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The Welsh, often overlooked, make their case

Betws-y-Coed, a popular tourist destination on the banks of the Conway River in the Snowdonia region of north Wales, is known for its spectacular mountainous scenery. The newly-established National Assembly for Wales is hoping to attract more U.S. investment and tourism to Wales.Welsh Tourist Board via AP file

New Yorkers looking upward at the Empire State Building on Monday evening may have noticed it was bathed in red, white and green light — but few probably knew why.

In fact, the colors are those of the national flag of Wales, a tiny, hilly green country of 3 million inhabitants on the Western edge of the United Kingdom.

The New York landmark was illuminated to celebrate Wales’ contribution to the United States, a 300-year-old relationship that is often overlooked.

Most Americans, on the other hand, are familiar with St. Patrick’s Day, which falls on March 17 and celebrates the relationship between Wales' Celtic cousin, Ireland, and the United States.

March 1, however, is St. David's Day, which honors Wales' patron saint, who famously encouraged the Welsh to wear leeks in their caps to distinguish themselves in battle with the Saxons in the 6th century. Since then, the Welsh have worn leeks every March 1 to remember the saint and their victory.

While St. David's Day is not widely known outside of Wales or among the emigre community, Welsh natives are hoping for greater recognition for the fiercely proud nation with its ancient, tongue-twisting language and national symbols of the red dragon, the daffodil and the leek.

The Empire State Building is lit red and green in honor of St. David's Day, Friday, Feb. 28, 2003 in New York. Legend has it that in the 6th century, St. David encouraged the Welsh to wear leeks in their caps to distinguish themselves in battle with the Saxons. After conquering the Saxons, they wore leeks every March 1st for the anniversary of the victory. (AP Photo/Ed Bailey)Ed Bailey / AP

“The average American, if you were to stop them in the street and ask if they know where Wales is, they probably wouldn’t know,” said Frederick Suppe, an associate professor of history at Ball State University in Indiana who specializes in Celtic history. “But they’ve probably heard of St. Patrick and know all about the tradition of green beer on St. Patrick’s Day.”

Like the Irish, the Welsh also played a key role in the founding of the modern United States. Eighteen of the 56 co-signatories of the Declaration of Independence were of Welsh origin, and Welsh-Americans count Thomas Jefferson, Bob Hope and Frank Lloyd Wright among the distinguished Americas who trace their heritage back to the homeland.

Historical explanation
There is a historical explanation for the lack of emphasis on Wales. The Welsh first came to America in the 17th century, with thousands of Quakers who settled in the state of Pennsylvania. Because they were Protestants, they easily assimilated into the existing society, Suppe noted.

The mostly Roman Catholic Irish immigrants, however, found more hostility in the New World, and so bonded together to preserve their traditions and developed tightly-knit political and social groups. These traditions, such as St. Patrick’s Day parades, have now become part of the fabric of American culture, Suppe said.

The lack of understanding about Wales stateside has not been lost on the National Assembly for Wales, the newly-established regional governmental organization.

One year ago it opened the Wales International Centre in New York’s historic Chrysler Building, a $500,000 investment that brings together what were disparate Welsh organizations — such as the Welsh Development Agency and the Wales Tourist Board — to promote Wales and Welsh business potential in the American market.

The idea is, in part, to emulate the successes of the Irish economy — dubbed the “Celtic Tiger” due to its rapid growth in the 1990s — which transformed Ireland from one of the poorest countries in Western Europe to one of the wealthiest.

“America is not as large a market for us as it is for the Irish, but it’s one of the largest markets for trade, inward investment and tourism, and it's one where we’d like to increase our market share,” said Catrin Brace, marketing officer for the Wales International Centre in New York. “Wales is an English-speaking country, and Americans like visiting Britain, so it’s an easy market for us to increase our market share in.”

In Europe, knowledge about Wales also has been sadly lacking. A bureaucratic error last fall caused Wales to be chopped off a map of Europe on the cover of an important European Union reference book, even though England, Scotland and Ireland were in their correct positions.

And despite the widespread celebration of St. David’s Day in Wales, campaigners last year failed to make March 1 a national holiday.

Celebrating Welshness
There won’t be any public holidays in America for St. David’s Day, but in states and communities where Welsh immigrants settled and Welsh American communities thrive, the symbols of the Welsh will be prominent.

These include towns in northeastern Pennsylvania, like Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, where the populations were once 30 percent Welsh, and states like Wisconsin, Ohio and California.

St. David's societies, organizations for Welsh-Americans, exist in many U.S. states, and most arrange a dinner for March 1. Many also organize a “Gymanfa Ganu,” a festival of hymn-singing — a celebration in keeping with the Welsh nonconformist religious convictions and the nation’s love of song (Welsh immigrants to Salt Lake City helped found the famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir).

In New York, the Wales International Centre is hosting a week of events celebrating Welsh arts, music, food and drink, including a Dylan Thomas walking tour of Greenwich Village.

The aim is to promote Wales, but also remember the contributions Wales has made to American life, and to New York in particular, Catrin Brace said.

“The Welsh have been coming here since the colonial days and many of them have shone, but they haven’t drawn attention to themselves. They haven’t said, ‘Look at me, look what I’ve done,’” Brace said.

“The Welsh are still coming, but things are changing now and people are starting to embrace their Welsh identity. And more Americans are acknowledging their Welsh heritage — that’s very encouraging.”