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Wednesday, 3 July, 2002, 09:02 GMT 10:02 UK
Americans discover Welsh roots
Le Moyne college, Syracuse,
Le Moyne College hosted the Welsh conference

They may not have the high profile of the Irish or the Scots, but the Welsh are certainly starting to make an impact in North America.

The success of film stars such as Sir Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta Jones and Ioan Gruffudd has definitely flown the flag for Wales.

And in the less glitzy realms of American academia too, there has been a groundswell of interest in the study of Wales and the Welsh, 4,000 miles away.

In the last week of June, around 100 academics and students gathered at Le Moyne College in Syracuse in upstate New York for the fourth North American Conference on Welsh Studies.

Welsh poet Twm Morys
Welsh poet Twm Morys performs at Syracuse

The conference is the product of the North American Association for the Study of Welsh Culture and History, a body set up eight years ago as part of the growing interest in the field.

Unlike long-established events like the National Welsh Gymanfa Ganu, which serves as a celebration of identity for the millions of Americans of Welsh descent, this conference is no hiraeth-fest.

It did feature the performances of Welsh poets such as Twm Morys, Nigel Jenkins and Iwan Llwyd, but primarily, it was a serious academic study of subjects as diverse as: Feminism and Welsh Nationalism in the 1890s; the Welsh in the Carolinas in the 18th Century, and Constructing the Future in an Emerging Wales.

NAASWCH banner
The National Association for the Study of Welsh Culture and History

One of the conference organisers, Dr David Lloyd, says that many American students come to a knowledge of Wales through studying the work of other Celtic writers.

"You can't have a course in Welsh literature here, because it's too specialist for the students. It's utterly foreign to them. So their entrance into it is through their knowledge of Irish culture," he said.

"In this country the Irish have a huge presence, so looking at the Welsh in relation to Ireland gives them some context."

But, he added, the interest was gradually growing, with the two-yearly conference attracting more and more people every time.

Cardiff - but 4,000 miles from Wales.
Cardiff - but 4,000 miles from Wales.

Dr Lloyd was brought up by Welsh-speaking parents in upstate New York, an area where many Welsh exiles settled - a fact shown by the names of many communities, such as Pembroke and Cambria, and by the Red Dragons on many of the clapboard village houses.

A few miles south of Syracuse, next to the Onondaga Indian Reservation, is another example: the tiny community of Cardiff.

The cemetery there bears testament to the community's Welsh roots, with the burials marking many a Morgan, Jones and Evans, and sometimes proudly recording the fact that they were born in Wales.

This Cardiff is famous in America, but not because of its Welsh roots but rather because it was the scene of the most spectacular hoax ever staged in the United States.

The Cardiff Giant -
The Cardiff Giant - a giant hoax

In 1869, a trickster and get-rich-quick artist called George Hill created a giant sculpture or a human figure, designed to look like an ancient fossilised human being. He had it buried secretly on a farm at Cardiff and then "discovered" by workmen.

It attracted huge interest. Hull charged admission to the site and sold shares in the attraction to local businessmen. He made tens of thousands of dollars before the hoax was finally exposed. The "Giant" is now on display in the Farmer's Museum in the nearby capital of New York State, Albany.

The message seems to be: if you want to get attention, think big.

Perhaps the Welsh heritage industry could do with a similar boost because, outside the circle of those who take an interest in their ethnic roots, awareness of Wales is not as high as the exiled patriot might like.

In Europe, or even Latin America, it's possible to explain one's ethnic origins by resorting to the sporting Esperanto of "Ryan Giggs" or "Mark Hughes".

Cardiff Methodist Church, New York State
Cardiff Methodist Church, New York State

But in the States it's a whole new ball game, and even despite the USA's good World Cup run, it seems it will be some time before soccer becomes the universal language in North America.

Denied the Ryan Giggs factor, the Welsh must therefore rely on less direct means of communicating their unique identity.

In New York, the National Assembly and Welsh Development Agency are planning to open a high-profile new office later this year.

This epitaph notes the words
This epitaph notes the words "Born in Wales".

However, an experience in Ellis Island, the great immigration centre in New York harbour, now a poignant museum, shows some of the work that still needs to be done.

The centre boasts a giant electronic screen that lights up to show which states of the USA have most residents of a particular ethnic origin. It offers buttons for dozens of different nationalities so that curious visitors can check which states have the highest concentrations of people claiming that ethnic background.

The data is collected via the US census, whose organisers clearly had fewer hang-ups about letting people identify themselves as "Welsh" than did the organisers of the troubled 2001 census in Wales.

Knight with Welsh Flag
Flying the flag for Wales at a New York State heritage festival

There is quite a queue of people waiting to press the buttons for their chosen nationality. I waited my turn and pressed "Welsh", lighting up the states of Pennsylvania, New York, California, Texas and Florida.

"Welsh. What's that?" exclaimed the person behind me. "I never heard of it."

"It's like Ireland, but in England," another person helpfully answered them.

Not a bad try, I suppose. But in terms of explaining to the Americans exactly who we are, there's clearly still some way to go.

See also:

15 Nov 99 | Wales
02 Sep 01 | Wales
15 May 02 | Wales
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