The Hypocrisy of Saint David’s Day (Rhagrith Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Sant)

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Atheist author, Professor Richard Dawkins, recently congratulated the people of Wales after the 2011 census revealed that nearly a third of people living in Wales follow no religion, stating that people in Wales were ‘ahead of the rest of the UK’.

Statistics from the latest UK Census 2011, released on 11th December 2012, revealed that 32% of people in Wales consider themselves non-religious, against an overall UK figure of 25%.

The census found that 1.5% of the Welsh population were Muslims, 0.3% were Hindus or Buddhists, Sikh or Jewish took up 0.1%, and 0.4% stated other faiths. Prof. Dawkins reportedly dismissed the figures for people saying they were a Jedi Knight, or that heavy metal music was their religion.

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Yeah… My religion is METAL, man!

Yet, despite these figures, I do sometimes marvel at the hypocrisy of the entire nation lavishly celebrating Saint David’s Day – a day which has its roots in Catholicism. It is all the more ironic when one considers that Wales has been a predominantly Protestant country since the Welsh Bible was published in 1588, following the Protestant Reformation; not to mention the above mentioned Census figures. Nevertheless, it did not prevent cross-party political support, when the National Assembly for Wales voted unanimously to make Saint David’s Day a Welsh public holiday in 2000, along with 87% of Welsh people supporting the call (which was ultimately rejected by former Prime Minister, Tony Blair in 2007).

My Facebook newsfeed, as predicted, is literally plastered with photos of my former school friends’ children, dressed up in rather ridiculous traditional Welsh (peasant) costumes; photos of peoples’ homemade Welshcakes; status updates exclaiming that people were making Cawl (A Welsh stew containing lamb and leeks which is traditionally consumed on St. David’s Day); ghastly gif and jpeg banners that read ‘Dydd Gwyl Dewi Sant Hapus’ (Happy St. David’s Day); all of which gives some insight into the feigned optimism that seems to span across the nation for one day every 1st March, disguising the chilling reality that depression and suicide is reportedly on the increase in Wales.

St. David’s Day is invariably celebrated in Wales, and by Welsh societies, throughout the world with dinners, parties, and Eisteddfodau (recitals and concerts). Parades take place, with food festivals, and street parties in bigger cities. Most schools traditionally have an unofficial day off, by participating in all-day school Eisteddfodau, with the main activities being recitation, singing, and traditional Welsh folk dancing. The main search page on Google.co.uk features a special St. David’s Day “Google Doodle” to commemorate the day, and despite the fact that Saint David abstained from drinking and advised others to do the same, a number of Welsh breweries make special St. David’s Day ales. British pub, J.D.Wetherspoon even run a St. David’s Day Ale Festival. Even more bizarre, is that Disney’s Mickey and Minnie adopt a Welsh identity for the Disneyland Paris St David’s Day Festival!

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A Saint David’s Day Street Parade (Copyright: Andrew Hazard)

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The Archdruid withdraws a sword from its sheath three times at a Welsh Eisteddfod

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The Saint David’s Day “doodle” featured on Google’s search engine page.

Do not get me wrong. I love Wales, and I am inherently proud of my Welsh-Irish heritage (Predominantly Welsh!). Wales is a beautiful country, with a rich cultural heritage – it is famously known for being the “Land of Song”, in addition to being famous for its stunning natural scenery and coastline, and its world famous rugby team. In fact, Rhossili Bay in South Wales, has been ranked 3rd Best Beach in Europe, and the Welsh always give visitors a warm welcome… If you’re not an English person visiting during rugby season! I must admit, that my ancestral roots also give me an excuse to join in with the atheist hypocrisy of celebrating a Saint, as I use the day as an excuse to make, and gastronomically demolish, a substantial number of homemade (vegan) Welshcakes.

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Rhossili Bay, Gower, Wales

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A Welsh lady with a plate of Welshcakes… The girl behind isn’t looking so impressed.

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The Harp is the traditional instrument of Wales

The biggest hypocrisy of all, is that few people in Wales actually seem to know who St. David actually was, or that the day has its roots in religion. For those of you who are wondering who is this St. David chap is, and why everyone now seems to fanatically celebrate annually on 1st March, I shall explain.

Dewi Sant, or St David, is the patron saint of Wales. According to the Museum of Wales, what little is known about him is based on a Latin manuscript written by Rhigyfarch, towards the end of the 11th century.

Rhigyfarch accounts that Dewi died in the year 589. He was a scion of the royal house of Ceredigion, and founded a Celtic monastic community at Glyn Rhosyn (St. Davids) on the western headland of Pembrokeshire, at the spot where St David’s Cathedral stands today. From the 12th century onwards, Dewi’s fame spread throughout South Wales, Ireland, Brittany, and the West of England, where it is believed he founded religious centres such as Glastonbury and Croyland. He continued with a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where he was made archbishop. St David’s Cathedral became a popular centre of pilgrimage, particularly after Dewi was officially recognised as a Catholic saint in 1120. From this period on, he was frequently referred to in the work of medieval Welsh poets such as Iolo Goch and Lewys Glyn Cothi.

According to Rhigyfarch, many ‘miracles’ have been attributed to Dewi, the most “incredible” of which, was when he caused the ground to rise underneath him, so that he could be seen and heard by all when he was preaching at the Synod of Llanddewibrefi. Now before the Christians amongst you get excited by the story of a rising floor, consider the irony that Rhigyfarch was the son of the Bishop of St David’s. It is, therefore, believed that the account was written as propaganda to establish Dewi’s superiority, and thus defend the bishopric from being taken over by Canterbury and the Normans.

In 1398, it was decided that Dewi’s feast-day was to be held by every church in the Province of Canterbury, and Saint David was recognised as a national patron saint at the height of Welsh resistance to the Normans. Although the feast of Dewi as a religious festival came to an end with the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, St. David’s Day was celebrated by Welsh diaspora from the late Middle Ages., and became a national festival during the 18th century.

Interestingly, however, the 17th-century diarist Samuel Pepys noted how the Welsh St. David’s Day celebrations in London would spark wider counter celebrations amongst their English neighbours. Life-sized effigies of Welshmen were reported to have been symbolically lynched; and according to Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud in the Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore, the custom had arisen in the 18th century of confectioners producing “taffies”, which were gingerbread figures baked in the shape of a Welshman riding a goat— on Saint David’s Day. This perhaps gives us some further insight into the rivalry between the Welsh and English, which unfortunately, still exists to a lesser extent today.

Previous resistance to England can be seen in the poem Armes Prydain, composed in the early to mid-tenth century AD, in which an anonymous author prophesies that the Welsh people will unite and join an alliance of fellow-Celts to repel the Anglo-Saxons, under the banner of Saint David: A lluman glân Dewi a ddyrchafant (And they will raise the pure banner of Dewi).

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Facsimile of a page from the Book of Taliesin (folio 13 recto), showing the last lines of the poem Cad Goddeu and the beginning of the poem Mabgyfreu Taliesin (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Now, I must facetiously bid my English readers, “twll dîn pob sais”, as I hypocritically devour my Welshcakes – cakes which were once traditionally baked on a cast iron griddle for hungry Welsh Coal Miners (along with a staple diet of Cawl, and a type of meatball called Faggots). The Welsh peoples’ love of Welshcakes is something neither the English (or the rest of the world) will ever quite understand. I suppose one could describe it as the Welsh equivalent of the English’s penchant for scones with jam and cream.

Happy Saint David’s Day everyone! (Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Sant Hapus pawb!)

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And since I was once so cute, this is me in a traditional Welsh lady costume, aged 6.

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Legalisation Of Cannabis And A Whole Pot Of Ignorance

Whilst in the process of writing a couple of other articles, a rather hostile debate broke out on Twitter, last night, on the controversial issue of legalising cannabis.

My personal views are somewhat mixed. Whilst I personally cannot abide the substance and would never care to even try it, that does not mean that I am against the legalisation of cannabis.

In fact, there are actually some very good reasons for legalisation, just as there are also some strong arguments against. Nevertheless, when pointing out the negatives last night, I received a number of responses from the ever-so-lovely fellow tweeters. Here are just a few examples:

As I dared to debate the potential problems that legalisation might present, I was subsequently blocked by TJ Kincaid @amazingatheist, for not sharing his views 100%. This was despite my stating that cannabis should be legalised, but felt that a very carefully drafted legislation, and tight regulation, should be construed.

There are certainly reasons for legalisation. For example, a study published in the UK medical journal, The Lancet, ranked cannabis as one of the least harmful drugs. Yet, many cannabis users are actually risking their health, and others via passive smoking, by consuming cannabis that is of uncontrolled and doubtful purity. For example, the ‘Talk To Frank’ website states that Cannabis may be ‘cut’ with other substances to increase the weight and the dealer’s profits, with laboratory-confirmed reports of impurities such as glass and pesticides being found in herbal forms of cannabis; and with hash/resin frequently being mixed with a range of substances to increase weight. The site also reports of a 2010 study on contaminants found in drugs, which reported that there were cases of cannabis being adulterated with henna, lead and aluminum. By legalising cannabis, regulatory measures can be taken to control the quality of the substance. Not to mention that with the substance currently being illegal, the Government receives no revenue, and criminals are making all the profits.

Furthermore, people who use cannabis for genuine medicinal purposes are criminalised and somewhat alienated for using it, and are prohibited from a beneficial medicine for a serious condition. No important long-term research can be conducted on the therapeutic uses of cannabis, because of its current illegality in Britain. As a result, police time is wasted, the courts are backlogged with multiple cases, whilst the prisons are overcrowded.

As for the benefits of the drug itself, the plant contains more than 400 chemicals, including cannabidiolic acid, an antibiotic with similar properties to penicillin. The different chemical derivatives of the plant can be used for medicinal or recreational purposes, and is reported to acts as a mild sedative, leaving most people feeling relaxed or sleepy. By contrast, it is also claimed to make some more animated, and is also reported to release inhibitions. Wide-scale trials testing the safety and efficacy of cannabis extracts (or synthetic forms of them) are currently underway, and so far there has been interest in the use of cannabinoids in nausea and vomiting, appetite, control of cancer symptoms, pain, anxiety and muscle spasticity. Cannabis appears to be able to help reduce the side effects of chemotherapy treatment, although not more so than other already established medications. Some cannabinoids have been reported to relieve nausea during cancer treatment, allowing patients to eat and live normally. There have also been reports of cannabinoids having a protective effect against cancer in mice.

Research has also shown that smoking cannabis from a pipe can significantly reduce chronic pain in patients with damaged nerves, a study suggests. Cannabis extracts also seem to benefit people suffering from multiple sclerosis (MS), by reducing muscle spasticity, thus increasing a person’s ability to stay independent.

However, one myth about cannabis is that it is safe, because it is natural. Despite the suggested benefits, a survey of 1,000 adults conducted by The British Lung Foundation, found that one third wrongly believed cannabis did not harm health, and 88% incorrectly thought tobacco cigarettes were more harmful than cannabis. The NHS news website highlights that many of the same cancer-causing compounds in cigarettes are also present in cannabis, and reports on one study suggestion that over the course of a year, smoking a single joint each day could result in the same level of lung damage as smoking 20 cigarettes per day over the same period.

Indeed, studies have found a significantly higher accident culpability risk of drivers using cannabis, and chronic inflammatory and precancerous changes demonstrated in the airways of cannabis smokers, and a case-control study showed an increased risk of airways cancer that is proportional to the amount of cannabis use.

Furthermore, a study conducted at University of Toronto, on the adverse effects of cannabis on health found a causal role of acute cannabis intoxication in motor vehicle and other accidents with the presence of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in cannabis, in the blood of injured drivers in the absence of alcohol or other drugs.

Several different studies indicate a link between cannabis use and schizophrenia. The adverse effect of cannabis use on the clinical course of schizophrenia has been confirmed in a 3-year follow-up study of psychotic and non-psychotic subjects in the Netherlands. Those who were using cannabis at the start of the 3-year period were more likely to have some psychotic symptoms, and especially to have severe symptoms, at follow-up. Both this, and a second study, revealed that those who had psychotic symptoms at the start of the study showed a more severe adverse effect of cannabis use than those who were non-psychotic at the start. Studies reveal that cannabis can also cause serious relapse in people with schizophrenia.

Furthermore, a significant link between cannabis and depression has also been found in various cohort studies, with a large-scale case-control study in New Zealand found a significant link between heavy cannabis use and serious attempts at suicide. A Canadian study found in a representative sample of over 1800 Quebec adolescents, that over one third had used cannabis and other illicit drugs more than five times, and encountered a variety of interpersonal problems related to their drug use. Cannabis has been shown to cause feelings of anxiety, suspicion, panic, and paranoia.

Another study has linked cannabis to testicular cancer, whilst cannabis has also been found to cause cognitive decline. A growing body of evidence indicates subtle but apparently permanent effects on memory, information processing, and executive functions, in the offspring of women who used cannabis during pregnancy. In total, the evidence indicates that regular heavy use of cannabis carries significant risks for the individual user and for the health care system.

Whilst recognising that there are limitations to the current evidence, the Canadian Cancer Society believes there is enough research to suggest an increased risk of cancer associated with long-term smoking of marijuana and being exposed to second-hand marijuana smoke. They suggest that cannabis smoke contains as many as 50 of the same carcinogens as tobacco smoke, and also state that there is scientific evidence that smoking marijuana may be associated with increased abnormalities in some of the cells in the body, including precancerous changes in the lungs. Might it, thus, not be wise that more research be conducted to better understand the cancer risks associated with long-term recreational smoking of cannabis and of exposure to second-hand cannabis smoke (not to mention the added risks of third-hand smoke), before ultimately deciding to legalise it? There are also studies which contradict such health risks, and the question is, which “evidence” should we believe?

My personal experience is that even walking a few centimetres behind a person smoking cannabis outdoors is sufficient to give me symptoms 20 minutes later, such as nausea, alteration of taste, insomnia, and brain fog. This would certainly tie in with the findings of scientific research.

However, despite the scientific findings that suggest cannabis is a harmful drug, none of the cannabis research carried out over the past 50 years has been conclusive. Although tobacco also affects the lungs, the law does not criminalise those who smoke, and it is not illegal to smoke outside of an enclosed public area. However, taking the possible health risks into consideration, combined with the risks of passive smoking, there is all the more reason to tightly legislate where the drug can be smoked. As free individuals we, of course, should all have the autonomy to put whatever substances we wish into our own bodies. However, it is unfair to inflict our potentially risky lifestyle choices upon others, via passive smoking. There is also the issue of burden upon the health service, which in the UK, is already under strain from lack of funding, the burden of the British binge drinking culture, obesity adding to the number of diabetes, cancer, and heart disease cases, and from people generally living longer and presenting an array of old-age related illnesses. Furthermore, there is the possibility of serious consequences arising from mixing cannabis with alcohol, which reinforces the requirement that we need a very tight legislation if the drug were to be legalised

I appreciate that cigarettes, alcohol, and pollution from vehicles are all toxic and can potentially cause much harm, but to use that as an excuse to add to pollution and health risks, is a very weak argument, and does not reinforce why a person has the right to selfishly inflict their smoke upon others, who may be suffering from chronic chest complaints. UK legislation makes smoking in a public place an offence under Section 1 of The Health Act 2006. However, it does not apply to outdoors, which means smoke is often a problem for people walking behind someone on the High Street, or standing at a bus stop, or living in a flat next to a smoker, etc., which could also be a problem if cannabis were legalized. A wise legislative solution might be to enforce that users only smoke the drug within the confines of their own private detached house, or at a special designated “Marijuana Bar”, where it will not impact the health of others who do not wish to have second hand cannabis smoke inflicted upon them without their consent.

On the grounds of legalising cannabis for its health benefits, it would surely be more prudent to administer a cannabinoid based medicine derived from the cannabis sativa plant, such as that which came into use in the UK in 2010 for people with MS, rather than administering the recreational cannabis that causes euphoria. Less than 3% of those in trials for the derived drug said it changed their mood. As a botanical product, it is difficult to test for efficacy and safety of the natural product, as the proportions of active chemicals can range greatly from plant to plant.

What is particularly interesting is that pro-cannabis advocates all claim that cannabis has the ability to “calm” a person. Therefore, I question why cannabis users are so hostile and aggressive in their method of debate, if the drug has such a calming affect? Surely such aggressive language and manner, similar to that on Twitter, goes someway in reinforcing the studies that suggest the drug causes permanent psychological problems such as anxiety, perception, paranoia, and hostility – not to mention mental illnesses.

It is also interesting that the pro-cannabis advocates, including TJ Kincaid, failed to note that I was not saying that the cannabis should not be legalised, but was merely pointing out the issues legalisation could potentially cause. Consider the studies that suggest how the effects of cannabis can interfere with a person’s attention, judgement, and thinking, and perhaps this suggests the reason as to why.

Alas, such hostility in the pro-cannabis advocates’ method of debate, is surely not the way to convince government officials of the drugs supposed benefits. Conversely, it might even go some way into convincing officials that the studies suggesting the drug’s adverse effects on the brain are accurate after all.

Do “Too Many Tweets Make A Tw*t”?

Public opinion of the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, has just about reached an all-time low, but it appears that our dear Mr CamWrong may have been “right” about one thing …

Twitter.

During an interview on Absolute Radio, back in 2009, David Cameron was asked by presenter Christian O’Connell whether he used Twitter.

“Politicians do have to think about what we say,” Mr Cameron stated, seemingly without irony, before bestowing the following howler upon us: “The trouble with Twitter, the instantness of it – too many twits might make a twat.”

Despite the absurd irony of Mr Cameron’s ineptness, his statement is made all the more ironic by the fact the Conservative Party had a twitter account, and not to mention that Mr Cameron now also has a Twitter account for No. 10 Downing Street. Therefore, it would seem that one “twit” in particular, really can “make a tw*t”.

As a user of Twitter, my opinion about the site is somewhat mixed. I am often bemused by the sheer ludicrousness that some people manage to incorporate into just 140 characters. Because of the 140 character limit, one can often be subjected to a long list of multiple tweets from the same person(s); full of ridiculously abbreviated words, and depending on who one is following, may result in a trail of absolute nonsense trawling up the newsfeed.

Whilst I like to think I am a little more selective about who I follow, one does come across some real “gems” retweeted by others, sometimes retweeted purely for comedy value.

Just take a look at some of these examples:

Let us not forget the way Twitter was used to incite the London Riots, whilst bystanders tweeted their riot “observations”, or riot warnings to others. Quite often, it emerged that a ridiculous number of tweets provided nothing other than false information. Yet, the false information spread like wildfire, such as rumours about the streets of a West London borough apparently being set in flames, only for nervous residents to later discover that the worst event to have actually occurred in that particular area, was a brick thrown through a shop window! What a kick in the teeth to the people who genuinely were affected by the Riots, and who lost their homes in the fires in Croydon, Tottenham, Hackney, etc. However, it must also be pointed out that Twitter also played an important role in the post-riots clean-up, which gave the police a means of tracing those who incited and recruited other rioters.

One disturbing aspect of Twitter is that regulating the site is virtually impossible because of the massive volume of messages and tweets that are sent every second. On the subject of immediacy, as also mentioned by Mr. Cameron, it can only take so much as one misinformed tweet for a false rumour to become a worldwide trend in minutes, as we have seen in the past, ranging from the apparent “death” of a celebrity, down to their so-called sordid affairs. There is a great deal of misinformation and sometimes sheer nastiness. But none of this is a special feature of Twitter, as it is a feature of people generally. Furthermore, it is very difficult to pick up on humour and sarcasm via Twitter (and, indeed, other social media sites), leading to many misunderstandings and quarrels. One careless or false tweet has the potential of giving information capable of ruining lives and relationships. But, on a more positive note, celebrities and high-profile people have utilised  Twitter’s immediacy as a way of “setting the record straight” about a rumour,  and to engage with their fans, and even form more of a following.

I must confess that I do love Twitter as a means of keeping up-to-date with current affairs. Twitter is a fantastic forum for learning of any errors in news reporting and for academics to promote general public understanding of their research. It is also a wonderful forum for lawyers, politicians, and and journalists to share information such as links, viewpoints, and to receive instant feedback. It is now becoming common for interesting legal trials to be live-tweeted and debated by legal scholars, and for the mainstream media to subsequently try and catch-up! Whilst one may have to sift through some rather trivial tweets, there are so many high-profile academics who are happy to share a fresh insight and engage in very interesting topical debates. As a result of instant tweeting and academic blogging, newspaper reports are now becoming old news that contribute little additional value to what one has already learned “straight from the horses’ mouths” on Twitter.

Some university departments are also increasingly using Twitter as a teaching resource, and whilst it may seen that nothing of value could possibly be written in only 140 characters; for all the bizarre tweets full of abbreviations that I sometimes think only the person who tweeted it could possibly understand,  I have also very often been pleasantly surprised. The restriction in communicating with just 140 characters can be a very useful learning method: It teaches one how to be more succinct by forcing one to stick with the facts, and not swaying off topic, which would result in a long series of multiple tweets. That, after all, might lead to a mass exodus of followers, as they become increasingly more frustrated with having to sift through the vast number of irrelevant tweets on their news-feed.

Taking the latter into account, maybe too many tweets really do make a “twat”. However, too many tweets might actually rid you of some, too!

Cheerio, chaps!