Fifty years after the village of Capel Celyn in North Wales was flooded to make a reservoir, the wounds have not healed. What do we lose when we submerge the past and what can it teach us?

Weekend Word, BBC Radio Wales 16.10.2015

I have been moved to learn this week about Capel Celyn, the village in Gwynedd that was submerged fifty years ago this week to create the Tryweryn Reservoir, which provides Liverpool with water. I’ve seen the evocative images of the village before its destruction – a collection of sturdy stone buildings and a chapel – and the way of life that was lost.

The village’s story seems to resonate beyond this particular tragedy. It provokes strong feelings and symbolises a more general disregard for Welsh history, community, language and the perspectives of ordinary people.

As a non-Welsh person who has married into a Welsh family, I am slowly sensing the charged memories that lie below the surface of Welsh life and the feeling that the past, including past wrongs, must not be discarded or submerged.

As RS Thomas’ wrote in his powerful poem about Capel Celyn:

There are places in Wales I don’t go
Reservoirs that are the subconscious
Of a people, troubled far down
With gravestones, chapels, villages even.

I also encounter this history as a Buddhist. I know that people associate Buddhism with mindfulness and focusing on the present moment; but the Buddhist view is that being aware of what’s happening now includes knowing what has come before. The past lives on below the surface of things, like the submerged world Thomas describes.

That means remembering. One of the farmhouses at the St Fagans’ National History Museum, just up the road from here, was actually the family home of my wife’s ancestors, and was relocated from mid-Wales when the land it stood on was flooded to create another reservoir. Yes, a museum is an artificial environment; but the loving care that preserved the farmhouse means that my son can see and feel his connection to the past.

Dwelling unduly on past grief, either personal or cultural, can paralyse us or lock us into resentment. An alternative is what Christians call ‘bearing witness’ and Buddhists call mindfully attending to what has happened with awareness and compassion, even if it includes loss, injustice and pain, as in the case of Capel Celyn.

The compassion is important. History can help us to know who we are; and if we can find the right way to pay attention, it may also help us know what to do.