National Identity: Genetics, Ancestry and Rugby

National Identity and patriotism are important to most people. These are the things that make us feel like we belong. Things that give us a sense of being part of a bigger community – part of a team. This emotional response to belonging often comes to the fore in times of conflict when the shared identity serves as a rallying call of support. This is camaraderie – in peace time we see this most obviously in the international sporting arena.

Many people though have a mixed heritage, take Irish Americans and Italian Americans for example. They may have been born in America but they usually still retain a strong identity with the “old country” of their forefathers.  As I write it is Saint Patrick’s day and Irish patriotism is hard to miss in the media, where anyone with the slightest Irish connection seems to be wearing a shamrock.

The same is true of West Indian, Pakistani, and Indian immigrants to the UK, while those  born in the UK are deemed to be British, their ancestry and their cultural heritage are still that of their parents or grandparents countries of origin – something that has enriched the British communities that they have become part of for generations.

I have been investigating my own ancestry lately, in an effort to understand why I feel such a close affinity with my Welsh heritage on my mothers side. It’s not something new to me. In fact I have always been very conscious of the fact that I am part Welsh. I was born in England that’s true, but that doesn’t necessarily make me English – my mixed ancestry suggests otherwise. At best I am a product of Welsh and English genetics in equal measure, though it is more likely that my Welsh genes are the more dominant. My paternal grandfathers ancestry has been easy enough to trace back to the 16th century – all English. On my mother’s side of the family though it’s all Welsh. It’s no coincidence that I was christened “David”, after the Welsh national saint. My mother was born in Chester just across the border from Wales to Welsh parents, her father’s name was Rhys Powell Matthews and his lineage  goes back many generations to South Wales – the surname Matthews originates from Glamorganshire from around the 15th century. The family tree on this side has names such as Gwilym, Olwen and Gwladys (my mothers name) in abundance. And of course many of my ancestors were coal miners – you can’t get more Welsh than that!


Wearing my Welsh colours

Wearing my Welsh colours

On a sporting level this identity ‘dilemma’ has been with me since I was a young boy when, in the 1970s, encouraged by my mother, I avidly followed the Welsh rugby team during the halcyon days of JPR and JJ Williams, Gareth Edwards, Barry John and the like. I remember watching them on TV and my mother telling me that I had a lot of Welsh blood in me. Then, as I became more involved in sport as a schoolboy I ended up representing England on the athletics track – no-one ever asked me if I wanted to represent Wales, probably because my school was in England! When the time came to go to University there was only one place I headed for – Wales. I was particularly drawn to South Wales and spent a fabulous three years in Swansea. I recently learned that my great great grandfather was born in Swansea. While at university I did represent Wales at sport – my ancestry made that possible, and I had no hesitation choosing to compete for Wales. As fate would have it I met and married a Cardiff girl, who is passionate about her Welsh ancestry: as a result our children are probably about 70 per cent Welsh and don’t share my identity crisis! Our numerous trips to the valleys to visit friends and family has served to foster an even closer affinity with Wales.  Wales is a wonderful country, with a rich and assured collective national identity and, romantic though it sounds, it is a place where the people are warm and welcoming. It is also country that punches well above its weight on the rugby field – rugby is a way of life for most Welsh people. And anyone who knows me, knows that I am passionate about the game – perhaps that is also genetic?

This past weekend I have felt my ‘Welshness’ more keenly than I have done for a long time. I even learned to sing the Welsh national anthem in Welsh (albeit with the aid of some phonetics!) and belted it out with about sixty thousand other Welsh men and women a the Millennium stadium before the rugby match with Ireland. The atmosphere had a lot to do with it, but those spine tingling moments may also have been due to the genes asserting themselves on “home soil” – if I wasn’t at least partly Welsh I doubt that I would have felt the way I did while singing “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau” (Land of My Fathers) at the top of my voice and proudly wearing my red shirt! Whenever I visit Wales it  always feels like I am coming home. That has got to mean something.

The Welsh National anthem sung by a capacity crowd at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff

For anyone outside of the UK this may all seem a bit strange, after all Wales and England are part of the United Kingdom. Wales is a principality and not a fully self-governing country in its own right. But that does not stop a fierce sense of Welsh national identity, built on centuries of history. We are a strange lot on this island, as the member countries of the UK we will, at times of adversity still collectively identify ourselves as being British, but at the same time, between ourselves, maintain our English, Welsh, Scottish or Northern Irish identity.

There is more history and more politics to do with the make up of the UK than I have space to write here, and that’s not really the point of today’s blog. What I really want to know is: am I Welsh or English? To be honest I don’t really know. I won’t ever play international sport again, so it doesn’t matter from that point of view, but if I did, all the rules say that I could choose whether to represent England or Wales. If you had to have a Welsh passport I imagine I would have dual nationality. So perhaps I can claim that anyway? Perhaps I am Anglo-Welsh. However that  will just not be good enough when it comes to rugby, I can cheer Wales and England on against their respective opponents until they play each other – it is then that I find my national identity conundrum the most confusing. So for now I will continue to support both teams, and decide on the day who I support when they play each other – I know that’s a bit of a cop-out but it’s the best I can do for now!