Iolo Morganwg, the 1970s Welsh rugby team, and identity

Gareth Edwards

When I was a boy in Wales in the 1970s, the Welsh rugby team dominated the world. It was our Golden Age.

In those days, Rugby Union was an amateur game, not a professional one. Players were not paid for playing for their club, or even for representing their country. They all had full-time jobs and, in Wales at least, many of the players were working class. Indeed, to play for their country, many of them had to take unpaid time off from their job. If they won an important match, they would be bathed in triumph on the pitch… but on Monday morning they would be back at work down the coal mine, or in the steelworks or the engineering plant.

It was, and remains, the same thing with the Chaired Bards of the Welsh National Eisteddfod: they win the highest cultural prize the nation can bestow… and then they go back to their day job and, while many of course have some kind of literary career in publishing, or in ministry, we never forget that one of our most famous poets was a farmer and shepherd.

In Wales, therefore, (and I focus on Wales not to deny that other countries are the same, but because it’s what I know), we’ve traditionally understood that people have complex identities and overlapping roles.

In more recent years, though, in Wales as elsewhere, we seem to have lost this understanding. Life everywhere has become more compartmentalised. Perhaps it’s the ever-growing demand for productivity: that we should work harder and harder, for longer and longer hours (and usually for someone else’s profit margins). People only seem to see each other now in terms of one role, and that’s usually the job they do.

To give a personal example, there was a time in my life when I worked in the IT industry. I became aware that people were relating to me only as an ‘IT guy’, as if I couldn’t also speak with some authority on other things, perhaps from previous career experience, or because it was something I’d studied in my own time. I suspect there are people who still see me in that light, despite me not having worked in that industry for nearly two decades.

We see the same thing when, every so often, an actor or a singer speaks out on some political or social topic important to them. Celebrities should stick to their day job, comes the chorus, celebrities shouldn’t get involved in politics, what right do they have? Well, they have every right. They are not just celebrities: they are citizens. And every citizen has the right to involve themselves in politics. We might even say they have the duty to get involved in politics. Because, if they don’t, we surrender control of our lives to a narrow, self-defined and self-contained class who will colonise the management of society as their own exclusive domain.

What does this have to do with Druidry?

First of all, it’s to recognize and welcome that the path of Druidry specifically aims to develop a multi-discplinary body of expertise in those who follow it. As Bardic students, we study poetry and music, communication and rhetoric, community and family history, and the broader fields of human culture. As Ovates, we learn about the natural world: its properties and behaviour. We study time, and its peculiarities. We study divination, and pattern-recognition. We study the human mind and body and healing. As Druids, we learn about law, and moral philosophy, and human society. We learn about the Gods. At all levels, we learn to become teachers and guides for those around us. Druids, whatever their grade, are difficult to categorize and label!

And that brings me back to Iolo Morganwg. It was Iolo’s genius, and spiritual vision, which shaped modern Druidry and yet many of us have never even heard of him. Far too many of those who do know his name, disparage him – because for nearly two hundred years now his legacy and talent have simply been too vast for people who insist on trying to pin a label on him so that they can narrowly define him, trying to make him fit within their own restricted views. Often, our understanding of him has been shaped by those who loathed him because they could not match him. For others, he was the wrong class, or the wrong nationality, and so he has been marginalised by later writers because he was inconvenient.

I think it’s time to start a series of posts to draw out the extent of Iolo’s talent and achievement so that he can be placed firmly back at the centre of the Welsh tradition of Druidry.

For periods of his life, he was drawn to emigrate, to leave the suffocating regime of the United Kingdom, and to live a life of Liberty in the newly-independent United States. I am convinced that if he had, he would have become a spiritual leader as influental as his near-contemporaries Joseph Smith and Baháʼu’lláh.

Instead, though, he stayed, and tried to change the country of his birth, and he succeeded. He was:

  • one of the most talented poets ever to have written in Welsh; he was recognized as such by his peers, and by later experts;
  • a leading campaigner for religious freedom and tolerance, whose work contributed to the end of Anglican establishment, and the combined rule of Church and State;
  • a lifelong supporter of political reform, of liberty, and of human rights – a friend of Tom Paine; his poetry read by George Washington – who was targeted by the police and supporters of monarchy;
  • a passionate opponent of slavery, and an early practitioner of what we today would call Fair Trade;
  • a collector of folklore;
  • a man knowledgable about Hinduism, and the Kabbala;
  • an experimenter and researcher of agriculture and the natural world;
  • a dedicated defender of the weak, who gave free legal assistance to the poor, uneducated, and vulnerable, so that they might defend their rights against the powerful in a court of law.

All of this, and more. He was a man of many, many, talents and qualities. He cannot be seen simply from a single perspective, or dismissed lightly.

It is also needed to understand him because, as I noted before, this is the man, and the mind, which shaped the Druidry of his times, and of ours. It is important to understand that his powerful religious vision was inspired by the knowledge of the world through many disciplines, and by a personal experience of struggle against oppression. I hope to look at some of these in future posts.

Image credits: Gareth JPR Edwards by Walt Jabsco on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons licence.

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