One Ring To Rule Them All: A Monumental Controversy In Wales

In the world of galactically stupid public art projects, we may have found a new frontrunner.

The government of Wales recently held a competition to design a monument and visitor enhancements on the site of the ruined castle of Flint, in the northern part of the country. The winning entry, called “Iron Ring”, features a giant, cantilevered metal bridge in the shape of a partially-buried circle. The design was submitted by an English architectural firm based in London, which in and of itself seems rather bizarre – there are no competent architects or gifted artists in Wales? – and which may, in part, explain why many people find this proposed structure deeply offensive: not so much on a design level, but on a cultural one.

I must admit, as much as I instinctively dislike “Iron Ring” to some degree, there is something rather cool about its design, or at least in how it will appear at night (see accompanying illustration below.) Given all of the inscriptions running around it, I can’t help but think of The One Ring from J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic novels. With its dramatic, ruined castle backdrop, I could see future LOTR-themed cosplay weddings taking place on or beneath it.

There’s a slight problem here, however, which brings us out of the world of nerd fiction into that of serious history. For you see, the “Iron Ring” is a term used to describe the group of castles built in Wales by an invading England, as part of the latter’s efforts to conquer and subjugate their neighbors during the Middle Ages. If you are a Welsh nationalist, or even just a proud Welshman, you can well understand why the reference to Sauron is perhaps an all-too-apt one in this set of circumstances.

England’s King Edward I subdued the pesky Welsh by systematically building a series of massive fortifications which allowed his armies to quash any resistance. At the same time this allowed English settlers to move in and take land for themselves, at the expense of the local population, who were forbidden to live in the towns that sprang up around these military installations. Flint Castle was among the first of the structures in the “Iron Ring” to go up as part of that process of colonization.

What’s even weirder than a modern-day Englishman building a monument to the crushing of the Welsh people, is paying for it using Welsh taxpayer money. As one Welsh professor commented, hundreds of thousands of pounds in public funds are “being spent on a sculpture that is essentially a monument to Wales’ conquest.” Interestingly as well, despite the somewhat clumsily organized phenomenon of Welsh devolution over the last 20 years, the Welsh government has failed to commission any substantial monuments to commemorate Welsh history…up until now.

Here in the U.S., we are ourselves are going through a period of reconsideration with respect to monuments that were constructed in the South long after the end of the Civil War, specifically those that honor rebel leaders. As David A. Graham writes in The Atlantic, there are fine distinctions to be drawn in the discussion about what to do with monuments to individuals or causes that are now considered to be controversial or deeply offensive. Yet the difference between the U.S. and Welsh situations is sharply delineated by the fact that in this country we are talking about already-existing structures; in Wales the issue is about something which has not yet been built. It would be unfathomable, I suspect, to a majority of Americans living in the present-day to use taxpayer money to construct a brand-new memorial to Robert E. Lee, for example.

So far over 10,000 people have signed an online petition against the construction of what we might call “Iron Ring 2.0”, and there have been a raft of complaints about the proposed monument popping up in the international press from more outspoken Welsh historians, politicians, and opinion makers. It remains to be seen whether the National Assembly will pay more than lip service to any of these complaints. But whether from a lack of sensitivity, or out of utter stupidity, they have certainly put themselves into quite a pickle.

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