Welsh Migration to America

Welsh Migration to America

This week, freelance producer Colin Thomas tells us about the forthcoming ebook, The Dragon and the Eagle/Y Ddraig a’r Eryr.

The Dragon and the Eagle/Y Ddraig a’r Eryr is an enhanced ebook (text, video and interactive graphics) on Welsh migration to America. It developed out of Dreaming A City (published by Y Lolfa in 2009), on the city of Hughesovka/Stalino/Donetsk, once a centre of Welsh migration to Ukraine. That publication was both book and DVD; making it led to a curiosity about whether it was possible to combine two – and more – media in one digital publication.

It also led to a curiosity about Welsh migration elsewhere. After the 1917 revolution in Hughesovka, almost all the Welsh workers left and it was clear that there had been some tension between the Welsh on the one hand and the Russians and Ukrainians on the other. Had the Welsh in America integrated better with other migrants, including those from the United Kingdom’s other nations?

It became clear that Welsh migrants to America faced the same problem encountered by almost all migrants anywhere – how do you reconcile becoming good citizens of your new country whilst holding on to your values, your culture and your language?

In many ways the refusal to fall into line with the new society was admirable. Welsh Quaker farmer Cadwalader Morgan was clearly taken aback when his new neighbours in Pennsylvania suggested that he solve his labour problems by buying a slave – “I am in perplexity concerning it.” He decided to refuse to become a slave owner and eventually the Quakers in America became the driving force behind the ending of slavery.

But the motto of the Welsh National Eisteddfod – “Y Gwir yn erbyn y Byd/ The Truth against the World” – given to it by Welsh poet and would-be American emigrant Iolo Morganwg, can imply a principled stand in one context and arrogance in another. It was also the motto of Welsh-American Frank Lloyd Wright who told a client complaining about water falling on his desk in his new purpose-built house – “Move your desk!”

Welsh miners and steel workers took not only their skills to the United States but also their proud trade union tradition. Sometimes, though, strikes in the Pennsylvanian coalmines were called in the interests of skilled face workers, mainly Welsh, rather than for the whole work force, which included less skilled Irish workers. This led to the formation of the Molly Maguires gang who murdered some Welsh-American miners and savage reprisals from the state authorities targeted at Irish-Americans.

Because most Irish immigrants to the States came from a Catholic background, they found it more difficult to integrate into a predominantly Protestant society. Most Welsh immigrants, predominantly from Nonconformist Protestant backgrounds, found it easier – but, correspondingly, found it more difficult to keep their sense of difference.

In the early years of the twentieth century, when Theodore Roosevelt was proclaiming “There is no such thing as a hyphenated American”, Welsh-Americans were starting to drop their insistence on the use of the Welsh language in American eisteddfodau. And in 1916 the Republican Party put up the Welsh speaking Charles Evans Hughes as their candidate. He lost but by then most Welsh-Americans identified themselves with the Republican Party whilst Irish-Americans were overwhelmingly on the side of the Democrats.

The feature films How Green is My Valley and The Corn is Green in the 1940s kept alive American awareness of a distinctive Welsh identity and The Dragon and the Eagle/Y Ddraig a’r Eryr will bring the story up to date by referring to the case of Welsh-American Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning, a hero in the National Theatre of Wales’s production The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning but perceived as a traitor by many Americans.

An enhanced ebook of this kind makes it possible to illuminate the subject matter from different perspectives. The video content comes from the archives of BBC Wales, ITV Wales and Sianel Pedwar Cymru (the Welsh Fourth Channel) and assertions boldly made in the voiceover, narrated by Cerys Matthews, can then be substantiated (or qualified!) in the text – not possible in most television history programmes. It also becomes possible to display some primary sources directly on the screen (e.g. Cadwalader Morgan’s letter on slavery) and to illustrate with touch screen maps (e.g. the migration patterns of specific religious groups).

Colin Thomas was born and brought up in Wales, and after graduating from Keele University, became a BBC production trainee. He directed documentaries for the BBC for 13 years. Since then he has worked as a freelance and his programmes have included C4’s history of Wales The Dragon has Two Tongues and award winning programmes on Saunders Lewis, Raymond Williams and on the now war-torn city of Donetsk.

The Dragon and the Eagle enhanced ebook will be downloadable from September and the Welsh language version Y Ddraig a’r Eryr later this year.

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