the Guardian called ‘Wales’s other national anthem’ – before a World Cup qualifier and 30,000 football fans joined in.
Simon Joseph Jones met him online, at home near Caernarfon, on 28 July 2022.
Many people will have encountered you for the first time when they turned on the TV to watch Wales play Austria and there was this fellow singing in a language they didn’t understand, with tears running down his face.1youtube.com
Can you put that experience into words?
I did know that [‘Yma o Hyd’] had been sung quite a bit by the fans, because my sons went to Moldova to support Wales and came back and told me, ‘Good God, you should have heard them singing your song!’ But that experience at the Austria game [on 24 March] was overwhelming. All those years of singing in small village halls and pubs and chapels, singing a song that meant so much to me, and suddenly it was as if the whole nation was singing it back to me.
At the Ukraine game [on 5 June], there were mixed feelings – I felt that my song was as relevant to them as to us, you know – despite everything that’s happening in Ukraine, they’re ‘still here’. It’s the anthem of the survival of small, oppressed nations, if you like.2For English subtitles, see youtube.com.
There’s something about songs which goes beyond language and sometimes you can get the message without understanding the words. The number of people who’ve told me: I had goosebumps, I was crying, the hair was standing up on the back of my neck…
If we could put everything into words, we wouldn’t need music, would we?
Can we go back to your beginnings? I’ve read that your dad was a Nonconformist minister.
He was an Annibynnwr, or Independent. My grandfather, also, was a Nonconformist minister. (He was also one of the founding members of Plaid Cymru, the Welsh national party.)3plaid.cymru
Did you have a strict upbringing?
I wouldn’t call it strict, but, you know, chapel two or three times every Sunday…
What kind of values did it instil in you?
Chapels were very important in Welsh culture – they still are to some extent. When I was young, the chapel, or the Sunday school or the Band of Hope, was where you learnt to read and write, to sing, read music and take part in competitions. That’s where I had the first taste of performing to an audience and getting a reaction. I took part in competitions from a very early age in the chapel, and then at the village eisteddfod4A competitive festival of music and poetry the winners from each chapel competed against each other.
What saved the language to a great extent was that the chapels became schools and used the Welsh translation of the Bible as the textbook. As far as I knew, Jesus was a Welsh-speaker
From a Christian point of view, in my father’s sermons I heard about the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and the campaign for equal rights in North America, and the arguments against nuclear bombs and so on. He was very much a social preacher, if you like, and his sermons very often were world-encompassing and talked of the wider issues of peace and international co-operation.
There was tension between his politics and the politics of the area, because most of his deacons were colliers and very much supporters of the Labour Party, but my father was a Plaid Cymru man. At the time, it wasn’t easy to be a nationalist preacher and you had to be careful. (But things have changed: Brynaman these days is very, very strong for Plaid Cymru.)
I grew up in the Valleys, where even the left regarded Welsh as a backward language and if you wanted to be an internationalist you had to use the medium of English. That’s obviously not your position.
No, but there’s a lot of truth in that. I mean, there were several things working against the Welsh language. One of them was this benign imperialism of the English, if you like, who really thought that they were doing us a favour by doing away with this old language which was holding us back. Some of the founding fathers of the Labour Party, like Keir Hardie, were very strong for the language and [for] self-government for Wales, but that soon dissipated.
A lot of the meetings of the Labour Party, especially in west Wales, were held in Welsh; but they disliked the growth of nationalism, because they thought it was parochial and backward-looking, and also a political threat to them. So, they tried to give the impression that they were for everything Welsh; but when we started setting up Welsh-medium schools, very often the Labour Party were opposed. It’s great now to be able to say that all the parties in the Senedd support the Welsh language – at least in theory.
Of course, this process of denying the native population their own heritage was going on in other [places], too, like North America and Africa and India, and in the colonies of New Zealand and Australia. The British Empire thought it was doing the world a favour by teaching everybody English and teaching them Christianity through the English Bible.
What saved the language to a great extent in Wales was that the chapels became schools and used the Welsh translation of the Bible as the textbook. As far as I knew, Jesus was a Welsh-speaker. This was different to the situation in Ireland, for instance, where the Catholic Church used Latin or English and was very slow to use Irish.
In Wales, in trying to save our souls they also saved our language.
You do a bit of preaching yourself, don’t you?
I do – I have done for the last 40 years or so. I stick to the New Testament and it’s basically on the same theme all the time. I see Christ as a man who wanted to change things and didn’t shy from criticising the powers that be, and the message of [his] parables is that we can renew our lives through his words and his deeds.
Fundamental to my understanding of the world – and Christianity is very much a part of it – is that we should not be satisfied with things as they are. If things are amiss, we have a chance to put them right and I think Christianity gives you the tools, or the weapons, right, to fight for justice. So, I’ve always seen [these things] going hand in hand. Campaigns to promote peace and understanding and co-operation, to get equality for the Welsh language at home or equality for the different races in other countries, these are very much linked to what I see as the message of Christianity – and the Welsh language was the vehicle for all this.
I only write my songs in Welsh, and they’re not hymns but there is a religious undercurrent to many of them, right? Something I come back to all the time is that God can speak to us through nature, and I go out into the country, onto the mountain, to find God, or to find the history of my own country.
In any nationalist movement you have people who make a hero of anybody who throws a bomb, but I think we’ve proven in Wales that we can succeed without resorting to violence
That is very much a part of my philosophy, that God created this world for us and it is through nature very often that we can hear God speak. And, of course, the protection of nature is a very important part of our mission as Christian people, and by looking after God’s creation we are protecting future generations as well.
Jesus spoke Aramaic, a language that is now almost extinct. Do you think that in his worldview it matters whether you or I speak in Welsh?
I think that, just as it’s our duty to look after the environment, it’s our duty to look after our cultural environment as well. And since the Welsh language has been such a part of our lives for generations, yes, it’s important that we hang on to it. Not that it’s superior to any other language, but it is our own. In that sense, the medium is the message.
Your musical influences include the American folk tradition…
One of the first songs I sang was Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land is Your Land’, which I transposed into a Welsh context. The more I learn about Woody Guthrie, the more I admire him, because he was somewhat a communist and he used song as a means of communicating his feelings about his country and the suffering of the people during the Depression.
The first version of ‘This Land is Your Land’ [said that] ‘God made this land for you and me.’ There was a song [in Welsh] written earlier by R J Derfel, who was also of communist leanings, about giving the land back to the people. So, you have these common themes coming through in songs: it’s not your land, it’s not my land, it’s ours.
Pete Seeger was very much a man I modelled myself on as a performer, because he sang about the campaigns of Martin Luther King and in concerts he used to talk between the verses, saying things like: ‘Come down to Birmingham, Alabama next Saturday, we’ll have another march.’ I thought, ‘What a great way to spread the word,’ you know?
The flooding of the Tryweryn valley [in 1965, to provide water for Liverpool]5wikipedia.org/…/Tryweryn_flooding seems to have been a formative moment in your development…
Well, I think it was quite a formative episode in the history of modern Wales, because it brought into sharp perspective our lack of control. Every Welsh MP, apart from one Tory, voted against the Bill, but of course it made no difference. [The village of Capel Celyn in the Tryweryn valley] was only a small rural community, but it was Welsh-speaking, very vibrant and culturally alive. Tryweryn has always been in the background of not only my songs but a lot of the political campaigning which has gone on since then.
A cousin of yours was arrested for bombing the site. How did you decide what your own response should be?
I’ve always been opposed to the use of bombs of any kind. My cousin did take part in setting an explosive device under one of the transformers [on the dam construction site] and he went to prison for a year for it. He is not sorry he did it, but soon after he decided that it would be more prudent and more productive to use non-violent means. He’s very much a pacifist…
But you were happy to be arrested for painting over road signs, for example.
As a member of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg, the Welsh Language Society, I spoke out openly against the use of explosive devices, and that made me quite unpopular with some of the nationalists at the time; but there was always a danger to life if you used explosive devices, and [anyway] we couldn’t win a military war against England.
Basically, I’m a pacifist and I think that the non-violent methods of Gandhi and Martin Luther King are in the end more effective. In any nationalist movement you have people who make a hero of anybody who carries a gun or throws a bomb; but I think we’ve proven in Wales that we can [succeed] without resorting to violence.
I had anonymous letters threatening my life, and some strange things sent through the post. They were desperate times; but you have to go through periods of unpopularity before people change their minds
But Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg has used very radical, and sometimes illegal, methods of bringing attention to injustice, so, yes, I was fined for painting over road signs, or conspiring for others to take them down, and I went to prison a few times for non-payment. They used the ancient conspiracy laws when they couldn’t prove anything directly.
During the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, hundreds of people, mostly young but not only young people, were imprisoned for Welsh-language campaigns. I think that’s one of the untold stories of Wales, because it showed the strength of our determination to save the language and create conditions to allow it to flourish. Of course, running parallel with all that was the setting up of Welsh-medium schools in all parts of Wales, mainly through the campaigning of parents – many of whom were non-Welsh-speaking themselves.
It’s been a long story, but it’s a long story of success. The struggle is not over – all minority languages throughout the world are fated to fight forever – but at least we’ve created the conditions to make the future success of the Welsh language a real possibility.
You’re a very affable man, and nowadays a very popular one; but there was a time in the Sixties when even Welsh-speakers spat at you in the street because of your satirical song ‘Carlo’ about the Prince of Wales.6youtube.com
I had anonymous letters threatening my life in English and in Welsh, and some strange things sent through the post. People used to look at the Royal Family as kind of supernatural beings, almost godlike, you know, and to criticise the young Prince of Wales was the worst thing you could do as far as some people were concerned.
By then, stories abounded about ambulances losing their way to the hospital because Dafydd Iwan had painted over the road signs, so you had a combination of that with, you know, daring to oppose [the 1969 investiture of the Prince of Wales,] this wonderful royal ceremony which we had been given by the London government to boost the popularity of Wales around the world.
In fact, it was a bit of a damp squib. They had acres and acres of fields around here where the buses were supposed to park, but they were empty. A lot of money had been spent to whip up support for it and Charles had a trip through Wales, and I happened to be travelling through Bala at the same time as the crowds were out waiting for him. That’s when I was spat at and I was lucky to get away in one piece, because my car was covered with anti-investiture posters and they thought I was there on purpose!
They were desperate times; but my view, then and now, is that you have to go through periods like that, periods of unpopularity, if you like, [before] people change their minds, or at least are shaken enough to reassess the situation. Within a few years, I was living a couple of miles from Caernarfon Castle, and I’m still there. And now if I have a concert in Caernarfon I always ask, ‘What would you like me to sing now?’ and invariably they say ‘Carlo’. I don’t think people are so mad about the Monarchy any more.
You met Prince Charles eventually, didn’t you?
They were making a programme about me 50 years on after the investiture and out of the blue the producer said, ‘Would you meet him if we arranged it?’ and I couldn’t think of a good reason to say no. It was shortly after the [murder] of the MP Jo Cox and there was a lot of hatred around, and those feelings that led eventually to Brexit, which included, certainly, a degree of hiliaeth, racism.
So, I felt: Why shouldn’t I meet this man I’ve been deriding for 50 years? I know he’s a reasonable man, despite his background, and I think it’s important to show that you can have a decent discussion with somebody you are completely opposed to politically and yet you don’t have to hate. That was my thinking – and I was quite looking forward to it in the end.
I told him that I think that the future for Britain, of independent countries working together, will be far more interesting and far more efficient in the long run. He didn’t offer any counter-argument, he just said that he’s very anxious to understand the politics of all the parts of Britain so that he can be prepared for the future. He also suggested, quite strongly, that he was a prisoner of his circumstances but would use his position to promote the things he thought were important.
The nationalism I profess is internationalist. I believe that we, the people living in Wales, must use our resources, our tradition and our genius for the best here in Wales and as a contribution to the world
So, we had a very interesting discussion, because I concur with him on things like the natural [world] and climate change and the importance of tradition, of traditional crafts and traditional music – and the spiritual world. We agree on many, many things. When he was reading the Queen’s Speech recently on behalf of his mother, it was obvious that he disagreed with most of it!7youtube.com
Did your meeting with him change your point of view at all?
No, no. I don’t suppose it changed anything with him, either.
Jo Cox was murdered by a white supremacist who reportedly shouted ‘Britain first!’ Many people, when they hear of nationalism, think of that kind of toxic attitude…
Well, there’s always a danger in nationalism. Like Christianity, in the wrong hands it can be a very dangerous tool. I like to think that the nationalism I profess in Wales is an internationalist outlook [that wants to] keep what is good in the Welsh tradition and in Welsh culture, believing that we, the people living in Wales, must do our best to use our resources, our tradition and our genius for the best here in Wales and as a contribution to the world.
I think [that] small countries have a great contribution to make to the world. Not so very long ago, I used to think of places like Estonia and Lithuania and Latvia [as] ‘poor things’, you know, under the Soviet Union with no freedom – and look at them now! They’re independent countries, in the European Union and doing very, very well, not only economically but culturally and in sports and so on. There has been a release of their potential, and I really believe that that would happen in Wales.
I think it’s happening anyway, you know, because there is a growth of confidence, a growth of belief in ourselves. And it takes various forms. For instance, many pubs that have been closed down by the breweries have been bought by the local community and rejuvenated, and are being used as community hubs, as places to congregate.
In our little village of Caeathro, we’ve changed the chapel into a chapel and community centre. Other societies use it and it’s working very well – I think that’s the model for the future, trying to bring Christianity into the life of the community.
Suppose the United Kingdom disintegrates and Wales becomes an independent, sovereign nation. Everybody who lives in Wales would become a Welsh citizen. Would they all be Welsh?
I mean, we do suffer a lot in the west because so many people come to live here in second homes or holiday homes or retirement homes and so there is a dilution of the Welsh element, if you like; but no, yes, when we become an independent nation all people living in Wales would be citizens of Wales. Whether they would want to see themselves as Welsh is another thing, of course,8See wikipedia.org/…/Demography_of_Wales#National_identity. but I hope that by then it will be such an attractive proposition that they will see themselves as Welsh.
So, being Welsh is something that anyone can opt into if they like?
Yes. There will be degrees of Welshness probably, but I’m not one of those people who says, you know, ‘I’m more Welsh than you.’ There’s no point in that. I mean, a community can be varied and of all faiths and of all traditions. We have to realise that there are far more than two languages spoken in Wales, so…
Basically, the thing is to be very firm about the importance of the Welsh language without denigrating other languages and without denying other people the right to follow their own cultures. I mean, other countries are doing it – and it’s never easy, but we have to think of a different model than the one in England, where the idea of controlling immigration comes from rather an unpleasant place. I think that what we practise in Wales under the present [Welsh] government, making Wales a welcoming nation,9See wales.cityofsanctuary.org. is the way to go forward. With all the problems it entails, we’re far better moving in that direction than saying we’ve got to close the borders.
People ask me: Why don’t I sing in English? Wouldn’t it make more sense if I sang in a language more people understand? But I write in Welsh because Welsh is me. The language is absolutely central to my identity
I was partly thinking about how people like me would fit in, I suppose. My grandparents spoke the language but were forbidden in school to speak it and didn’t pass it on down to me. My story is very different from yours but I feel that it is still really Welsh.
Oh, I accept that. It’s got to be part of the story, got to be part of the story, yeah. And what I’ve experienced after the [recent success of] ‘Yma o Hyd’ is so many people who don’t speak Welsh talking to me in the street or sending an email or a tweet to say how much they’ve enjoyed being part of a crowd singing [that song]. We’ve got to see the language not as a divisive force but as something that unites us, even if you don’t speak Welsh. I mean, the language does unite us, through your grandparents, and through your history.
When Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg started in ’62, there was one Welsh-medium school in Cardiff and it was mainly for well-off, middle-class Welsh-speakers. Now there are 18 or 19 large primary schools in Cardiff teaching through the medium of Welsh. Yes, we’ve got a long way to go, but I think we’re on the right track.
What does the language mean to you personally? What would you lose if you didn’t have it?
Oh, I just couldn’t envisage life without it. I mean, I live 95 per cent of my life through Welsh…
Can you put your finger on the difference between thinking in Welsh and thinking in English?
Well, a lot of people ask me: Why don’t I sing in English if I want to get a message across? Wouldn’t it make more sense if I sang in a language more people understand? Now, that’s quite true, but I write in Welsh because Welsh is me and – again, the medium is the message, you know.
If you take it away, you take away an essential part of me. I understand you’re Welsh but you don’t have much of the language, so it’s different for you. I’m not trying to define Welshness, I’m just saying what I am. There are different forms of Welshness, but as far as I’m concerned the language is absolutely central [to my identity].
There are words like hiraeth and cwtsh that don’t really translate very well, so the language can express some things that English can’t; but is there a feeling to the language that is different?
You know, [Welsh is] not simply words but words that have been sung for centuries in hymns and folk songs, words that have been read in the Bible for centuries. Language is not just a means of communication; language is a depository of centuries of history, and life…
Hiraeth is such a beautiful word – so rich with meaning! It means so much more than ‘nostalgia’. It is a yearning for all that has gone before, all that is lost, and all that is yet to be. Hiraeth is full of sadness, and full of happiness – it can’t be translated into any other language.
To make sure you hear of future interviews in this series, follow High Profiles on Facebook or Twitter or join our mailing list.
|⇑2||For English subtitles, see youtube.com.|
|⇑4||A competitive festival of music and poetry|
To find out more about the agenda behind our interviews, read our manifesto. To access our archive of more than 260 interviews, see the full list.
Dafydd Iwan was born in 1943 in the village of Brynaman in the Brecon Beacons. When he was 12, his family moved to Llanuwchllyn near Bala, where he was educated at Ysgol Tŷ Tan Domen.
After a preparatory year at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth (now Aberystwyth University), he studied at Cardiff School of Architecture, graduating in 1968.
Having performed at many eisteddfodau as a boy, in 1965 he was ‘discovered’ by Welsh-language TV and given a weekly slot on the TWW news and current affairs programme Y Dydd. The sleeve notes on his first EP, ‘Myn Duw, Mi a Wn y Daw’, released in 1966, declared him ‘perhaps the first modern Welsh-language singer to become a teenage idol’.
Initially, he sang Welsh translations of songs by artists such as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, but he then began to write his own ballads. The most notable of these were political, such as the satirical song ‘Carlo’, written for the investiture of Charles, Prince of Wales in 1969.
From 1968 to 1971, he was chair of the Welsh language society Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (which he had joined in 1964). He spent three weeks in jail in 1970 for his refusal to pay fines for defacing English-language road signs.
In 1969, he co-founded the record label Sain Recordiau. He was its managing director from 1982 to 2004, and remains a director.
He co-founded Cymdeithas Tai Gwynedd (Gwynedd Housing Association) in 1971 and was its secretary until 1982.
Having joined Plaid Cymru (which his paternal grandfather had co-founded in 1925) as a boy and chaired its youth section in the early 1960s, he was elected chair of the party for 1982–4. He later served as its vice-president from 2001 to ’03 and then as its president until 2010.
He sat on Gwynedd Council from 1986 to 2008, and has run for both the British and European parliaments, without success.
He recorded his first album, Yma Mae ’Nghân (‘Here’s a Song’), in 1972. It was followed by 16 more – Fuoch Chi Rioed yn Morio (1973), Mae’r Darnau yn Disgyn i’w Lle (1976), Yn Ôl I Gwm Rhyd-y-Rhosyn (1977), Bod yn Rhydd (1979), Gwyliau Yng Nghwm-Rhyd-y-Rhosyn and Ar Dân (both 1981), Gwinllan a Roddwyd (1986), Ar ras i Gwm Rhyd y Rhosyn (1989), Dal I Gredu (1991), Caneuon Gwerin (1993), Cân Celt (1995), Yn Fyw Cyfrol 1 (2001), Yn Fyw Cyfrol 2 (2002), Man Gwyn (2007), Dos I Ganu (2009) and Emynau (2015) – as well as two with the folk band Ar Log: Rhwng Hwyl a Thaith (1982) and Yma o Hyd (1983).
His single ‘Yma o Hyd’ (‘Still Here’), released in 1983, reached #1 in the UK iTunes chart in 2020, and again in 2022.
He is the author of Cân dros Gymru [‘A Song for Wales’] (2002), Pobol [‘People’] (2015) and Rhywle Fel Hyn [‘Somewhere Like This’] (2021).
He has presented three series of ‘Yma Mae ’Nghân’ on S4C.
He is a member of the Welsh Academy, a fellow of the Institute of Welsh Affairs, chair of the music publishing company Cwmni Cyhoeddi Gwynn and a trustee of the Clough Williams-Ellis Foundation, which owns Portmeirion. He is a Nonconformist lay preacher.
He was made an honorary member of the Gorsedd of Bards at the 1971 National Eisteddfod. He has received an honorary doctorate from the University of Wales and is an honorary fellow of Aberystwyth, Bangor and Cardiff Universities.
He married for the second time in 1988, and has five adult children: a daughter and four sons.
Up-to-date as at 1 August 2022