Thursday, 12 November 2015


I was born in Wales, in a small town called Llanrwst.  I'm not really properly Welsh (although my middle name is Haf), but I can still feel 'hiraeth'.

River Conwy at Llanrwst. Source: wikimedia

Hiraeth is a particularly, peculiarly, Welsh feeling.  And it's very hard to translate.  It's sort of yearning.  It's sort of nostalgia.  It's sort of a sweet melancholy.  It's the natural landscape - the mountains and the sea - calling, and it's the longing in response.

Llanrwst.  Source: wikimedia

In my quest for expressions of nostalgia (my new research project - alongside the misbehaving students thing), 'hiraeth' is a really interesting concept.  It's related to, but not cognate with, Portuguese 'saudade', German 'Heimweh' and so on.  The origins of nostalgia as a term lie in the eighteenth century, at which point it indicated a medical condition suffered by those far from home.  Only really in the nineteenth century did nostalgia become a temporal condition, as one looked back to the good old days.  'Hiraeth' is all of these things, as well as a more rooted bitter-sweetness.  It works well in the context of the Welsh diaspora - for instance, there's a wonderful project in Patagonia by the Welsh community there (see here).  But it can also be felt at home in Wales.  And if it's a yearning, it's also a comfort.

Llanrwst: source (  The picture is taken from the Churchyard.  We lived in the house on the left; my godparents lived in the house on the right.

This song, by the gentle-voiced Max Boyce, accompanied by Christine Cooper and an amazing triple-harpist, Llio Rhydderch, expresses 'hiraeth' more sweetly and its comfort more eloquently than prose.  It's like a mist stealing over one, a gentle companion.  And, in this, it's a very special form of nostalgia.  Nostalgia looks like a feeling rooted in time (is it really?) - 'hiraeth' transcends time - as the song tells us, it never fades.

'Tell me then, you men of learning
Why is hiraeth more than yearning
Why when darkness minds to hide me,
Hiraeth comes and sleeps beside me?

Gold and silver wear out
Velvet and silk wear out
Every rich garment falls apart,
But longing never fades.

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