How a 40-year-old Welsh folk song reached number one in the UK singles chart

An independence campaign group in Wales pushed the song up the charts. Why now, and what does it tell us about modern Britain?

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Every now and again, a song comes along that really “captures” the moment. It may be an unexpected lyric that encapsulates a deeply suppressed feeling (take, for example, Katy Perry’s iconic “do you ever feel like a plastic bag?”).

Or, like the heady smell of your mum’s Chanel No.5, a song may remind you of a particular time in your life. Whenever “Dancing in the Moonlight” plays, I’m back at the school disco, with hands sticky from party bag Haribo, and long plaits sitting messily over my shoulders.

But sometimes, when you’re caught off guard, and a song begins to play on the radio, on the bus, in a shop, it can take you entirely by surprise.

That’s exactly how I felt when I opened my iTunes app on Monday and saw that “Yma O Hyd” – a classic Welsh nationalist anthem and a cringe-inducing, banging tune, was number one in the UK charts. Yes, that’s right – beating Dua Lipa, Stormzy and Lewis Capaldi, the UK number one was a Welsh folk song, unknown to the vast majority of Britons.

Inspired by the recent resurgence of the Irish rebel song “Come Out Ye Black and Tans”, the campaign to get “Yma O Hyd” (which means “Still Here”) to number one began on Twitter through the Welsh independence campaign group, YesCymru.

But how did a song about Magnus Maximus, the Roman emperor who (according to Welsh myth) married a Welsh princess, become one of the New Year’s most listened to songs?

“Yma O Hyd” was penned by folk-legend-cum-politician Dafydd Iwan in the Eighties, set to the backdrop of Margaret Thatcher’s first term in office and a decade that transformed Welsh life.

Iwan was brought up in the small mining town of Brynamman (just some miles from where I grew up) as well as in Bala, north Wales. Linking both these areas was the prevalence of the Welsh language in everyday life – Welsh traditions were strong, its language sacred. But as the decades turned, concern grew that the language (and Welsh culture more generally) was under threat.

By the Sixties, just as Iwan was himself becoming politically-engaged, Welsh nationalists began to express in earnest their deep fear for the future of the language. Its fate, as voiced in “Tynged yr Iaith” (“the fate of the language”) speech by Plaid Cymru founder, Saunders Lewis, in 1962, seemed desperately uncertain.

In 1965, the flooding of Capel Celyn (the small Welsh village that was destroyed to create a reservoir for Liverpool) gave renewed energy and anger to the campaign for Welsh independence under the banner of “Cofiwch Dryweryn” – “Remember Tryweryn”, the Welsh valley that drowned for an English city (a city which, lest we forget, had remarkably close ties to Wales and was the birthplace of both the Welsh press and of Saunders Lewis).

Both of these cultural events – Lewis’s speech and the drowning of Capel Celyn – were formative moments for Iwan, and are recurring motifs in his myriad satirical, politically-motivated songs.

The Welsh-speaking community related to his lyrics of oppression and Welsh pride – true devotees to the nationalist cause rewarded him with the presidency of Plaid Cymru (2003-2011). Iwan is still a darling of the Welsh nationalist movement, and “Yma O Hyd” remains the battle-cry for independence – your knowledge of the lyrics a test of your commitment to the cause.

For the Welsh-speaking community, no night at the pub, the rugby, or a gig is truly complete without a rendition of “Yma O Hyd”. And don’t I know it. Back in 2013, as a gawky, awkward teenager, I sang with Dafydd Iwan on a televised show celebrating “Welsh talent”. The final number? You guessed it. A symphony of dirge-heavy chords, crooning voices, and a tinkling dreamy harp: “Despite everyone and everything,” Iwan (and the audience) sings, “We’re still here…”

Although the lyrics are hardly a clarion call to the barricades, perhaps it is understandable that YesCyrmu (and, in particular, the activist Aled Gwyn Williams) chose this song of resilience when mounting their Twitter campaign.

Garnering support from the likes of former Plaid leader Leanne Wood, stars of Welsh language television, and retweets from nationalist accounts across the country, Iwan’s classic slowly climbed the charts – to 200, 100, 33, 14, and finally, number one. Some played the song on repeat before dropping the kids off at school, others sent links to colleagues and friends to encourage more downloads. Pro-independence groups were insistent on proving that they were, indeed, “still here”.

“Yma O Hyd” captures not one, but two “moments”. Firstly, it speaks to the frustrations of the Welsh-speaking community in the mid- late-20th century: Thatcherism, a feeling of being unrepresented, forgotten. But it also reflects the modern manifestation of Welsh nationalism – a growing sense that the system is broken, and that when others cannot be trusted, you can only have faith in what you already know. And what the nationalist cause knows is Dafydd Iwan.

Brexit and what is perceived as a certain kind of English nationalism has led to a small but notable rise in independence fervour. Nationalism begets nationalism and YesCymru has stressed its desire for Welsh self-governance alongside close European and international ties.

Yet in many ways, the resurgence of “Yma O Hyd” is just another example of the common nationalist tendency to look back rather than forward.  It’s difficult to see how a song, first released nearly 40 years ago, can retain and encourage the energy and dynamism required to fight for an independent Wales.

Martha O'Neil is a freelance journalist who writes about Wales and Welsh politics.