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Yma o Hyd!

They’re still here: the Cambridge Welsh Society has been offering a taste of home for exiles – and others – since 1887.

- 3 minute read
Student holding Welsh flag

Mention the word hiraeth (pronounced heer-aith) to anyone from Wales, and you’ll get a loving, misty-eyed, faraway look in response. While there’s no direct translation, it evokes a deep longing for home, and it’s the sort of feeling that binds together members of the Cambridge Welsh Society – Cymdeithas y Mabinogi.

“We exist to promote Welsh culture, but our policy is to be as open as possible,” says its President, Gwenno Robinson (Pembroke, Second Year). “So, if you’re Welsh, you have ancestral connections to Wales, you’d like to learn Welsh or you’re just interested in Wales, come along!”

The Society was established in 1887, although there are reports of a St David’s Day Dinner in 1884. It’s existed in some form ever since, but in 2015, the Welsh contingent at Cambridge experienced a resurgence following the Welsh government’s Seren Network programme, encouraging high-achieving Welsh students to apply to the UK’s top universities. It’s proved highly successful. “There are probably more Welsh people here now than there have been for the past 20 years,” says Robinson.

Student cheering

The annual St David’s Day Dinner is the Society’s most well known event, but there are the regular social get-togethers. “Of course, going to the pub to watch the rugby is very popular,” says Robinson. “But we also have events that don’t revolve around alcohol.” And while she’s at pains to point out that the Society isn’t exclusively Welsh-speaking, it’s keen on keeping the language alive. In fact, she recently started up a fortnightly Welsh language café, bringing together Welsh speakers and learners in a friendly, judgement-free zone. “I almost have a ‘pinch me’ moment when we’re doing this Welsh café in the middle of England’s heartland, at one of the most traditionally English places in the world!” she says. “And we’re still able to have this vibrant, thriving Welsh community. It’s such a nice thing. Welsh is my first language and I used to speak it every single day: in school, with my family and with my friends. Now, I can come and have a coffee once a week with people who speak Welsh and it’s a lovely kind of connection.”

Student giving thumbs up

Of course, Robinson points out, there’s no obligation to join the Society if you are from Wales. “Some want to escape Wales! And that’s completely fine. But I think the people who come along really value what we do. Many of us come from state schools – we don’t have the traditional background of people who come to Cambridge. When I was applying, knowing that there was a Welsh Society here was a massive comfort for me – a nice home away from home.”

It’s an ethos reflected in the Society’s motto: Gorau Cymro, Cymro oddi cartref – loosely translated as saying that the most fervent Welsh are those who live away from home and celebrate their Welshness from afar. “It’s a well-known Welsh idiom that suggests that once you’re out of Wales, your Welshness is just massively magnified,” says Robinson. “And that’s what so many people tell me when they come to the Welsh Society: they sound more Welsh and they are prouder to be Welsh, hundreds of miles from home.”

From top: Rosy Pearson, Clare, Fourth Year Modern and Medieval Languages; Gwenno Robinson, Pembroke, Second Year Human, Social and Political Sciences; Gruff Roberts, Jesus, Second Year Modern and Medieval Languages.

Find out more about the Cambridge Welsh Society.

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