In defence of The Three Feathers
The Three Feathers emblem, long synonymous with Welsh Rugby, has come under some heavy criticism from some of my fellow Indy supporters recently. In fact, there’s even a petition to have it dropped from the shirt altogether. So my opinion on the subject could well be an unpopular one, but hear me out.
I get the issue with The Three Feathers. For a start they’re ostrich feathers, which I’m fairly sure isn’t a bird native to Wales. But the emblem is regarded by many as a symbol of oppression, and with good reason. As the crown at its centre would suggest, it belongs to the monarchy, and arguably isn’t even related to Wales at all. It’s primarily the symbol for the Duke of Cornwall, who also happens to be Prince of Wales (post-investiture).
But the problem for many isn’t that we’re not Charlie’s priority, but that we’re even associated with him at all. Personally, I’d refuse to recognise a monarch even if they were Welsh, but this one was imposed as a symbol of subjugation. The inscription on his emblem, Ich Dien, means I serve, an affront to the many Republicans within the Indy movement and throughout Wales more widely. It’s in German, and the image itself is based on the Fleur de Lis, originating in France. A rich and interesting history, then, but with frustratingly little relevance to Cymru. So it’s easy to see how some might not feel it’s ours.
And if anyone was in any doubt as to who it belongs to, in 2007 Charles demanded a number of Welsh companies stop using the emblem, stating that it is “the personal property of the Prince of Wales, and as such is protected from misuse by law”.
I’ve written previous about how my personal identity intertwines with nation and sport. I recalled how, as a child, I would spend hours drawing The Three Feathers:
To me, they were Wales; shamefully, I assumed the motto ‘Ich Dien’ to be something inspirational in Welsh. I had no idea it was a commitment to serve the crown sitting at the centre of my doodles, which to my knowledge had no meaning beyond decoration. To me, my drawings were simply a small, careful act of patriotism in retaliation to Thatcher, or Will Carling, or whichever figurehead of condescension or working-class oppression had upset someone I knew that week.
When it finally dawned on me that The Three Feathers were not something to be proud of, that they were a symbol not of our accomplishments but our historic oppression, it felt like a punch to the gut.
So Where’s The Defence?
But I couldn’t simply erase all it had previously meant to me. Its recent history may be based on a lie, but it’s no less real because of it. The association it has with pride in being Welsh is strong, and we cannot dismiss what that means to some people. Every sidestep from Phil Bennett through Ieuan Evans and Shane to LRZ has been a step towards ingraining Cymru in the hearts of those fans — fans who are not necessarily political, fans who may know next to nothing about their country’s history. Not only do the feathers not exclusively represent monarchy and subjugation, but to many they do not represent that at all. They are inextricably associated with the positive feelings they have for Cymru.
These fans are Welsh. They are fervently, passionately Welsh. But not all of them are sure why. These are the people we need to convince if we are ever to win a referendum. They are ready made Yes voters, chomping at the bit to do something for Wales if only we offer them a coherent argument.
I’m surrounded by many such people where I live, in the valleys of the south. And my own painstaking research reveals that 76% of all women and 94% of all men in the valleys have The Three Feathers tattooed somewhere on their bodies. To turn around and tell them that, actually, something that they’ve had passionately inscribed into their own flesh for life means they’re anti-Welsh, is not going to go down well.
It’s a journey. Some hardcore patriots, on discovering the origin of their tattoo, may simply whip out the cheese grater and get Glydŵr am byth on their forehead instead. But for others, it will be the beginning of an education. I left school having never heard of Tryweryn, Glyndŵr, Rebecca or The Blue Books, much less read any Raymond or Gwyn Alf Williams.
It’s become a rallying cry among independence supporters to remind everyone to support their country beyond 80 or 90 minutes. This is potentially a very effective tactic providing it isn’t merely criticism, intending instead to be a catalyst for people to put their passion to practical use in the community. Wales is so much more than rugby or football, dragons or feathers. But with many of us having suffered frankly appalling education when it comes to local history, it takes time to learn. Patience will be helpful in letting them come to terms with changing beliefs.
For me, I struggled to shake my attachment to The Three Feathers, so I redesigned them. Gone were the crown and the commitment to serve a foreign monarch, replaced by Celtic knots and the motto Dim Coron, Dim Ond Calon (as a Welsh learner, I’m pretty proud of that one). So I haven’t given them up entirely, and others may find them even harder to give up at all.
Perhaps my stat on the number of people with tattoos isn’t strictly accurate — they tend not to be when you make them up. If it were, I’d be in the minority myself (though probably only because I’m no fan of needles). But there would have been a time when I still would have taken any dig at The Three Feathers personally. It wasn’t on my skin, but it was a symbol of my Welshness, and any attack on that is an attack on my identity.
What of those with a more fragile relationship with their Welshness? What if, on hearing they are not doing it right, that their Welshness is insincere, plastic, they give up? They look elsewhere, maybe. There’s another identity already waiting in the wings, one they can’t get wrong because there is no right: Britishness is designed to be all things to all potential subjects. You can bend and mould it to your whim as long as you remain loyal, defending it against accusations of structural inequality, class bias or ingrained xenophobia, against historic and recent revelations of imperial brutality, against mockery of ridiculous traditions and practices, against logic.
You may not like The Three Feathers. You may despise them. I certainly struggle to view their original incarnation fondly. But I’m happy to stick a middle finger up to Charles Windsor and claim them as our own if it prevents our version of Welshness from excluding people.
As far as I’m concerned, the Three Feathers belong to anyone who has them etched on their skin or in their hearts. So let’s not be too hasty in trying to take them away.