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What else happened on St David's Day?

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 08:32 UK time, Monday, 28 February 2011

The first of March is arguably the most famous and important day in Welsh history and culture.

Flag of St David

Flag of St David

It is, of course, St David's Day and all over the country celebrations - usually in the shape of eisteddfodau or arts festivals - take place. They are held in schools, in colleges, in chapels and churches, even in hospitals.

The celebrations are held each year to mark the death of St David, patron saint of Wales.

Traditionally, the saint died on 1 March in 589 AD, having been born at what is now called St Non's Chapel in Pembrokeshire around the year 520. Such are the bare facts of the man and the legend. But 1 March is more than just a commemoration of our patron saint. It has, in Welsh history, many other significant and interesting events attached to it.

On St David's Day in 1827 the appropriately named St David's College, Lampeter was opened, one of the earliest seats of learning in Wales. The College is still functioning in the tiny town to the north-east of Carmarthen.

On this day in 1918 the Order of St John of Jerusalem established the Priory of Wales in Cardiff. It was the first new priory established on the authority of the old king, Edward V11, and its creation had obviously been delayed by World War One.

On 1 March 1927 a crippling explosion at Marine Colliery, Ebbw Vale, killed no fewer than 51 miners. There had been worst mining disasters in Wales but this one, coming so soon after the tragedy of World War One was a particularly poignant and painful event.

On a somewhat lighter note, on 1 March 1965 singer Tom Jones hit the number one spot for the first time with his single It's Not Unusual. It was the start of an amazing career for the Pontypridd boy, a career that continues to this day. Songs like Green, Green Grass Of Home and Delilah retain memory for most Welsh people, and no rugby international would be complete without at least one rendering of Delilah. And to think it all began on St David's Day.

St David's Day in 1979 saw the rejection of devolution in a referendum held right across the country. The result of the vote, rejecting the concept by the huge margin of four to one, was totally unexpected and was a major setback for supporters of nationalism. The idea of devolution disappeared from the Welsh political agenda for over ten years; only in September 1997 was a second referendum held, this time resulting in a narrow victory for the supporters of devolution.

Dylan Thomas at the BBC

Dylan Thomas at the BBC

Dylan Thomas, in many respects the traditional national poet of English-speaking Wales, was honoured on 1 March 1982. On that day a memorial to the boozy bard of Cwmdonkin Drive was unveiled and dedicated at Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey. Dylan, who always loved the idea of being a poet - perhaps as much as the art of writing poetry - would surely have felt highly pleased by the accolade.

St David's Day 1986 saw the death of one of Wales' great sporting heroes. Tommy Farr, the Tonypandy Terror, might have resisted the fists of Joe Louis but he could not escape the clutches of his greatest opponent and died at the age of 73.

Born in Clydach Vale on 12 March 1913 Tommy fought, first, as a light heavyweight, then as a full heavyweight. He became British and Empire Champion in 1937 and in August of that same year was matched against the great American world champion, Joe Louis, in a bout at Yankee Stadium, New York. Louis had carried all before him, knocking out the nine opponents before Tommy Farr and nobody gave the Welshman much of a chance.

In a brutal and close contest Tommy Farr lost on points and earned the respect of Louis and all the spectators. Indeed, when the decision was announced many of the crowd booed to show their disapproval. Tommy's later life did not run smoothly and, having retired in 1940, he was forced to return to the ring to try to recapture some of his lost fortune. He tried singing and even ran a pub in Brighton for a while but his moment of triumph (even though it was, in reality, a defeat) had come years before in his contest with Joe Louis.

Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe  in 1956.

The Goons light up with the leeks to celebrate St. David's Day 1956 (left to right) Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe in 1956.

Clearly, then, St David's Day is about more than just the death of Wales' patron saint. But however we remember it, we should never forget the emotional and cultural significance of 1 March. It is a day to wear your leak or daffodil with pride.

If you would like to find out more about the traditions and emblems of Wales, don't miss Welsh Icons on Tuesday 1 March at 8pm on BBC Two Wales. Eddie Butler discovers the origins of our very own Welsh icons, including the Welsh dragon, the Welsh hat and the wearing of leeks and daffodils. Visit the programme page to watch some clips from the programme.


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