A small port that I know well appears on an Instagram story, catching me by surprise with its flash of familiar cobblestone streets and blue skies. This is Wales: the land I grew up in and which holds memories of afternoons spent crabbing in that same port of Porthmadog, long walks in the sand dunes along the northwest coast and the inescapable smell of the sea.
Nearly 6,000 miles away in Japan, home for six years, the tide of memories recedes, and I sit down, a deep desire settling in me. Childhood memories are intertwined with the echoes of a long lunch in a beautiful garden two summers ago, the last time I returned: the wet grass beneath my feet and the mountains in the distance. The pull on my heart is known in Welsh as hiraeth. Deeply connected but not tied to Wales itself, the feeling is a desire for something bigger than a place on a map.
Hiraeth is often equated with nostalgia in English or saudade in Portuguese, and it shares qualities with the German concept of sehnsucht, but none match exactly. It combines elements of homesickness, longing and longing. Intertwined, however, is the subtle recognition of an irreparable loss – a unique blend of place, time, and people that can never be recreated. This unapproachable nature adds an element of grief, but somehow it’s not entirely undesirable.
“It’s a kind of longing for a person, place or time that you can’t return to, a kind of unattainable desire,” said Marian Brosschot, a Welsh language manager currently working in Trelew, Patagonia.
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Formed from “hir “, meaning long, and “aeth “ meaning sadness or grief, the literal translation of hiraeth offers insight but fails to convey the complex nuance of the term. “Hiraeth is one of those terms that is impossible to translate because it has so many cultural connotations,” said S said Davies, professor emeritus and former president of the School of Welsh at Cardiff University.
Often linked with deep pain, the word appears in early Welsh records and has been a constant weight to poets through the ages. In the first Welsh verses, known as Hen Penillion, an unknown poet pleads for this “cruel hiraeth” which breaks his heart and wakes him up in the night. Imbued with grief, it’s often seen as an ode to the loss of a homeland, language or traditions – but could also serve as a key to their rebirth.
A vital period that cemented these losses was the dismantling of Welsh identity and the subsequent rebirth of a heavily romanticized medieval Welsh culture in the 19th century. Under attack from British rule, the Welsh were stigmatized following the publication of an education report in 1847 that quickly became known as the Blue Books Betrayal. Denouncing the Welsh as immoral, ignorant and restrained by antiquated language, the report profoundly influenced not only the impression of England from Wales, but that of Wales itself for years to come. Following its publication, the Welsh were given a more pleasant new identity, donated by influential English poet, cultural critic and school inspector Matthew Arnold.
His characterization of ‘Celtic genius’ was, specifically,’ the British imperial concept of the sentimental, feminine, artistically gifted ‘Celt’ who is incapable of ruling, practically thinking, or conquering foreign lands, “explained Dr Marion Loeffler, Welsh history reader at Cardiff University. Overall, she said, the Welsh were seen as a civilization that “while venerable, had long passed its prime.”
Simultaneously dismantling an entire culture while glorifying a romanticized past, the British succeeded in replacing the Welsh identity with that of the melancholy and pessimistic Celt. Hiraeth for all they had lost, in intensified form, was an inevitable response.
Seeking an opportunity to preserve their endangered culture and language, many joined the small but steady line of Welsh emigrants heading to the Americas, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, among other destinations. While many enclaves were formed, one of the most distinct was Y Wladfa (Welsh for “The Colony”) in the Chubut region of Patagonia. The settlement was particularly unusual as it was not motivated by economic opportunity or to escape religious persecution; Y Wladfa was driven by a simple desire to preserve the Welsh culture and language.
Hiraeth is often equated with nostalgia in English or saudade in Portuguese
The importance of the hiraeth to emigrants and the recognition of things that might inspire it were recognized at the time, noted Bill Jones, a professor of modern Welsh history and an expert on Welsh emigration in the 19th century. “While encouraging emigration,” he said, “some 19th century Welsh emigrant guides recognized that emigrants would experience hiraeth for Wales, their relatives and friends, and the landscape and the ways of life of the localities they had left.
This may partly explain the high rate of ‘return migration’ in Wales: the return of emigrants to their homeland. Between 1870 and 1914, around 40% of Welsh emigrants returned – a figure significantly higher than the rest of the UK.
Also far from home – and for many years unable to return – Cameroonian poet Eric Ngalle Charles, based in Cardiff, offers a glimpse into the hearts of those who have left the shores of Wales. Having experienced exile, the concept of an impossible desire to return home was all too familiar – but being in a land that included such a feeling provided a special comfort.
“Hiraeth is the music you constantly play in your head hoping you won’t forget – it’s a place of comfort that you always come back to,” he said.
Through poetry he explores the meaning of hiraeth with a similar word from his native language Bakweri – Erzolirzoli – in a collection of poems from the two small nations. Noting a rare but shared combination of language loss and a deep love of the mythical past between countries, Charles believes the Welsh language and close ties to the past are key to hiraeth’s continued presence in Wales. contemporary.
“Everywhere you go in Wales there are stories tied to the land,” acknowledges Davies, who specializes in medieval Welsh tales known as Mabinogi. From Llyn y Fan in the Brecon Beacons, home to the folk legend of the Lady of the Lake, to the water demon of Llyn Barfog who tormented the town of Aberdyfi before being captured by King Arthur himself, there are few places without a folktale to surround them, she says.
In Wales today this connection, which promotes hiraeth, is experiencing a revival with an increasing number of people learning and speaking Welsh and storytelling festivals like Beyond the Border and its increasingly place-specific performances. popular. Davies, who has advised on national program changes as well as the design of Mabinogi-inspired cocktails for Cardiff’s best bars, is confident that the recent revival of folk tales will have a lasting impact: “They help to create a sense of ‘identity and there is an underlying moral code of conduct, if you will, which means they are still relevant in life today. “
In the past, storytelling was one of the key elements carried across seas to keep home close in the minds of travelers. The Y Wladfa community has long relied on the stories of ancestors who made the initial journey to carry on traditions, and they continue to see hiraeth as an important concept. A deeply insightful video project was launched by the community in 2015 to record their personal stories about hiraeth and its influence over the years.
Everywhere you go in Wales there are stories linked to the land
The 5,000 or so Welsh speakers who live at Y Wladfa are by no means a majority, but they attend Welsh language schools and courses taught by Brosschot and his colleagues and have managed to blend elements of Welsh and Argentinian culture to create their own culture. .
“The community is very strong and close, they have a lot of events where they meet, a lot of eisteddfods [annual cultural festivals showcasing recitals, singing and poetry among a myriad of other creative talents], lots of singing and dancing evenings – so in that sense it’s very rich, ”said Brosschot.
In her home away from home, Brosschot notes that despite the distance, she feels closer to Wales here than on her travels in Europe. The smallness of the nation, its battles for recognition and the unique excitement of meeting a fellow Welsh fellow abroad means there is a sense of pride in being Welsh, she said.
And she noted that when she was living abroad – especially with the added challenges of Covid-19 – hiraeth can be a help rather than a source of sadness. “It can be quite revealing in a way. It can give you an idea of how you want to live, so you can try to embody that happiness and bring it with you in everyday life. . “
Although Wales is an easy place to come back to, I know it’s not really the port I want or the great views. What I miss is the unique feeling of being at home, perhaps in a way that – years later, with friends scattered around and my family living elsewhere – is now inaccessible, but nonetheless where I want to be. Considering Brosschot’s words, instead of focusing on the sadness of the hiraeth, I phone the friend from the long lunch in the garden, her familiar voice and the stories of home soothing the inner desire.
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