The Welsh word hiraeth has become our equivalent of the Danish hygge; not because of a similarity in meaning, but because of the way in which both are promoted as words without any equivalent in English. Just as there is no exact word like hygge in English, so too is there no exact translation for hiraeth. The closest you can get is something like – a longing or nostalgic feelings for a home that cannot be returned to, or that may not have existed at all.
When you search for the term online, what you get are countless images of the sort that are shared frequently on social media: a dreamy photograph of some hills, mountain, or coastline (presumably Welsh, though who knows), overlayed with the term in big white lettering and its definition underneath. They crop up in my Facebook feed occasionally, usually accompanied with a message about how much someone is missing Wales.
There will always be some words that do not translate perfectly into others – for instance, the German word Wissenschaft is somewhere between science and knowledge, but so far no one has built an industry out of it as has happened with hygge. It has not happened to hiraeth yet either, but it has still become a way of expressing the cultural difference between Wales and English-speaking nations.
What hiraeth’s popular usage implies is that Welsh is a more emotional, maybe even spiritual language than English – that every Welsh person will sometimes look off into the distance wistfully, and a tear will roll down their cheek as they recall the splendour of the mountains of Snowdonia, the galloping waves lapping at the shore of Cardigan Bay, or the ominous slag heaps of Blaenau Ffestiniog. But this usage misses out an important dimension of hiraeth – namely, that the longing is for a home that one cannot return to, and that might not have ever existed in the first place. To be precise, hiraeth is more like that feeling you may have experienced on holiday, where you suddenly realise how wonderful home was after all – its familiarity is viewed through rose-tinted glasses, even though you know that home is not really that superb and that you should really be appreciating the holiday a lot more. Or hiraeth is what you get when you pass by your old childhood home and recall the joys of your upbringing only to realise that a new family lives there now, and that it is no longer your home but someone else’s.
The more straightforward version of hiraeth, where it is used to mean a longing for home, leans into a parochial attitude where each person belongs to one particular place. The message here is simultaneously positive and negative: you will always have a home where you will be welcomed, no matter how long you are away for, but you will be tied to it for your whole life. The nation presents itself as something no one can escape from – roots bind each person to their homeland, the only place they will ever truly belong. The ghosts of your ancestors drag you back to the land of your fathers to share their fate. Their song is Yma O Hyd (here forever), in which the nation is framed as though it exists outside of time itself. Whatever you accomplish in your own life, wherever you go, you know that you must return to Wales one day.
The more precise meaning of hiraeth, by contrast, implies a much more promising view. The power of one’s roots is recognised as illusionary, and that the dream of the nation as a pure and unchanging was just that – a dream – lays the groundwork for building something better, rooted in our experience of the world as it is. Instead of being dictated to by tradition or ancestry, we instead get to forge a new path for ourselves. Home no longer needs to be the place we were born and grew up, nor where our parents or grandparents are from, but can be someplace of our own choosing – somewhere where we can build a new meaning for ourselves. Hiraethu can thus be a prelude to building something better in the here and now, rather than hoping for the return of the (illusionary) good old days.
Furthermore, recognising that the notion of a Wales based on ancestry and permanence is a myth enables the boundaries of the nation to be opened up too, to allow for an acceptance of the plurality that was previous overlooked. As real as the nation is, at its root is an untruth. No nation is a monolith, dominated by a single way of life, a single language, and a single culture – but nations can stamp out difference. Today, Wales is a bilingual country whose inhabitants have friends, relatives and ancestors spread all over the world – and this should be accepted, even celebrated, instead of being seen as an potential threat or problem. There is no need to measure everyone from Holyhead to Cardiff by the yardstick of an old-fashioned, unchanging notion of Welshness.
Taking the more precise meaning of hiraeth enables us to move beyond static, archaic ideas of what it means to be Welsh, and wake up to the world as it is today. Thus, a term that is often used to reinforce the notion that Wales is essentially different from every other nation can in fact yield a new angle for the critique of an outmoded form of Welsh nationalism.