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Eisteddfod Genedlaethol Cymru

Dinbych - 2001

25 years on

After a 25 year break I was back at the Welsh National Eisteddfod this year. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had been out of touch with both Welsh culture and politics on the ground but I was aware there had been some changes in the intervening years.

On the surface, at least, the language situation had much improved and Wales now had its own parliament, albeit with fairly restricted powers compared with the aspirations of the nationalist and language movements of the 1970s.

My general impression after a week at the Eisteddfod was that despite the changes, the underlying issues remain the same as in the 1970s, except that Wales itself now has the responsibility and the capacity to deal with them - it is now a question of “Welsh Will” rather than “UK Won’t”.

Eisteddfod is the pinnacle of Welsh culture

The Eisteddfod (meaning “session”) is the pinnacle of Welsh speaking culture. [1] It is an annual event and covers an unbelievably wide range of activities. Cultural competitions play a very large part but the occasion is used by various associations and societies, political parties, government-backed organisations and institutions, commercial organisations and producers, craft workers, churches and the media, to put a case, sell a product or just reassure the general public that they are still in the land of the living.


Attendance at the week-long festival is between 150,000 and 200,000 visitor-days.[2]

Traveling show

The festival location alternates between north and south Wales every second year. This not only spreads the benefits around the country but ensures the maximum involvement of the widest population over time in the organisation of the festival and in its activities. Preparations start two years in advance when the location is decided and a large slice of the local population is mobilised in a vast voluntary effort. With a full time staff of around 18, the festival relies on at least a thousand volunteers both at national (Wales) and local level. The enthusiasm of the voluntary workers, who range right through the religious, sporting, political, age and gender spectrum, has to be experienced to be fully appreciated. This is the International Year of Volunteers and the Eisteddfod has included the festival in the Year’s 2001 celebrations.

Denbigh 2001

Denbigh, the site of this year’s Eisteddfod, is in Northeast Wales, near Rhyl, St. Asaph and Ruthin. While the modern (post 1880) Eisteddfod has only visited Denbigh twice, in 1882 and 1939, it had been many times in the region in the intervening years. There is a special meaning, however, to having it in your own town. This year there was great excitement in the town itself and in the surrounding areas at the prospect of being the epicentre of Welsh culture for this one week of the year.

Denbigh itself is a very pretty town. It is situated on a hill and is dominated by a castle which is still in very good condition. The town centre boasts an old stocks which, thankfully, was not in use during our stay at the Eisteddfod this year.

The Gorsedd circle

Although it actually means a “throne” or “mound” the word Gorsedd is used as a collective noun for the assembly of druids and bards when they gather in their colourful garb to oversee the awarding of the crown, chair or prose medal, initiate new members into the fold or welcome the delegates from the other Celtic countries to the Eisteddfod.

The Gorsedd circle[3], consisting of a grouping of large standing stones and an “altar stone” arranged in a pattern denoting the rays of the sun and the “ineffable name” of the Lord, is specially constructed on the outskirts of each town for the Eisteddfod’s first visit. It is used for some of the colourful druidic ceremonies, and usually remains after the departure of the Eisteddfod, to be used again, hopefully, on the return of the festival to the town in later years. Despite the Eisteddfod having previously visited Denbigh, a new circle had to be constructed for this year's festival. The old circle from 1939 had been built over by the local Catholic church - reminiscent of the Church’s appropriation, over the centuries, of pagan festivals into the liturgical calendar.


The Eisteddfod field proper (y maes) was a 35 acre field, but the supporting space, car parks, caravan and camping sites, added another 100 acres. The whole site was, conveniently, as flat as a pancake, and, on this account, is known as the pacific field. Some youth activities, such as gigs, were held on an adjacent field (maes B), in the town and the adjacent towns of Rhyl and Ruthin. Prequalifying tests for the competitions were held in halls on the maes, in local chapels and the local high school.

Local involvement

There is intense local involvement in the Eisteddfod, both in the two year run up to the festival and in making a success of it on the day. Police and local authorities are involved in planning traffic flows, as Eisteddfod locations are not initially suitable for the vast influx of visitor cars, busses and supply trucks during the festival. In Denbigh the police ran a very well thought out one-way system which proved its worth during the week. Many of the shops and public buildings had staged window and interior exhibitions recalling the town’s involvement with previous national and local eisteddfodau.

Special groupings from Denbigh and the surrounding area were formed for the festival and these performed in the evenings in the pavilion during the week. They included a cast of 200 primary school pupils who put on a light music show; a 160 strong cast from the local area secondary schools who staged the musical Oliver and an almost 400 strong Eisteddfod mixed voice choir which participated in a miscellany entitled “Viva Verdi” with nationally renowned Welsh solo opera singers.

Other existing groupings, not specifically formed for the occasion, but appearing in evening concerts in the Pavilion, included the Welsh Youth Orchestra, the Cardiff Bay Orchestra, the Ruthin mixed voice choir and a number of area-based male voice choirs. The internationally renowned Welsh bass baritone, Bryn Terfel, was also a major attraction at one of the evening performances.

Foot and Mouth

One of the big imponderables in the lead up to this year’s Eisteddfod was the foot and mouth outbreak in the UK. While the immediate area around Denbigh was not affected, the disease was rampant in many of the areas from which both attendees and competitors would come to the festival. In April, as the deadline approached a final decision, the organisers were in a dilemma. They did not want to be the cause of bringing the disease into the area and possibly spreading it to other areas in Wales. Nor did they have any way of knowing whether the area might be subject to an outbreak in the run up to the Eisteddfod. In the event the Welsh National Assembly came to the rescue with a grant of £150,000 to underwrite contracts which had to be entered into in April, but which would constitute losses if the festival were to be cancelled. This allowed the organisers to postpone a final decision until the beginning of May, when it was decided to go ahead. However, those living in areas affected by foot and mouth were asked to seriously consider not travelling to this year’s festival.

During Eisteddfod week itself special precautions were in place. Cars were inspected for mud on arrival at the field and clean cars were certified as having arrived in that condition. Local mud, subsequently picked up during the week, was deemed to be “clean mud”. Local farms were put out of bounds to visitors and cars arriving with pets on board were turned away. At the time of this writing, the precautions seem to have paid off and the only perceptible adverse effect was a modest reduction in attendance figures.


There are some 200 separate competitions including serious poetry and prose, music, recitation, song and dance, arts and crafts and technology based activities. There are also competitions in a lighter vein such as writing scripts for stand-up comedians, or a series of correspondence in email, limericks and even an amusing song about a soap opera. A recent innovation was a competition for building a web site promoting the stand for Welsh learners at the Eisteddfod or illustrating an aspect of Welsh life. This was quite daring as the Eisteddfod itself only set up an official website last year.

However broad the range of competitions, interest centres on a limited number of high profile categories. At the apex are the poetry competitions for the crown and chair, followed by the contest for the Prose medal. A high spot towards the end of the week is the male voice choir competition for choirs of over 60 voices.

However, the decline of the coal and steel industries in the southern valleys, combined with a generation gap between the traditional forms of entertainment and the modern TV and cyber world, has led to a significant reduction in entries for the male voice choir competition. In the past, intense local rivalries led to a high level of entries and cut-throat competition. This has now given way to the lure of US tours. There is a fear that, once having won the competition, risking lower placings in subsequent years could tarnish the image required to market the choir abroad and maximise tour takings. While this attitude is understandable, it runs the risk of eventually undermining the future of that competition.

High points

Most Eisteddfodau become memorable for one reason or another. My first Eisteddfod in Flint in 1969 was seriously historical as this was the year of the Investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales. Everything that happened in Wales that year was qualified by the word “Investiture”. This investiture Eisteddfod provoked serious protests by the nascent Welsh Language Society and even the somewhat sparsely populated, “Free Wales Army” of the day.

The Ruthin Eisteddfod in 1973, held not far from Denbigh, was memorable for Alan Lloyd Roberts winning both major poetry prizes, the crown and the chair, at the same Eisteddfod. It is not unusual for poets to have won both crown and chair, even many times over, but to win both at the one Eisteddfod is relatively rare. [4] It was to happen soon again in 1976, when Alan once more pulled off the double, but only because the winner of the chair that year, Dic Jones, was disqualified over a technical conflict of interest. As a member of one of the local Eisteddfod committees, Dic did not qualify to enter the competition, but, as entries are adjudicated under pen names, this was not picked up until the last minute.[5]

The authorities were very lucky that year to have had two poems which the adjudicators had already indicated, in their written adjudications, were worthy of a chair. In fact Dic’s poem only pipped Alan’s by a short head. In what subsequently turned out to be ironic, one of the adjudicators had unwittingly commented that Dic's winning poem (Spring) "was in the same class as Dic Jones’s (Harvest)" which won Dic the chair ten years previously.

The double (crown and chair) was pulled off again the following year in Wrexham and in 1980 in Diffryn Lliw by Donald Evans and had not been repeated since.

So what did this year hold in store that would make it memorable. The Denbigh Eisteddfod was going to be historic anyhow. The modern (post 1880) Eisteddfod had visited Denbigh twice before, in 1882 and 1939. On neither occasion was a chair awarded. In 1939 neither chair nor crown was awarded, the first time this had happened in the history of the Eisteddfod.[6] If neither was awarded this year, history would repeat itself. If only the crown was awarded then Denbigh would have refused to chair a bard three times in a row, and if a chair was awarded the Denbigh jinx would be broken. A no-lose situation for those wanting a piece of history, but which would it be?

The literary competitions

There is intense interest throughout Welsh-speaking Wales in the results of the main literary, and particularly the poetry, competitions every year. Queues form at retail outlets on the field for the published volume of adjudications and winning entries. This volume becomes a sort of literary bible during the following year and it is minutely scrutinised and hotly debated across the nation

Great effort goes into maintaining the standard of entries for competitions. Prizes are not awarded lightly. Irrespective of the importance of the competition, if the standard of entries is not judged adequate no prize is awarded. Since 1880 the chair has been withheld on 14 occasions and the crown on 4 occasions. The Prose medal has been withheld 11 times since its inception in 1937.

While the entrants strive for perfection, its absence does not necessarily deny them the prize. For example, the adjudicator in one of this year’s main literary competitions criticised the leading entry and suggested some faults that might be remedied, yet the prize was awarded. The adjudicators are well aware of the need to encourage new writers and will strive to award the prize, providing standards are not compromised. This constructive approach was vindicated when one of this year's winners subsequently revealed that, were it not for the encouragement of an adjudicator at an earlier National Eisteddfod, they would not have had the confidence to persist.

This year’s results

The competition for the prose medal (a prose volume of under 40,000 words) had “voices” as its subject. The winning entry dealt with the tragic loss of an only daughter in a car accident, the effect on the father who cut himself off from all human and other contact, except for the voices which challenge and torment him to his limits. We see his despair and frustration, his anger and rage, his desire for vengeance and his self-reproach. We follow his attempted suicide and share his rock-bottom before the tentative signs appear of his coming to terms with himself and opting to rejoin the living.

The winner was Elfyn Pritchard, from Gwyddelwern (Swamp of the Gael) near Bala. He already has a distinguished career as a novelist and has adjudicated at a number of National Eisteddfodau. While his composition is not based on direct personal experience, he makes the point that everyone suffers losses in their life and as a teacher, headmaster and deacon he has also shared in the losses of others.

The competition for the bardic crown, for a series of at least ten poems in free verse and not more than 200 lines, had been set on the theme “walls”. The winning entry dealt with how people build psychological and social defences in their lives against the possibility of hurt and end up isolating themselves from the rest of the human race, depriving themselves of the sustenance needed for a full and balanced life. The poem follows a life sequence from the child building the walls of his lego castle to higher walls leading to his self-imposed isolation. In later life this erupts into violence towards his contemporaries, verbal violence against women in general and physical abuse of his wife. It is a powerful work on a very contemporary theme. We are left with the haunting image of the wife begging for release while the husband hides his face in the newspaper . Meanwhile in public she smiles wanly in an attempt to hide her bruises.

The winner was Penri Roberts of Llanidloes. He is the headmaster of a primary school in Newtown and is to be the head of Powys’s (north-east Wales) first Welsh School from September.

The chair

The competition for the bardic chair, which involves a poem of not more than 200 lines in very strict traditional metre (cynghanedd), had as its theme “renaissance” or “rebirth”.

This had also been the subject for the crown competition in 1972 and at that time the winning poem examined contemporary Welsh problems, drawing on the Mabinogion tale of Branwen, Matholwch, the Irish and the “cauldron of rebirth.

This year’s winning entry was more intensely personal. It dealt with the initial fulfillment of a maiden through the birth of her baby and her subsequent despair at the baby’s death. She was then “neither maiden nor mother”. It finishes with her realisation that, despite what happens to us, we still have the power of choice - to choose living over despair. This is the “rebirth”. In his adjudication, Dic Jones confessed to being “completely floored by the section dealing with the pregnancy, birth and mourning”.

Secrets are hard to keep, particularly in a close community like that of Welsh Wales, where everyone either knows everyone else, or at least knows someone else who does. There was a great air of expectancy building up around this competition during the week (some would say for the previous month). Rumour had it that something big was going to happen and everyone wanted to be there. The BBC was finding it hard to line up people for a live studio discussion during the event. For once, no one wanted to be part of the chattering class, commenting on history as it passed them by. They wanted to be part of its making.

There are two magic moments at the culmination of the poetry and prose competitions, more so the poetry than the prose and most particularly the chair. The competitors have entered under pen-names. The Gorsedd are assembled on stage, their bardic finery a sea of gold, white, blue and green shimmering under the floodlights. They face out to a packed and eager audience of 4,000 people. The air is electric as the adjudicator delivers the adjudication. The audience hang on every word - has he found someone worthy of the prize? Will there be a chair? There is a palpable sigh of relief as the pen name of the winner is revealed. This is the first magic moment. The Archdruid proclaims the name from the stage asking that person, and no other, to stand. The spotlight searches over the hushed and darkened audience. Yes, someone has risen to their feet. The spotlight finds them, a lighted winner in a vast sea of darkness. A collective gasp which slowly turns to applause. Ever rising waves of cheering and clapping roll around the pavilion. Everyone is on their feet.

This year the winner was a woman, we were part of history and the enthusiasm of the crowd knew no bounds. Pure magic. Hwyl.

This was the defining moment of this year’s Eisteddfod. For the first time in the history of the Eisteddfod, the chair was won by a woman. Women had won the crown and the prose medal in the past, though rarely. But the supreme honour had never been achieved by a woman before. And now it had finally happened in Denbigh, where nobody had ever won a chair, and, fittingly, where, at the 1882 Eisteddfod, women had first been admitted to the Gorsedd.

A further piece of history was made when the Archdruid kissed the Chair Bard onstage, a not so surprising first when one considers that these two offices have been male preserves since time immemorial. The Archdruid, whose term ends this year, also had the satisfaction that there had been no chairs or crowns withheld on this three year watch.

The winner was Mererid Hopwood. Her academic training is in languages and she was recently Head of the Arts Council West and mid Wales Office before venturing on the path of self-employment. She has been studying cynghanedd for the last six years. She handled her press conference very adroitly, dealing very firmly with the journalists.

She revealed that she had already entered this competition some years ago, and would not have done so again, were it not for the encouragement of the adjudicator who spotted her potential. When journalists pressed her for more details she referred them to previous published volumes of adjudications with the clue that her pen-name then had not been much different from the one she used this year. She clearly felt that journalists should do a little more of their own research rather than having stories handed to them on a plate.

On a lighter note, the Emer Feddyg Scholarship was also won by a woman. The prize is for 3,000 words of prose in one of a variety of forms. This year’s winner produced an outline for a novel, which, if it saw the light of day “would be a shock for her mother and any other deacon”. The name of the novel is “Hogan Horni” (horny girl), and we are promised revelations about those who attend festivals, should the novel itself ever be written and published.

The winner was Menna Medi, from near Caernarfon, who has just left BBC Radio Cymru after 15 years as a researcher, producer and presenter, to become Chief Marketing Officer for the Sain Recording Company.

Ceremonial pageantry

TheGorsedd does not dispense magic, it is a pageant, not a coven. It was started in 1792 (AD!) by the “not altogether honest” Iolo Morgannwg who intended it to replace the local/regional Eisteddfodau of the day. He soon gave up that idea and decided to make the Gorsedd part of the evolving National Eisteddfod. The first attempt at a national Eisteddfod was made in 1858 in Llangollen but it was run by chancers and turned into a den of thieves. Nevertheless it did lead to a further Eisteddfod in Denbigh in 1860 at which it was decided to hold a single great Eisteddfod for the whole nation once a year in North and South Wales alternately and an Eisteddfod Council was set up to manage it. This did not succeed and a new body was set up in 1880 to control the Eisteddfod. This point is taken as the beginning of the “modern” Eisteddfod and with the exception of 1914 there has been an Eisteddfod every year since then[7].

The Gorsedd remained a separate organisation from the Eisteddfod until 1937 when the two united in the National Eisteddfod Council, now the Court of the National Eisteddfod.

Today’s Gorsedd is the icing on the Eisteddfod cake, providing pageantry and a sense of occasion to the national festival. In inviting new members into its ranks it also serves as a kind of Welsh Wales honours list, a function also carried out, in part, by the universities in Wales when they award honorary degrees to deserving recipients.

The Gorsedd assembles, in costume, five times during the Eisteddfod. In the pavilion it oversees the presentation of the results of the three main literary competitions - crown and chair for poetry and medal for prose - and at the Gorsedd circle, weather permitting, it meets twice to welcome newcomers into its ranks.

The basic ceremonies are repeated on each occasion. They are very colourful and packed with symbolism.

A group of young girls from the local primary schools perform a flower dance - symbolising the harvesting of the flowers of the field to be offered to the Archdruid in a gesture of welcome. The dance was choreographed by Cynan, a former Archdruid, who did much to embellish and tighten up the ceremonies into their modern day format. The Gorsedd is welcomed to the area twice-over: a local mother presents the Hirlas Horn - symbolising the wine of welcome; and a local maiden presents the Blodeuged (or bouquet) - symbolising the fruits of the land and the land itself. All this is done with dignity and to the accompaniment of harp music.

At each ceremony the massive Gorsedd sword is partially unsheathed as the Archdruid declaims “Is there peace”? The audience roar back “Peace”! The sword is fully returned to the sheath and the ceremonies continue.

Apart from being impressive, this is all great fun, and Archdruids, being men of considerable literary accomplishment and wit, add spice with their off the cuff remarks, sometimes bringing the house down.

The Archdruid

The office of Archdruid, or rather the method of election of the Archdruid, has become controversial of late. Traditionally, candidates had to come from among the winners of the crown or chair. Of the 24 Archdruids elected since 1900, 14 were national Eisteddfod chair bards (and some had one or more crowns to boot). Of the 10 remaining, 9 had were crown bards (with at least one crown) and the position of the 10th is not clear from the literature to hand. In recent times, however, following a long campaign, winners of the prose medal were considered suitable candidates.

Up to this year, the Archdruid, whose term runs for three years, was elected by the 30 member Gorsedd Board. This Board consists of the serving Archdruid, his Deputy, former Archdruids, about 10 other officers and a dozen or so “ordinary” members. By contrast, the total membership of the Gorsedd is almost 1,700.

Following strong pressure to democratise the procedure, and various meetings of appropriate sub-committees, it was decided (conceded) that every member of the Gorsedd should be entitled to a vote in the election. Any member can now propose a candidate subject to finding a seconder and five other supporters.

The first product of the new system, announced at the Gorsedd’s annual meeting in the Societies’ tent on the field, was Robyn Lewis. Currently the Board’s legal officer and a winner of the Prose Medal, he had strenuously campaigned over the years to reform the system, and in particular to raise the status of prose (and its medalists) to equal that of poetry. It was a significant victory and one which could, in time, change the character of the Gorsedd. He takes over as Archdruid next year and an immediately perceptible change may be the dropping of the benign paternalistic wit of former Archdruids in favour of a more serious and dogmatic presentation of the office.

While he himself declined to be drawn on how he would handle the office, and gave the impression of being very cautious, there is some ground for expecting the odd impulsive outburst at future Gorsedd sessions. That is not to say that they will go unchallenged.

In a letter to the Western Mail[8], early last year, former Herald Bard, Dillwyn Miles, challenged Lewis’s assertion that the Prince of Wales hadn’t a drop of Welsh blood in his veins. In a passage reminiscent of the opening paragraphs of St. Lukes gospel, Dillwyn took the reader on a tour of the Prince’s lineage and managed the staggering feat of ending up with Owain Glyndwr. Glyndwr was one of last of the Welsh leaders to rebel against English rule in Wales at the beginning of the 15th century.

Dillwyn is worthy of mention in his own rite. A member of the Gorsedd since 1936 and Herald Bard since 1966, he was one of the “characters” in the Gorsedd. He stood out, in what was already fairly impressive pageantry, with a Herald Bard regalia designed by the former Archdruid, Cynan. This gear was reminiscent of Lawrence of Arabia and evocative of Dillwyn's wartime service in the Middle East. It was, however, a bit over the top and Dillwyn abandoned it in favour of his normal druid's white robes shortly after Cynan's death in 1970.

Celtic fraternal delegates

One of the functions of the Gorsedd during Eisteddfod week is to formally welcome the delegates from the national festival (or Gorsedd, if they have one) of each of the Celtic countries. There are two delegates each from Ireland (Oireachtas na Gaeilge), Scotland (Mod), Isle of Man (Cruinnacht) and the Gorseddau of Brittany and Cornwall.

Each group is presented to the Archdruid in turn and delivers a message, in their own Celtic language, from the home country to a packed pavilion[9]. This year’s ceremony benefitted from a welcome innovation decided on last year - a Welsh translation of the message was displayed on the two giant screens on either side of the stage. Ireland’s delegates were Muiris Ó Rócháin and Bláthnaid Ó Brádaigh. The Gorsedd also mourns the passing of its members who died during the past year, recites their names, and calls on God’s merciful protection for their mourning families and surviving partners (where applicable!).

Two Irish residents, who had died, were remembered this year: an tAthair Diarmuid Ó Laoghaire, SJ, whose Gorsedd name was Bendigeid Fran, son of Llyr in the Welsh myth of the Mabinogion (on the Irish side of the mythology this would be Bran son of Lir); and Alan Heussaf, a Breton well known in Irish language circles, whose Gorsedd name was Gwenerzh [Venus or the Muse?].

The Celtic countries reciprocate by inviting representatives from the Gorsedd to attend their festivals. In his report to the Gorsedd on his visit to the Oireachtas last year, the Archdruid commented on the enthusiasm of the welcome extended to himself, the Deputy Archdruid, and their wives, to the festivities in Clontarf Castle and the competitions in CUS He thanked various people, including Bláthnaid, “without whose presence, and that of her husband, no Celtic festival is complete”.

The Welsh party seem to have constituted the entire audience at the accordion competitions but were impressed at the general range of activities and the “tremendous efforts being made to foster the language and traditions of the Emerald Isle”. The Archdruid commented on efforts to improve the links between Ireland and Wales and felt that these reciprocal visits provided an opportunity to discuss the comparative state of language and culture in the two countries.

The Oireachtas had a stand on the Eisteddfod field at a number of Eisteddfodau in the early 1970s. The one in Ruthin in 1973 attracted considerable interest. This seems to have been a cultural abberration, however, and has not been repeated. The stand promoted a range of Irish publications, and members of Craobh Móibhí provided live upbeat versions of traditional Irish music. Rosc, Conradh na Gaeilge’s bilingual monthly, carried a trilingual “front page” specially directed at those attending that Eisteddfod.

Formal cultural activities

Virtually all of the formal Eisteddfod activities take place on the field.

The centrepiece of the field is the giant pavilion which accommodates 4,000 people, comfortably seated, along with a vast stage area and a network of service buildings including offices, dressing rooms, hospitality, press room and the ever necessary loos. The Eisteddfod has a permanent national logo, and individual logos for each annual event, but the real logo for regular attendees is the pavilion itself. It dominates the field and is a sort of trademark for the festival.

The pavilion used to be a wooden structure, but by the mid 1970s this was on its last legs and, after much dithering and controversy a flashy new steel basedstructure was acquired. This turned out to be uneconomical to move around the country and was finally abandoned. The current structure, which is hired out each year, is, in fact a circus tent but it too is now reaching the end of its working life.

As in the mid 1970s the future of the pavilion is, once more, at the centre of heated discussion. The current structure has served the event well, but the canvas flaps in the wind and resonates to the rain. This makes it unsuitable for some of the competitions and, in particular, for the world class stage performances in the evenings. All options for renewal are under consideration but time is running out.

Stand and deliver

The pavilion is surrounded by up to 300 stalls, stands, halls and facilities of all sorts, including a broadcasting campus. Some activities merit solid structures: the Eisteddfod Arts and Crafts exhibition, the Welsh Arts Council, the learners, literature, and dance pavilions, field theatre, Denbishire County Council and Welsh Development Authority (to name most of them).

The bulk of the stands consist of wooden-framed, canvass covered, stalls and most of the ordinary commercial interests, voluntary groups, political parties, churches and the like were housed in these. The majority were vibrant centres of information, propaganda, controversy and fun but some were as dull as ditchwater with a table, a few posters and a few down-at-heel aging volunteers. Many housed small outlets for arts and craft workers whose products caught the eye and were, on the whole, modestly priced. Some catered for a broad range of interests while others were more narrowly focussed. These latter included the political parties, churches and voluntary organisations.

Daily tickets to the field cost £8 (sterling !). This included admission to the daytime events in the pavilion - consisting of competition finals, adjudications and the main Gorsedd-sponsored literary investitures. Given the importance and intensity of the field activities during Eisteddfod week, this was good value, particularly for Welsh-speaking enthusiasts.

There was entertainment aplenty, and particularly for children. Otherwise, families, whom the festival wants to attract, could have had a rawer deal if they were relying on some of the more staid stalls around the field.

The broadcasting companies were very much to the fore in this. BBC-Cymru (Welsh language radio programmes) ran live gigs on the field all through the day and some of these were broadcast live on the Welsh network. They also provided a range of computer zap-em-up games for the emotionally challenged child. S4C, the Welsh language amalgam TV network, provided an opportunity for children to meet characters from their favourite soaps and access various facilities on their website.


But the daddy of them all, when it came to live entertainment on the field, was a newly-formed company called Penffordd. It provided all day, open air, entertainment for adults and children alike and it was a rare hour of the day that overspilling family audiences were not blocking the thoroughfare. They were worth the price of admission on their own.

The company was formed by Idris Charles, a vibrant Welsh entrepreneur with a background too colourful and varied to recount here. It promotes new young Welsh artists and many of these were performing live on the field. Robin Jones had been “discovered” on the TV programme “Star for a Night”. He was deluged with offers from all over the UK but has decided to continue singing and songwriting in Welsh and signed up with Penffordd. He is a personable young man with a very lyrical voice and his first CD is mainly of his own compositions with a beautifully rendered traditional number (Mari fach fy nghariad) and a tribute to the Welsh leader Owain Glyndwr for which he wrote the melody and his father the words.

Penffordd ran one of the most innovative and entertaining informal events of the festival when it organised a “karaoke” competition between the National Assembly members of themain political parties in Wales, to be adjudicated by a live audience on the spot.

The contest got lots of advance publicity. The Liverpool Daily Post pointed out that the Tory contestant could not sing and was going to recite a poem instead. There may be the germ of a new Eisteddfod poetry competition here!

In the event the contest was a hoot and each of the National Assembly members entered fully into the spirit of the event. The Tory member did turn up, sporting a large gold pound sterling brooch on his lapel, and he did recite a poem and it was karaoke - the Liberace style accompaniment on the keyboard made sure of this. The Lib-Dems fancied their chances with a lady who had clearly sung before and the Labour Party relied on the proletarian vote. But the winner was the clever lady from Plaid Cymru (Y Blaid) who had no hesitation in admitting, after the event, that she had packed the audience. The days of the Blaid leading the Blind are not yet a thing of the past.[10]

Postwatch, the Post Office consumer watchdog, were offering participation in a raffle for £50 to those who could identify the locations in Wales of six post office fronts from a set of photographs. There was a deterministic solution for those with microscopic vision. I settled for taking off my glasses and am very hopeful of a cheque in the post.

Visual Arts and Crafts exhibition

The Eisteddfod’s own Visual Arts and Crafts exhibition, containing a selection of work chosen from over 2,000 individual works submitted by over 400 artists, is rightly described by the selectors as “a strange, many-headed beast”. The Chairperson of the Arts and Crafts Committee expressed a wish, and a hope, that the exhibition would be a “topic of discussion on the Eisteddfod field, nationally throughout Wales and further afield on the international level”. It was certainly a hot topic on the field.

In one instance, a glass perspex case gave the impression that the exhibit it normally housed had been stolen or taken away for cleaning or repair. On closer inspection it was found to house a grain of wheat and a spent .22 cartridge. The accompanying plaque said it was “untitled”. “Foot ‘n Mouth” sprang immediately to mind.

A more substantial exhibit, and winner of the gold medal in craft and design, and a cash award of £3,000, was by Claire Curneen. Claire is now Cardiff-based but originally hails from Tralee. Her entry was a series of primitive style ceramic figures worked in porcelain with thin slivers of clay and gilt. This was a work of intensity and you either hated or loved it. I started off hating it from the catalogue pictures, but after visiting the exhibition the figures started to grow on me. There was a starkness and line to them that suggested a tentative serenity and the way in which the figures were grouped gave them a powerful sense of form.

The selectors in the architecture category were happy that the range of entries bore witness to architecture in Wales heeding the call for responsible development. There was a little irony to this competition, however. On the one hand, the gold medal was won for a building that was explicitly advertised as not using cement, while, on the other, the German based multinational Castle Cement was underling its support for Welsh culture by sponsoring the first day of the Eisteddfod. It also stretched a point by claiming to underpin democracy in the Celtic lands by using Welsh cement in the construction of the Scottish Parliament building in Edinburgh.

As in previous years, the Catholic Church had a stand on the field. This is usually the preserve of “Y Cylch Catholig” a nationally based circle of Welsh speaking lay Catholics within the Church. When the bishop arrived from Wrexham to inspect his forces and celebrate a special Eisteddfod mass in the parish church, he expressed his appreciation of the extent to which the local parish itself was involved this year, both in the stand and in the festival in general. This may be a turning point for greater involvement of the local parishes in future festivals.

50 years of the Welsh Rule

It is a rule of the Eisteddfod that only Welsh can be used in official functions on the field, and in particular on the stage. It is also the policy that as much as possible of the general activities on the field be in Welsh.

In the 1970s the language movement made strenuous efforts to remove all signs of English from the field but there now seems to be a greater tolerance of bilingualism. This has created its own problems and, while the Eisteddfod is celebrating 50 years of the “Welsh rule”, there is some disquiet at the extent to which English has penetrated the stands around the field. The Eisteddfod Council found it necessary to reiterate its position on the language this year and has asked local committees in particular to bring the rules to the attention of those manning stands on the field.

The Eisteddfod’s position on the use of Welsh can be summarised as follows:

  • Welsh is the language of the Eisteddfod and of the Festival
  • Signs on the field and on the stands are to be in Welsh
  • Were necessary it is permitted to have signs in more than one language inside the stands but Welsh must come first
  • As far as possible, tenants of stands must ensure that the majority of workers inside the stands are able to speak Welsh
  • It is hoped that the majority of the pamphlets inside the stands will be in Welsh
  • As far as possible the business of committees should be conducted in Welsh.
While this is simply common sense in the context of the Eisteddfod, in the wider national arena the whole question of preserving the language through maintaining the integrity of local Welsh-speaking communities has become very controversial. It has become entangled in some very nasty “racial politics” in recent times. This has put some promoters of Welsh on the defensive and has given the gutter press an opportunity to stir the pot.


The Eisteddfod rule is geared towards maintaining the Welsh identity of the festival, which is, after all, the principal festival of Welsh speaking Wales. Non Welsh speakers are very welcome and serious efforts are made to cater for them. The most difficult areas for non Welsh speakers would be in the Pavilion itself and some of the literary venues. A free interpretation unit is available at the entrance which gives simultaneous interpretation into English of onstage activities in Welsh in the Pavilion and in some other venues. Non-Welsh speaking journalists are catered for through a small mobile interpretation unit in the press room. There is a very high standard of interpretation at the festival in general.

Apart from the fixed interpretation infrastructure, the small portable cabin setup, and the even lighter single pole structure used in the press room proved extremely efficient for small meetings. They are an example of how modern technology can facilitate bilingualism and are relevant to other minority language situations beyond Wales.

Informal cultural activities

While the bulk of the Eisteddfod activities take place on the field, there has always been a tradition of fringe gigs in the evening around the town or in the general environs. About three years ago, in an attempt to attract, or retain, the younger people, a separate “youth field” (maes B) was set up near the main field. This generally houses gigs by rock, pop and folk groups during the day, and unlike the case on the main field, alcohol is available.

The experiment was pronounced a success at last year’s annual meeting of the Eisteddfod Court and maes B is now to become a permanent feature of the Eisteddfod.

Activities on the maes B in previous years had been organised by the Welsh Language Society but this year the Eisteddfod refused to continue the arrangement as long as the Society was involved in protests on the main field, particularly the defacement of some of the stands. The Society retaliated by organising its own gigs in the area generally. Despite the opposition to what some see as an establishment take-over, the maes B looks set for a long innings.

The Welsh Language Society ran a series of night-time gigs in Denbigh, Rhyl and Ruthin. One of the Denbigh gigs included Meic Stevens who was a folk singer before singing was invented. He spent a lot of time abroad but in the 1970s he returned to Wales and took a prominent part in the singing end of the language protest movement. His classic anti-pollution song “Mwg” (smoke) still stirs the soul.


There is long tradition of protest on the field and in the town during Eisteddfod week. The lead is usually taken by the Welsh Language Society, and this year was no exception. The major political parties and the National Assembly itself have stands on the field and this greatly facilitates the exercise.

This years protest involved carting a four poster bed (4 posters, get it?) around the field and stopping outside the stands of the political parties. A society member jumped into bed and a series of alarm clocks were set to go off in five minutes. The intervening time was ably used by other members of the Society making apposite speeches and when the alarms rang the cry of “wake up now” was taken up by the ever increasing crowd. The protest finished at the National Assembly stand where a succession of speakers were egged on by a now massive crowd of supporters. The protest, while assertive, was friendly and the police kept a very low profile.

In view of the rising controversy over English speaking immigration into Welsh speaking areas, speakers were very careful to completely disassociate the Society from the UK British National Party which had planned a large rally on the subject in Llanerfyl during the same week. Nevertheless, one of the tabloids managed to find a Rabbi and his wife at the festival and elicit quotes on “beginnings of Nazism referring to protests on the field. The paper concerned was generally taken to be the one referred to in the Executive Committee President’s speech as a “faked-Welsh daily rag”.

Welsh CND were also involved in a protest on the field. They objected to the sponsoring of the secondary schools performance of Oliver by Airbus UK because this company is part owned by BAE Systems which makes components for fighter aircraft used in conflict situations in Zimbabwe and East Timor. In addition to a noisy protest around the field, the protesters defaced the sponsors’ pavilion with graffiti and stickers proclaiming “peaceful Eisteddfod ? with BAE money”. Meanwhile, during the week, the Welsh First Minister was praising Airbus for bringing high class employment to Wales. The Eisteddfod Director, while aware of the issue, took a pragmatic line and pointed out that, if every company which offered sponsorship was to be put under the microscope and its relations with every other company taken into account, there would be precious few companies left to sponsor the Eisteddfod.

Mainstreaming language issues

While the Eisteddfod attempts to steer clear of politics, this is not always possible given the festival’s mission to “promote Welsh culture and safeguard the Welsh language”.

Many of the issues involved in this area are the subject of bitter controversy in the media and among the political parties. Preserving and developing what is a minority language (c 20%) in any society raises issues of community, positive discrimination and, inevitably, immigration.

The four main political parties in Wales (Plaid Cymru, Labour, Liberal Democrats and Conservatives) have stands on the field. The recently established Welsh National Assembly also has a stand. This is generally devoted to informing the public on the activities and structures of the new Assembly. The display also makes some very strong political points in a very subtle way. It underlines the extent of the Assembly's extensive contacts with foreign administrations, including the Irish, although foreign policy remains a function of the UK Parliament.

While Wales has changed a lot since the mid 1970s in terms of official status for the language and significant devolution from Westminster, there is still a strong protest movement and some of the political parties are divided down the middle on the critical issues of community development in the current linguistic context.

The Cymdeithas’s four poster bed saga gives a broad idea of what is involved. The posters read “There is no need for a new Welsh language act”, “There is no need for a property act”, “The struggle is over”, “National Assembly, go back to sleep”.

The principal difference I notice from the 1970s in this area is how these issues, considered by many in those days to be fringe issues, have now moved very much to centre stage. Plaid Cymru and the Labour Party have both published documents dealing with the language and housing issues. But the most interesting development was the migration of these issues onto the Eisteddfod stage itself during the week.

On the Monday, the Archdruid, in his customary address on the opening of the Gorsedd, got straight to the point calling for a new housing act and drawing an analogy between the clouds of war that threatened the country in 1939, on the occasion of the festival’s last visit to Denbigh, and today’s threat to the Welsh language and heartland. He pointed out that while Swansea, where he lived at the time, eventually rose from the ashes of war, the loss of language and community were irrevocable.

On the Tuesday, the flames were further fanned by an article in Barn, a Welsh language monthly, where the former head of the Welsh Language Board, John Elfed Jones, a man with a distinguished business career spanning over forty years, compared immigration from English speaking areas into (Welsh speaking) rural Wales with the foot and mouth epidemic. Nothing was being done about the former while all the nation’s resources had been mobilised to combat the latter. He bemoaned the higher priority given to flocks over culture and herds over a way of life. (The preceding sentence is taken from a translation of his article provided by the Western Mail and it does less than justice to the resonance of the original Welsh phrases[11]

On the Wednesday, Plaid Cymru Vice President, Gwilym ap Ioan, had to stand down from the party’s national Executive after claiming Wales had become a dumping ground for England‘s oddballs, social misfits and dropouts. He actually compared Wales in a British context with Montana is the US. This in turn led to protests on behalf of Montana.

On the Thursday, the Chairman of the Eisteddfod Council, in his address to the Court, called on the National Assembly to establish an independent commission to investigate the causes of the crisis in the rural communities where the Welsh language was in decline and to recommend, within a year, measures to safeguard these communities. This was upping the ante from his report of the previous year where he simply called for a review of some of the Eisteddfod competitions which were not attracting sufficient entries.

On the Saturday, the chairman of the Executive Committee for this year’s Eisteddfod, Eifion Lloyd Jones, in his address as President for the Day, called for far reaching measures to consolidate the Welsh heartland (gaeltacht) and promote the language. He referred to the undermining of Welsh by excessive immigration into Welsh speaking areas by non-Welsh speakers and, in particular, those who were not prepared to learn the language. He hit out at the inadequate teaching of Welsh in the schools where the product was English language syntax with a veneer of Welsh vocabulary (in an Irish context this would be referred to as Béarlachas). He called for limiting the intake of learners into Welsh language schools and financing Welsh medium education on the basis of teaching quality and results rather than mere numbers.He tackled the racist accusation head-onreferring to heritage safeguards which are applied as a matter of course in the English Lake District. “It’s acceptable to safeguard the English from the English or the Welsh. But some find it unacceptable to safeguard the Welsh from the English. It is acceptable to legislate in order to safeguard birds and insects, flowers and plants, but unacceptable to legislate to safeguard a language and the Welsh way of life”

Strong emphasis on learners

The Eisteddfod lays considerable stress on facilitating learners of Welsh. This is particularly appropriate in this “European Year of Languages”, a project promoted by the European Union and the Council of Europe.

There is a competition for Learner of the Year. This year the prize went to a young man from Wrexham who had been learning Welsh for the last three years. This was not unconnected with his impending marriage to a Welsh speaking girl from Bangor. In his acceptance speech he particularly thanked her parents who had always insisted on speaking to him in Welsh when he visited their home.

There is a special stand for learners on the field. This offers basic Welsh classes, advice on learning the language, Welsh on the web and so on. Some public representatives participate in the stand’s activities. This year the Chief Constable of Gwynedd (North West Wales) was awarded his GCSE A level certificate in Welsh as a second language. It was a condition of his appointment as Chief Constable that he learn Welsh. He commented that he could do his job perfectly well without speaking a word of Welsh but it would not be right. He is a strong supporter of Welsh in the force and appealed for recognition of the resource costs involved in having the force operate in a second language. These include the employment of tutors and the need to take on sufficient staff to cover for those on training courses. His own learning involved several week-long courses at the National Language Centre at Nant Gwrtheyrn but he now avails of the full-time tutor at police HQ

There are special live viewings of the Crowning and Chairing ceremonies in the learners stand with a Welsh language commentary tailored for learners.

Y Lolfa

One of the commercial stands on the field which, among other things, caters for learners is Y Lolfa. This is a publishing company founded in the sixties by the Gruffudd family. Their initial efforts were almost exclusively geared towards protest and the learner. They were, in effect, the unofficial publishers for the Welsh Language Society. One of their early productions was the irreverent cartoon pamphlet “Welsh is Fun” which introduced the learner to such basic Welsh as he/she might need to participate in the main Eisteddfod activities, including the fringe activities. Sales of this pamphlet topped 150,000. This aspect of the business has expanded over the years into learning Irish, Gaidhlic and Breton and involves a wider range of Celtic contributors including our own Flann O’Riain

Meanwhile the company, which had always been to the fore in technological development, has gone into high class printing and publishing. It has acquired the latest press technology and has ambitions to become a significant publisher across all the Celtic countries.

In general the Welsh are very patient with learners (at least in my experience) and they avoid the purist attitude which has deterred many a shy learner of Irish from trying out their newly acquired phrases in public.


The Eisteddfod has been increasingly availing of modern technology in recent years. Last year it launched its own web site which was a great help to those of the Welsh Diaspora with e-connections ( ). The principal feature of the site was access to webcasts of the main ceremonies and events on the pavilion stage and a webcam which allowed all activities on the stage to be monitored throughout the festival.

This was continued this year and the site carried limited postings about the winners of the main competitions, information on the Gorsedd and items on some of the sponsors. There is still a lot of scope for expanding this service. It would, however, need a full time webmaster, particularly during the festival week. It would also require sponsorship as resources are very tightly stretched. Any development of the site would also need to be synchronised with the extensive existing media coverage of the festival, both on the airwaves and over the internet.

At present S4C ( ), the Welsh language TV channel, relays live TV coverage of the main ceremonies, events, and competitions from the pavilion. It relays about 30 hours of analogue and 100 hours of digital TV coverage during the festival. While this level of coverage is very welcome and a great boon to those not able to be physically present at the festival, it does have its downside. Those who can follow all the main events of the festival in the comfort of their own homes may be less likely to attend the Eisteddfod. In his address, Efion Lloyd Jones also touched on this, when he pointed out that comparing annual attendance figures, in these circumstances, is a worthless obsession, and the press and media would do well to realise the fact”. Nevertheless, a minimum physical attendance is required each year to ensure the continuation of the festival. The authorities are therefore constantly trying to strike a balance between attendance, viewership and the level of fees charged to the broadcasting companies.

BBC Cymru (, Welsh language radio, has live coverage of most of the major events and much of the rest of the Pavilion activity. It also carries, on its own website, Eisteddfod news stories, including informed pieces on the winners of the main competitions, and a daily diary posting from the field, along with general information and timetables.

BBC Wales ( ), the corporation’s English language radio channel in Wales, broadcasts evening roundups of the days events on the field and carries general news stories on the festival.

This year, for the first time, the Eisteddfod installed a computer with an Internet connection in the press tent. This greatly facilitated the daily diary posting from the field to the Celtic Cafe website ( ). These postings are intended to be turned into an illustrated feature on this year’s Eisteddfod. This will, hopefully, not only broaden the Celtic coverage of the site, which is largely confined to things Irish, but also introduce the Eisteddfod to a new overseas audience.

Press coverage

Daily press coverage of the festival for Wales as a whole falls to the English language press, the Western Mail (Cardiff based) and the Liverpool Post (tabloid). Both these papers carry small amounts of Welsh language material during the festival, and, while they assign reporters who are fully up to speed with the Eisteddfod itself and Welsh language issues generally, they also carry reports from their other, more generalised correspondents. The net effect is a certain amount of informed and sympathetic reporting mixed with a diet of tabloid offerings. Unfortunately it is only the more sensationalist reporting which is picked up by the UK dailies.


Many organisations and agencies take advantage of the Eisteddfod, the gathering in one place of so many Welsh speakers and the media focus on the event, to launch new services or publicise existing ones.

The National Menter (Venture) Awards were presented on the pavilion stage by Wales’s First Minister, Rhodri Morgan. These annual awards celebrate the achievements of Welsh speakers who succeed in business, and successful businesses that promote the Welsh language and contribute to prosperity in the local and national economy. This year’s awards went to (i) the managing director of Portmeirion, an Italienate village which has become a major tourist attraction on the North West coastline, (ii) a food and restaurant company called Blas ar Fwyd (which could serve as the Welsh term for delicatessen) and (iii) a locally based dairy business specialising in fruit flavoured yogurts and liqueur desserts.

The Welsh Development Authority (WDA) launched a £1 million Information Technology Trailer as part of the “Wales Information Society” (WIS) programme. The programme is cofunded by the WDA and the EU. The purpose-built technology trailer, the largest in Europe, is equipped with every type of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and it will travel around Wales introducing the latest technology to the remotest parts of the country. Rosemary O’Connor, the Director of WIS, has a background in delivering ICT programmes to small business and, prior to working in Wales, she managed the Shannon Region’s Information Society and Action Plan.

One of the facilities on show in the trailer is “ ”. This is a rapidly expanding database cum catalogue designed to encourage small businesses and artisans to market their products online.


Welsh Culture Minister, Jenny Anderson, launched a “one-stop-shop”, including a single point web site, for those seeking lottery funding. Up to now separate applications had to be made to the relevant dispensing organisations, a system which applicants found confusing and frustrating.

The launch at an Eisteddfod was particularly appropriate as the festival itself is strenuously seeking lottery funding to finance a new pavilion. They were turned down for first round funding but are persisting into the second round. Even the druids are looking for lottery funding to replace some of the druidic and bardic regalia.


This year’s Eisteddfod is expected to cost around £2.4 million sterling, including sponsorship of about £300,000 [12]. Following last year’s festival in Llanelli, the Eisteddfod and Carmarthen County Council commissioned a third party report on the economic and cultural effects of the festival on the locality. The gross economic effect was estimated at £6.4 million and there is no reason to doubt a similar return to the Denbigh area from this years Eisteddfod.

Sponsorship has always been a source of income for the festival. Last year’s annual meeting noted that some of the companies which traditionally supported the Eisteddfod were in trouble and a Sponsorship Committee was established to find new sponsors. It was also decided to set up a sponsors’ stand on the field to publicise individual sponsors. Sponsorship of individual events is also prominently acknowledged in the Eisteddfod programme (a very well produced comprehensive manual on the week’s events for a mere £5).

Even the best of sponsorship can bring its own headaches as the BAE problems outlined above testify. The festival’s Director, Elfed Roberts, rightly commented that they could not hold an inquisition on every company which offered them sponsorship and that those companies which did contribute were often significant employers in Wales. Nevertheless, in an age where the Government is proclaiming an ethical foreign policy and anti-globalisation protest is all the rage, the festival will have to pay more attention to selecting its sponsors if it wants to ensure trouble free events in the future.

International aspects

While the Eisteddfod is a “Welsh Welsh” festival, the event can have a significant international dimension. One of the ceremonies in the Pavilion is the welcoming of those Welsh visiting the festival from abroad. Some 150 overseas Welsh registered this year to appear on stage at the welcoming ceremony. The largest contingent of over 60, as usual, came from the US. There were 15 from Patagonia (Y Wladfa, “the settlement”) in Argentina. It can be a novelty to meet someone on the field whose only languages are Spanish and Welsh as we have become used to English being the only common language of the Celts on these islands.

There are also individual overseas interests represented in the stands, such as the Welsh section of the US University of Rio from Ohio. Seattle-born Pegi Talfryn had learned Welsh, moved to Wales and was the Learner’s Officer at this years Eisteddfod. She has published a Welsh course for parents and in the run-up to the Eisteddfod was teaching the language to some local non-Welsh speakers in advance of the festival.

There is also a third world presence, and connections, on the field. This year’s offerings included the Cymru Cuba solidarity campaign, the Wales Nicaragua solidarity campaign, a Wales/Lesotho stand, and an international campaign to counter the global water crisis. By far the most colourful was, Madame Kadi Friqqit, the representative of the Government of Burkina Faso who made a plea for increased contact between artisans/craft workers in both countries. She cited the example of tiny Luxembourg which was financing a network of craft villages in Niger and Burkina Faso. She was accompanied by her no less colourful nephew, Frank Olivier Tarpaga, who treated us to a recital of Djembe drumming. He is also a traditional singer and seanachaí. He teaches these traditional skills and has his own musical group which travels extensively abroad.

The Burkina party was introduced to the media, and the public at large, by Ffred Ffransis, a prominent and longstanding member of the Welsh Language Society. Ffred will be fasting outside the National Assembly for a week in the lead up to Glyndwr day (16 September), in support of the Society’s demands. There is pressure building up in some quarters to have the day declared a national holiday in Wales and the National Assembly has now agreed to fly Glyndwr’s flag over the Assembly building on that day.

Gorsedd for Patagonia

Plans are under way to establish a Gorsedd in the expatriate Welsh community in Patagonia in Argentina (Y Wladfa). The Archdruid, along with a special Gorsedd Sub-Committee established for the purpose,is to visit the community in the Autumn to progress arrangements for the Patagonian Gorsedd.

The settlement itself is a remarkable story. It originated in the 1860s as part of the migrations to the New World. These were both economic migrants and “political” refugees. The initial Welsh group were aware of the extent to which earlier migrants, from various countries, had been absorbed into their newly adopted societies and they determined to find somewhere to set up a community which could retain its original values and language. With help from some American Welsh, and following successful negotiations with the Government of Argentina which exercised sovereignty over the area, they chose Patagonia, “a sparsely inhabited territory which had rejected previous attempts of European settlement”.

The eulogy, which accompanied the bestowing of the “World-wide Welsh Award 2001” on this expatriate community at this year’s Eisteddfod, is worth quoting:

“Gradually, the Welsh settled the lots assigned to them and developed the technology for successful farming, which had - and still has - as its centrpiece a system of miles of irrigation canals, dug with primitive tools but masterfully designed, which brought water to all corners of the valley. Just as arteries carry blood, these canals brought life to the land. Eventually, agriculture was so successful that wheat grown by the Welsh in Patagonia received international recognition and was the forerunner of Argentina’s enormous wheat-exporting business.

Technical progress was accompanied by social organization, and indeed depended upon it. The Welsh gave themselves their own government, including a constitution that did not discriminate between the sexes and provided for voting by secret ballot, while in Wales farmers were thrown out of their farms for voting according to their conscience. They set up their own schools, where every subject was taught in Welsh - while their brethren in Wales were subject to the indignity of the “Welsh Not”. They founded their own chapels They developed a very successful commercial enterprise in the form of one of the first cooperatives to be organized in Argentina, which eventually grew to the extent of having its own ships. Economic activity led to the building of one of the earliest railroads in Argentina. They explored the land and eventually established a “branch” settlement at the foot of the Andes mountains. They enjoyed their culture, including an annual eisteddfod which continues to be held to this day and will play host to a Gorsedd delegation this Fall. Also worth noting are the exemplary relations the Welsh enjoyed with the natives, who were nomadic, and who they respected as brethren.”

It is not surprising, then, that this community still retains a special place in Welsh hearts and culture today. Patagonian Welsh are frequently honoured by being invited to join the Gorsedd and one particular Archdruid (Bryn – 1975/78), while born in Wales, was raised in Patagonia, won his first chair at a Patagonian Eisteddfod, and admitted to thinking first in Spanish rather than Welsh.


The Eisteddfod has not yet become a target for anti-globalisation protesters, but consciousness of third world issues is increasing among Welsh nationalists. The presence on the field of links with Burkina Faso and Lesotho, and the “ethical” protests against Airbus, may be harbingers of further challenges for the festival.

Fixed sites

There have been proposals to restrict the movement of the festival to four permanent sites, two in the North and two in the South. Dafydd Iwan, folk singer, former Chairman of both the Welsh Language Society and Plaid Cymru and now a Plaid Cymru County Councillor, has argued for this on the basis that it is becoming harder to find appropriate new sites around the country to hold such a big festival. The festival Director, Elfed Roberts, disagrees. He sees the festival mobilising great enthusiasm for things Welsh in its area each year and it also brings people to areas they would not otherwise get to know. Eifion Lloyd Jones, chairman of the Executive Committee for this year’s Eisteddfod, made the point in the course of his hard hitting speech during the week, that a traveling Eisteddfod evokes local pride which inspires the sort of commitment without which events as successful as this year’s could not have been held. He poses the question: on permanent sites, who would own the Eisteddfod? Who would do all the hard work - not just for one year - but every year?

There was a rumour last year that Liverpool intended to invite a future Eisteddfod to that city. This is very unlikely to happen as Liverpool is not in Wales. The Eisteddfod has been held outside Wales, but not since 1929. [13] That was in Liverpool, but times have changed.

At the end of the 1950s Liverpool became the focus of Welsh language and community protests as Tryweryn Valley, near Bala, the home of a small Welsh speaking community, was flooded to build a reservoir to provide water for the city. The language protests were bitterly resented by an uncomprehending Liverpool population while the valley became a rallying cry for a wide spectrum of Welsh language opinion. It is claimed that it fueled the campaign for devolution, only now being implemented in Wales, and efforts are still ongoing to have a fitting memorial erected in the valley.

The matter came up at last year’s annual meeting of the Eisteddfod, where Robyn Lewis, now Archdruid elect, pointed out that in view of the history of Tryweryn, any decision to bring the Eisteddfod to Liverpool would need the unanimous backing of the Eisteddfod Court.

Old Friends

It was nice to meet old friends and acquaintances (and even those previously observed from afar) on the field after 25 years absence. Ned Thomas: a Welshman who spent most of his early life outside Wales and rediscovered his roots in the late 1960s. His book on the psychology of Welsh culture and protest, ironically entitled “the Welsh Extremist” and published as far back as 1971, is as fresh a read as the day it was written. This year on the field he was canvassing signatures for a petition on minority languages in the European context. Tad Fitzgerald: an Irish Carmelite who spent most of his priestly life ministering to the Welsh and who is now writing very fine religious poetry in Welsh. He was instantly recognisable on the Catholic Church stand on the field.

Harri Pritchard Jones: a Welshman who was once a GP on the Aran Islands and who in the 1970s when I last met him was something of a media and cultural personality. He was one of the adjudicators for the Prose Medal at this year’s Eisteddfod.

Gwyn Erfyl: (reverend) who came to Ireland with HTV in the 1970s to make TV programmes. Gwyn preached the sermon at the Sunday morning service in the Pavilion.

Clive Betts: reporter with the Western Mail. Clive published his seminal book “Culture in Crisis - the future of the Welsh language” in 1976. The central thesis of the book was the need to protect the language in the heartland, precisely that theme which Eifion Lloyd Jones took up in his rousing speech from the pavilion stage on the Saturday.

Meic Stevens: a first class folk singer. Meic has seen and done it all and come out the other end a sane and very unpretentious guy. He is nearly finished his autobiography and, by all accounts, there are many included in it who hope it stays unfinished. Dafydd Iwan: former Chairman of the Welsh Language Society, composer singer and activist. He is now in danger of becoming the personification of some of the characters he poked fun at in his songs, the Prince of Wales excepted, of course. He was singing on the field and promoting his recording company, Sain. He also adjudicated this year‘s competition for a light song on a soap opera theme.

Jâms Nicolas (no relation to Jams O’Donnell in An Béal Bocht”) former Archdruid and now Gorsedd Recorder. It was he who read from the stage the list of Gorsedd members who had died during the year.

It was also a time for memories of those no longer with us:

Donnchadh O’Suilleabháin: former General Secretary of the Oireachtas and delegate to the Gorsedd. Donnchadh was responsible for the Oireachtas stand at the Eisteddfod in the early 1970s.

Diarmuid O’Laoghaire, SJ, and Alan Heussaf: referred to earlier.


The last glass ceiling, the Office of Archdruid, looks in trouble. The prospect of a female Archdruid increased during the week when Mererid Hopwood won the chair - the first woman ever to do so.

It was a little ironic that this followed the relaxing of the condition that the Archdruid must be elected from among crown and chair winners only. For the last few years, prose medal winners also qualified as candidates and one of these was elected Archdruid at this year’s Gorsedd AGM. There are now 11 women winners in these three categories, who, in theory at least, are potential candidates. The opening up of the electoral college to the full Gorsedd membership of 1,700 should also help women’s chances. The reported 700 returned ballots in this year’s election show that the membership take the process seriously. Let’s see what happens in three years time when the next election is due.


An aside. The light englyn competition this year set the subject “red herring”. The englyn is a verse form written in cynghanedd and the light englyn, while observing the rules of this strict metre, would be the nearest thing to the “limerick” of Welsh poetry (though, not to be outdone, the Eisteddfod also has a separate competition for limericks). One of this year’s entries, from Bwni (Bunny), though not the winner, indulged in this increasingly relevant irrelevancy:

In poet and poetess laureate,
we have the best of man and woman.
Nevertheless, we are no nearer,
today, to an Archdruidess.
Mewn prifardd a phrifarddes - rhoed inni
Orau dyn a dynes,
Er hyn oll nid ym fawr nes
Heddiw i Archdderwyddes

The adjudicator's comments are no less worthy of mention:

I don’t like “Bunny’s” invention of the word “prifarddess” [poetess laureate]. Nevertheless the message is clear enough, but, in truth we do not currently have much choice of women with the required qualifications for this “esteemed onerous office”. But with more of the fair sex now taking up cynghannedd and poetry in general, who knows.

Some red herring!


Finally, what of the future? The Eisteddfod looks to be in good hands and the rush of enthusiasm and adrenalin is still to be found on the field and in the pavilion. There is a renewed sense of Welshness in the land and one which is, if anything, less apologetic towards England and the English than in the past.

The real question is how robust is the heartland as a source of inspiration and sustenance for Welsh Wales, and will this Wales succeed in achieving peaceful coexistence with its English speaking fellow citizens.


At times I felt like Rip Van Winkle, awakening after a long sleep that lasted since 1976. Now, as then, the issues were the same, and given the lapse of a whole generation in time, achievements on the language front have been relatively limited. It was almost as though the whole Welsh Welsh nation had gone into hibernation and only recently awoke to pick up where they had left off so long ago.

I look forward to seeing more progress, and having more fun, on a future visit to the Aladdin’s cave that is the National Eisteddfod of Wales.

Partial updates:   2002    2003    2004    2005

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[1] description used by Dafydd Iwan in 1974

[2] This includes repeat visits by regular attenders. Numbers have declined somewhat over the years, though they have now stabilised. Attendance in individual years can reflect particular factors such as the location of the event, or, as this year, the inhibiting influence of the foot and mouth epidemic. A significant percentage of the attendance is from the 15 to 25 year age cohort.

[3] "The circle consists of twelve stone pillars, sometimes hewn from a local quarry, sometimes gathered from the fields, or brought down from the surrounding hills. A large, flat-topped stone, known as the Maen Llog (the Logan Stone), lies at the centre of the circle and provides a platform from which the Archdruid conducts the proceedings. Facing it, at the east cardinal point, is Maen y Cyfamod (the Stone of the Covenant), at which the Herald Bard stands, and behind this are Meini'r Porth (the Portal Stones) which are guarded by purple-robed Eisteddfod officials. The portal stone to the right of the entrance points to sunrise at midsummer day, while that to the left indicates the rising sun at midwinter. The shadows thrown by these three stones form the pattern /|\ symbolising the ineffable name and signifying the rays of the divine attributes—love, justice and truth." (The Royal National Eisteddfod of Wales” Dillwyn Miles (1978) p136)

[4] In the history of the modern Eisteddfod (since 1880) this had only happened twice before, in Wrecsam in 1912 and in Bangor in 1915.

[5] He is shown as the winner in the official book of compositions and adjudications, published on the day of the chairing. Although this was corrected in subsequent publications, the incident generated a lot of bad feeling at the time.

[6] if one excepts 1914 when the Eisteddfod itself was cancelled due to the outbreak of World War I. The 1940 Eisteddfod did not take place as planned in Mountain Ash, Rhondda Valley, due to World War II, but an “Eisteddfod of the air” was held over the radio. The crown and chair competitions took place; a chair was awarded but the crown was withheld.

[7] The 1940 Eisteddfod, which was to be held in Mountain Ash in the Rhondda Valley, took place over the radio.

[8] 20/3/00

[9] This happens just before the crowning ceremony.

[10] Mind you, this phrase doesn’t have quite the same ring to it when you say “the Welsh nationalist party leading the visually challenged” ! The Welsh version is more alliterative "Y Blaid yn blaenori y dall"

[11] “diadell yn bwysicach na diwylliant a buches yn bwysichach na buchedd”

[12] Accounts available for last year’s Eisteddfod, which cost a similar amount to this year’s, show that over 90% of revenue for the festival was raised from a limited number of sources: (i) tickets and admission £487,000, (ii) revenue from stalls/stands £352,000, (iii)broadcasting rights £300,000, (iv) contributions from local authorities £316,000, (v) local fund £272,000, and (vi) sponsorship £359,000. In addition to income relating to individidual annual Eisteddfodau, the festival benefits from a general annual grant from the Welsh Language Board of just under £300,000.

[13] Since 1880 the Eisteddfod has been held outside Wales on six occasions: London (1887, 1909); Liverpool (1884, 1900, 1929); and Birkenhead (1917 - when Hedd Wyn was awarded the Chair posthumously).

Partial updates:   2002    2003    2004    2005    2007

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