Happy St. David’s day, or as the Welsh might put it themselves, dydd gwyl Dewi hapus [deedth goo-eel …] It’s a day when thousands of small Welsh girls are asking their mothers, ‘Do I really have to wear this funny hat?’ and ‘Why can’t I just be cool, like Cerys Matthews?’
Today is the day that Welsh people celebrate the birth of their native saint, just as we Irish will celebrate our own St. Patrick in a couple of weeks. Except, of course, that St. Patrick was probably also a Welshman, kidnapped by marauding Irish gangsters in the early fifth century. Happily, the generous Welsh are content to let us pretend he was Irish and don’t seem overly concerned that he exiled the snakes here while leaving them to their own devices in Wales. If he had that Harry Potter-like power he could at least have banished them across Offa’s dyke to England.
The reason the Welsh are so laid back about St.Patrick is that they have St. David, who died on 1 March 589, hence the feast day. St. David’s day is, of course, indelibly associated with the daffodil. However, given the pace of climate change and the growth of daffodils in December, the Welsh now have the option of moving his feast day to the 1 January and sharing Hogmanay with the Scots.
St.David, or Dewi in Welsh, established up to twelve monasteries across Wales in the sixth century and was canonised in 1120 at a time when the Welsh were trying to resist the incursions of the Normans. Half a century later they had given up the ghost on that one and it was the Irish who were trying to beat back the forces of the Norman/Welsh adventurer, Strongbow, Earl of Pembroke. Call it sweet revenge for kidnapping St.Patrick.
Welsh people like to celebrate St. David’s Day by eating traditional food, dressing up in national costume (which includes those distinctive hats I was talking about) and beating England in the Six Nations championship. Of course, they are not unique in that respect. Everyone likes beating England in the Six Nations. But no one sings quite like the Welsh as they do so. Even St. David himself, who has, after all, been dead for one and a half millennia, sits up and takes notice when a Welsh rugby crowd launches into the stirring and haunting Hen Wlad Fy Nadau [Hane wlad vee nadhai] or Land of My Fathers which somehow always manages to eclipse God Save the Queen even at Twickenham.
The English haven’t always enjoyed Welsh celebrations of St. David’s Day. Back in the days of the celebrated diarist Samuel Pepys he recorded how Welsh celebrations in London would give rise to caustic English reactions, which often led to the lynching—thankfully in effigy only—of life-sized Welsh characters. A century later the English also liked to bake cute little gingerbread confectionery figures of a Welshman sitting astride a goat. These became known as ‘taffies’, which is why today Welsh people appreciate being called ‘Taffy’ by an Englishman about as much as an Irish person just longs to be called ‘Paddy’.
One thing the Welsh have so far not managed to achieve is to turn St. David’s Day into a national holiday, even though, in 2000, the Welsh Assembly voted unanimously for this to happen. Apparently Tony Blair wasn’t keen on the idea, obviously, it was insufficiently Third Way-ish, and couldn’t be farmed out to the private sector.
Now when it comes to the Welsh flag there is an assumption that the distinctive banner of a red dragon on a green and white background, is the symbol of St. David himself. But that flag has nothing whatever to do with the Welsh national saint and doesn’t include any of his iconographies. He has that in common with his fellow countryman Patrick, whose traditional colour is St. Patrick’s blue, which doesn’t feature in the Irish flag. St. David’s symbol is a dramatic golden cross on a black background. The Welsh flag is actually, and ironically, the emblem of a line of British kings and queens, albeit one that originated in Wales, the Tudors. In 1485 one of the members of that house, Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, defeated King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field, under the banner of the red dragon, and became Henry VII of England and Wales.
In much the same way as the Irish green, white and gold tricolour superseded the more traditional golden harp on a green background, the Tudor flag became the acknowledged emblem of Wales ahead of St. David’s golden cross on a black background.
So, is the rampant red dragon the flag of the patron saint of Wales? I’m afraid not. That’s fake history.