In an exclusive St David’s Day interview, the legendary singer and Welsh language activist speaks to Theo Davies-Lewis about the future of Wales

Dafydd Iwan tells me even though he would like to be interviewed in Welsh, English is fine.

Ironically, we chat in our mother tongue before I press record and spend the next hour speaking, among other things, about the future of Cymraeg.

Iwan, the most recognisable Welsh language musician of the last century, is a hero to many but particularly the nationalist movement. Most would comfortably put him in the same bracket – maybe even on a higher pedestal – than Gwynfor Evans and Saunders Lewis. His influence on Wales’ battle for self-governance and the survival of Welsh-speaking communities is immeasurable.

Half a century after he released Yma Mae 'Nghân, his voice booms as he gives a lecture on the political history of modern Wales. I sit there, listening intently.

His political ramblings are almost as recognisable as the battle cries that characterise so many of his songs: an eclectic mix of music that brings out a Glyndŵr-like spirit in listeners. Fifty years is a long time for someone to fight for his country’s right to self-determination, I think, but Iwan knows politics can shift more quickly in a matter of days, weeks or months.

The National Wales: Dafydd performs at 2008's Grand Slam Celebration Party (Picture: Huw Evans Agency)Dafydd performs at 2008's Grand Slam Celebration Party (Picture: Huw Evans Agency)

The co-operation agreement between Welsh Labour and Iwan’s beloved Plaid Cymru, for example, would “not have been possible before the pandemic,” he says. “It's now possible because the Labour party has moved significantly towards the idea of what we would call independence; what they would call self-determination or home rule.”

This bipartisanship is welcomed by Iwan as one which is preparing for a “more independent Wales” as part of a “new collection of nations in Britain.”

The internal re-alignment of Welsh Labour’s views on devolution and especially the Welsh language has taken decades.

Iwan is at pains to emphasise this point but recognises the work figures from Rhodri Morgan to Jeremy Miles have done as Welsh speakers to recognise how the language is “intrinsically important” to the country. Iwan, who was Plaid Cymru president from 2003-2010, is right to assert that the nationalist party has “influence beyond its numbers” and “changed the context” of Welsh politics.

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But most essential to Iwan is Cymraeg. It is the artery of Wales he has championed so often in his music. 

Yma o Hyd, the protest ballad which topped the iTunes chart in 2020, speaks to the survival of the Welsh people - but more remarkably, their mother tongue. When it was released in the 1980s, it sparked a revived campaign to ensure the language’s place in public life was protected. Now it is an anthem heard in sports stadiums, nationalist rallies and in the Spotify playlists of thousands.

Despite enormous gains to support its survival, most notably the Welsh government strategy Cymraeg 2050 and cross-party consensus to protect Welsh-speaking communities, Iwan has a warning for the future. Now is the time to ensure the language is taken “out of party politics,” years after he and activists in Cymdeithas yr Iaith brought it into the political sphere.

“We are now working together to create the conditions which will allow the language to grow,” Iwan says, clinical about why we need to do so.

“The fight [for the language] is our life, and there is a sense that is true for Wales as well. If Wales gives up the fight to retain its character, its individuality, its Welshness, then we’ve had it.”

It is rare to interview someone so committed to a single, unbreakable cause.

I hear, time and again, about how the Welsh language’s survival is the “struggle” of Wales and gives its people meaning. Those who are antagonistic toward Cymric individuality, mostly English columnists, behave in such a way because Wales is becoming “too strong” and “flexing [its] muscles.” 

The National Wales: Cymdeithas yr Iaith's Niw yw Cymru ar Werth campaign against the housing crisis last year saw protests up and down the country. (Picture: Rebecca Wilks)Cymdeithas yr Iaith's Niw yw Cymru ar Werth campaign against the housing crisis last year saw protests up and down the country. (Picture: Rebecca Wilks)

What has kept the language alive, in some ways, is that Wales is cut-off: by mountains and rivers, but also unique religious revivals and cultural festivals like the Eisteddfod.

“There’s always this tension between carrying on doing things in Welsh… and bringing other people into the Welsh language culture,” Iwan says.

“That’s happening in a very interesting way these days. But it’s always a problem we can’t get away from.”

Does an independent Wales solve such a problem?

In the opening lecture of Plaid Cymru’s first summer conference in 1926, Saunders Lewis encouraged those present “first of all, not to seek independence.” He prioritised saving a Welsh-speaking Wales to creating a self-governing one.

This choice is not “binary”, according to Iwan. But he knows better than most the lessons from other independent states such as Ireland, where the “significance of speaking Irish sort-of diminished.”

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Iwan is certain that we’ve passed that point in Wales. “I don't think we face the same dangers as Ireland.”

Instead, there is momentum with those who seek greater Welsh distinctiveness both in political and cultural terms.

In fact, Iwan thinks that in Wales we are “very close” to a majority supporting independence. He gives several reasons, but the unpopularity of the UK government is key. Just like Margaret Thatcher, Boris Johnson is an “enemy of Wales as a political entity”, Iwan says.

“As far as I can see, [the UK government] is prepared to sacrifice Ireland and Northern Ireland… They probably think that Wales will always be a part of western England. So, I think this period of extreme British, English Toryism is going to help the cause.”

In spite of his enduring campaign to defend Wales and its culture, Iwan has also been willing to speak to those people who he fundamentally disagrees with.

On St David’s Day the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will be in Wales – the latest sign that the royal family are not only thinking of future King Charles III but the next Prince and Princess of Wales.

Iwan is an avowed republican. The role and history of the Prince of Wales seems to fit uniquely as one which represents everything he has campaigned against. Indeed, his controversial tune Carlo mocked Prince Charles around the time of his investiture in Caernarfon. A few years ago, he met the future King for the first time during an S4C documentary, Y Prins a Fi. The image of the language protestor with the future British Monarch outside Llwynywermod, Charles’ home in rural Carmarthenshire, was striking.

The National Wales: The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge at this weekend's Six Nations match. (Picture: PA Wire)The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge at this weekend's Six Nations match. (Picture: PA Wire)

Iwan sees escalating calls for the Prince of Wales title to be scrapped as something that the royal family will be “very wary” of, and that an investiture for the next Prince will be a “very low-key affair.”

His impression when he spoke to the Prince of Wales was of a royal who “was very conscious of his position” and “aware of the strong growth of nationalism in Scotland and Wales.” The man who mocked Charles for playing polo liked and respected the man he met.

But his fundamental views haven’t changed.

“I think the royal family are in dire straits these days,” he continues. “And they will have to reconfigure and reinvent themselves. Perhaps Charles will be the one to do it. Because he's more open minded than most of them.”

Iwan adds that the heir to the throne could be a “very unhappy monarch.” The priority for Wales, I am reminded, is to sort-out governance first. “The royal family will have to find their place.”

I am struck in our conversation that Iwan was not certain Prince William would actually become Prince of Wales.

“I am not a constitutional expert but I don’t think it’s absolutely carved in stone. But I think it could be a very toned-down thing. He’ll probably have the title with a host of other titles… Prince of Wales is one of those titles he’ll inherit. And they’ll probably find a room in City Hall in Cardiff to have the ceremony!” He chuckles mischievously.

We turn to the Welsh language music scene.

Not only has Iwan produced some of the most iconic tracks during the twentieth century, but he also set up the record label Sain to promote Welsh language music, with the likes of Meic Stevens and Bryn Terfel recording with the company. I ask whether there is another Dafydd Iwan waiting in the wings. “There’s a lot of them around!”

The National Wales: Protestors at a Nid yw Cymru ar Werth protest outside the Senedd. (Picture: Rebecca Wilks)Protestors at a Nid yw Cymru ar Werth protest outside the Senedd. (Picture: Rebecca Wilks)

Iwan was initially worried that as bands such as Super Furry Animals and Catatonia started switching from Welsh to English language lyrics, it was the end of Welsh pop rock music. “But it wasn’t. I think it's one of the wonders of modern civilization: the strength of the Welsh pop, rock scene.”

The only sad thing for Iwan is that it is “very difficult” for bands to survive. “You have a group emerging, with a lot of talent and who write great songs, and they can't survive because they have to find jobs and split up.”

Iwan is clear that while there is “not enough backing to the Welsh music industry”, the number of new bands, singers and composers coming along is “quite astounding.”

Again, this “huge conveyor belt of talent” speaks to encouraging signs in an enduring Welsh culture.

“There's a resilience in the language which has surprised people like me,” he says. “Every day I hear young people speaking on radio, television – experts in their field – as entertainers or as sports scientists... And they're Welsh is fantastic because they've had Welsh medium education.”

Looking ahead, then, is not all bad. But the future of Wales is not a question of being optimistic, at least if you are Dafydd Iwan. The country he loves has a sense of “fighting against the odds.” Wales is fitted to “struggle for our very existence and recognition… That is a healthy position to be in as long as we don’t become obsessed with it.”

Some in the national movement do, as Iwan puts it, almost enjoy saying it’s two minutes to midnight or that “we’re about to disappear from the face of the earth.”

“No way! We are not giving up now!” Iwan exclaims. That’s why he wrote Yma o Hyd. “We are facing great odds. Other languages disappear. Other small nations have disappeared. But we're not giving up now. After all these centuries, we will probably be here after England.” He lets out a big chuckle.

But if history tells us anything, it's the Welsh have staying power. Iwan may be laughing but he is not joking. And if the last two years have taught us anything, neither are the Welsh.

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