A Nation on the March

Mike Benbough-Jackson on the contested cultural politics of St David’s Day celebrations


In many ways, St David’s Day appears to be a more effective national adhesive than the days held in honour of the patron saints of Ireland, Scotland and England. St Patrick’s Day is the most commercially successful and lavishly celebrated of all the saints’ days. Yet sectarian divides have resulted in St Patrick, who was once a figure of unity, becoming associated with republicanism. Scotland’s Saint Andrew is overshadowed by his secular and socially aware rival, Robert Burns. The frequent conflation of England with Britain has meant that the national saint of England has had difficulty in establishing a presence. This issue was identified in 1894 when, in an effort to promote the day, the Royal Society of St George was founded.

In comparison, St David’s Day lacks any obvious divisive features or an easily recognisable rival. St David has been recognised as a flexible saint, whose temperate lifestyle and association with the Celtic, pre-Catholic Church, facilitated his acceptance among Welsh nonconformists. A common theme in St David’s Day speeches is how the day reminds the Welsh about what they have in common. As the organisers of the National Saint David’s Day Parade in Cardiff put it, Saint David was ‘above politics and petty differences’, he is ‘a unifying … symbol in a dangerous and greedy world’. Such sentiments are lent credence by photographs of school children dressed in various interpretations of national costume. These images, which occupy many pages in the local press, convey a sense of innocent patriotism. On its surface, the day appears to be uncomplicated, uncompromised by that ‘dangerous and greedy world’...

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