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Welsh National Eisteddfod 2004

Plasnewydd / Newport

I didn't get to this year's Eisteddfod either, for a variety of reasons. However, I did read up on the event afterwards and have produced a mini-update below.

The Future of the Eisteddfod

Every year seems, with increasing intensity, to pose the question: what is the future of the Eisteddfod? The festival is facing major challenges on two fronts: what is its relationship with the majority English-speaking population of Wales, and how is the festival to ensure its financing into the future? Both these issues broke to the surface in fairly dramatic form, during this year's festival.


Newport/Plasnewydd is effectively a non-Welsh-speaking area, so a larger than usual proportion of visitors to the festival could be expected to be monoglot English. The purpose in moving the festival around Wales is to envigorate a Welsh language and cultural identity on the ground in different areas all over Wales. The hope is that those who get involved in the preparations for the festival (which, incidentally, start two years in advance) those who visit and participate in the festival's activities, and those who remain on in the locality after the festival's departure, will have become infused with an empathy for Welsh language and culture.

There is a difficulty here, however. The Nationa Eisteddfod is a Welsh language and cultural festival. Welsh is a minority language in Wales and is competing, as is Irish, with the major world language which is spoken also by all of its inhabitants. There are no monoglot Welsh or Irish left. English is the lingua franca with the "rest of the world". In addition to its own monoglot English-speaking population, lots of non-Welsh-speakers come to settle in Wales, whether full time, or in summer homes, and it does not take long to change the vernacular of a community in this situation.

Welsh is therefore, by definition, on the defensive and some of the requirements imposed on non-Welsh-speakers, while perfectly logical and necessary from a Welsh-speaker's point of view, appear anti-democratic and discrimatory, if not even racist, to non-Welsh-speakers.

The National Eisteddfod is not the Llangollen International Eisteddfod. The latter is an international choral festival which happens to be held in Wales. The former is a celebration of national, literary and linguistic culture. It is at the top of a pyramid of local Eisteddfodau, which go on during the year and which are both a training ground for the "national" and a cultural reinforcement in themselves.

The Eisteddfod itself has a "Welsh Rule". In effect this means that all of the activities which take place on the Pavillion stage must be in Welsh. It also means that "official functions" on the field should be in Welsh, and it is also expected that signage on the various stands around the Eisteddfod field be in Welsh - though there is some tolerance here of bilingual signage, for practical, if for no other reasons. For decades now, the festival organisers have provided radio devices to non-Welsh speakers which enable them to tune in to English language commentary on the main events. Helpful summaries in English are included in the official programme, and there is no restriction whatsoever on dealing with participants on the field in English, or Spanish {remember Patagonia}, or whatever.

For example this year, in part response to the Stevens Report (see below), a number of host/hostesses were introduced onto the field to help out Welsh and non-Welsh speakers alike. This seems to have met with reasonable success. Yet you find some of the population of [Plasnewydd] visiting what they consider a local festival and feeling totally excluded from participation by an elite apparently claiming linguistic superiority over them, and also claiming total jurisdiction for the week of the festival.

A bitter dispute erupted during the week when the Richard Report on devolution was debated on the field. Laura McAllister, Welsh born, living in Liverpool, a Welsh language learner and member of the Richard Commission, insisted on making her formal contribution in English, on the basis that she was more at ease in that language. There were cries of "fascist" from among the audience and a number of Welsh language supporters left the meeting in protest at her not making her contribution in Welsh, given that this was a formal Eisteddfod function and taking place on the field. As an added twist to the proceedings, McAllister subsequently took questions from the floor in Welsh.

Earlier in the week there had been criticism of the Archdruid's call to Welsh-speakers to "keep themselves pure" from the influence of Anglo-American language and culture. During one of his official functions he had proclaimed that "swine had fallen upon Wales and befouled it". This led to a hunt for the "swine". To whom did the term refer: English immigrants, the non Welsh-speaking Welsh, or even the Eisteddfod authorities themselves who felt obliged to "modernise" the festival for its survival. The Archdruid's reply was to attribute the quote to Saunders Lewis and comment "if the cap fits ...".

Being pro-Welsh language is increasingly seen as being anti-English language. Despite the Welsh rule, which I thought also applied to Gorsedd ceremonies, the Archdruid took it on himself to address delegations from other Celtic countries in their own languages on the Monday. Nothing to do with the language is ever non-controversial and he was criticised for doing this. I seem to recollect delegations at previous Eisteddfodau using Celtic languages on stage, however briefly, without any subsequent protest.

This is an intractable problem facing many, if not most, minority languages. The only way to deal with it in the longer term seems to me to persuade non-Welsh-speakers of the necessity for the restrictions if the language is to be maintained, and to get them to empathise, over time, with the aspirations of those who wish to do so.

This may seem self-evident to some, but there are a lot of Welsh speakers who feel absolutely justified in their cause and do not see the relevance of engaging the non-Welsh-speaking community. Feelings are running high and the correspondence columns of the Welsh press have reflected the convictions of both sides. Despite the efforts made by the Eisteddfod to cater for non-Welsh-speakers, many have felt excluded and treated as second- class citizens in their own land.

This is a wider problem than that facing the Eisteddfod alone. It involves ideas of Welsh identity, how central the language is to this, what the role of (majority) non-Welsh-speakers is, and even how Wales is going to cater for its non-UK immigrant population.


While the Eisteddfod is the national festival of Wales, the extent of Government financial support has been at best static, and at worst seriously decreasing in real terms, over the years. The Stevens Report recalls that Government support has fallen by a quarter in nominal terms between 1998 and 2002. This is the equivalent to a fall of 35% in real terms. The Government has pointed out that the grant for 2004 is 20% up on the previous year. This effectively brings the grant to just below the nominal amount in 1997. Meanwhile, costs have been increasing sharply.

This year's festival will lose money and, clearly, this cannot go on indefinitly. The options are limited: charge more for tickets and deter people from attending; attempt to raise more funding through popular appeals to a very restricted audience; get increased sponsorship - where this can bring its own problems, as in the case of British Aerospace in 2001; lobby Government for more funding - in a situation where the Welsh Government has to appeal to the whole of Wales and where there is increasing resistance to financial support for the language from non-Welsh-speakers.

During this year's festival an emergency appeal was launched for £300,000 to keep the festival on the road until next year. The target group had already been canvassed this year and produced only some £50,000.

It remains to be seen what the response will be and if the festival can persuade the Welsh Government that it needs and merits a higher rate of support and that it is doing everything it can, short of compromising the aims of the festival, to stand on its own two feet.

Television is a mixed blessing for the festival. While it cashes in on selling TV rights, those who watch do not necessarily have to attend, and the net effect on revenue is not clear.

Perhaps a rich and philantropic member of the Welsh diaspora could be found who would be prepared to bale out the festival ?

Volunteers versus Professionals

One of the issues raised by Stevens is the respective roles of professionals and volunteers in the festival. Traditionally the role of volunteers has been vital and predominant. The whole idea of the Eisteddfod travelling round Wales is to sensitise and mobilise local communities. It is essential that this continue to be the case and Stevens found in favour of a peripathetic Eisteddfod. The heart of the festival is the volunteer element. The Eisteddfod knows this well and this year inaugurated a special prize for a volunteer who contributed to the organisation, planning, fundraising or running of an Eisteddfod on a local, national or international level. The prize was won by and eighty year old volunteer who had run her local Eisteddfod for the last decade.

Nevertheless there is a serious role for the professional and Stevens is advocating an expansion and deepening of this role in the interest of the future of the festival and as a means of better leveraging voluntary effort.

Stevens Report
The festival is really at a crossroads and last Autumn, a report, commissioned jointly by the Eisteddfod, the Language Board, the Arts Council and the Tourist Board, did a fundamental review of the festival and came up with a number of conclusions. The crux was financing and this would have to be tackled through wider marketing of the festival. The festival would have to include a wider range of activities to be more festival like. Given its importance in the life of Welsh communities and culture, the festival should continue to travel around the country rather than stay on a fixed site. There is an implication, however, that it should stay close to Welsh-speaking areas. The management structure needed to be streamlined.

It remains to be seen to what extent these recommendations can be taken on board without compromising the purpose of the festival. Most of the arrangements for this year's festival were already in place when the report was published so its effect will only be evident over the next few years, assuming that the Eisteddfod doesn't go under in the meantime.

Festival management took the report seriously and produced a voluminous commentary on its recommendations.

Richard Commission
As always in recent times, Welsh home rule or independence is always lurking in the background at the Eisteddfod. This year saw the publication of the Richards Commission Report. In July 2002, Lord Richards had been asked by the First Minister of the Assembly to review two aspects of the Assembly after its first 4 years (i) the adequacy of its powers and (ii) its electoral arrangements. The Commission itself was unusual in that, apart from Lord Richards, who was appointed by the First Minister, it consisted of five members appointed after open competition and a further four nominated by each of the Assembly Party leaders. The Report was compiled after extensive consultation throughout Wales. In general, its conclusions were that the present arrangements were working well and had the potential for further development. In particular, the report pointed out that the status quo depended excessively on the ad hoc relationships between the Assembly on the one hand and Westminster and Whitehall on the other. While the present devolution could become irreversible through custom and practice, the Commission felf that it should be put on a more formal footing and the Assembly should legislate more directly rather than relying on Westminster, as at present. Membership should be increased from 60 to 80 and the present (partly list) system of election should be replaced by the single transferable vote (STV) to ensure both proportionality in representation and equality among elected members.

The report gave rise to predictable mutual slagging between Labour on the one hand and Plaid/Cymdeithas on the other.


"National" [UK] politics is never far from the surface at the Eisteddfod and this year the Archdruid took the opportunity during the week to criticise Ann Clwyd, a former Guardian reporter and subsequent MP and member of the Gorsedd. Ann is the Prime Minister's special envoy to Iraq and the Archdruid felt that some of the remarks she made where inappropriate to a non-political forum like the Eisteddfod. This is just another aspect of the "politicisation" of the Eisteddfod over the years. It used to be very careful to stay within the area of language and culture but over the years the cause has broadened out to include community development and ethical sponsorship which has brought an international flavour, not only to the festival, but to the issues it has become embroiled in.


It has always been the case that there are no "token" prizes awarded in competitions at the Eisteddfod. If the standard is not judged high enough no prize is awarded. This policy has ensured continuing respect for Eisteddfod awards and the attraction of serious competitors. Standards seem to be holding up as there were only 10 competitions this year where the prize was witheld, out of a total of 188 .

It is, nevertheless, a little worrying that the judges in the Chair competition were all disappointed in both the number and standard of entries, and awarded the Chair on a 2 to 1 majority verdict after long and arduous efforts to persuade the dissenting judge to go with the flow. This is the more disturbing as this year's competition was for a more flexible format than usual.

The winners of the two main literary competitions, the Crown and the Chair, maintained a welcome current trend of dealing with relevant political and cultural issues.


There were a respectable 28 entries for the Crown competition, on the theme "energy", which was won by a 33 year-old lecturer from Bangor University, Dr John Walford Davies. His work deals with the miners strike of 1984/5 in which his grandfather took part. He sees the work as a celebration of the heroism of the strikers and their families. The judges were unanimous in praising the poet's artistry.

One of the judges, Alan Llwyd, who had pulled off the amazing double feat of winning the crown and chair in the same year, twice, in 1972 and 1976, said that if ever there was a poet deserving of the crown, this was he.


All three judges were disappointed that there were only six entries for the Chair and also with the standard of the entries overall. The theme was "No Man's Land". The judges saw this as a splendid opportunity to deal with a wide range of topics and the requirement for a series of verses rather than a single work gave more scope to the contestants. All the more disappointing then that the overall standard and the number of entries should be so low. There were occasions in the seventies when the number of entries was heading for 30 !

One of the judges felt that none of the entries reached the level required for a national Eisteddfod chair and he was scathing of some of the lesser entries, suggesting that one contestant attend a night class for traditional verse writing, if he could find a suitable one. Nevertheless he felt that, of all the entries, the debate over the entry by "Neb" would be the most hotly contended. "Neb" was chaired on a majority verdict of 2:1.

This year's winner was Dr Huw Meirion Edwards, a lecturer in the Welsh Department of the University of Wales in Aberystwyth.The starting point was a couplet at the end of the first ode "Easier to tread the land of the cliché / than to tremble naked in no man's land". His entry went on to evoke a number of contemporary issues, including Afghanistan, Iraq, September 11, the IRA and Dr Harold Shipman.
- pseudonyms
Poets enter under a pseudonym to ensure fair play and the judges are not aware of their identity until after their decision. Pseudonyms can be a problem as I pointed out in my report on the 2001 Eisteddfod.

Contestants do have a sense of humour, though. This year's chair winner entered under the pseudonym "Neb" [nobody]. While this could be seen as connected to the set subject, Tir Neb, [No man's land - PC version Nobody's land], it probably had a more ulterior motivation.

The most feared result for any competition is "Neb yn deilwng", no one worthy (of the prize, which is witheld). In winning under the name "Neb" the contestant allows the judges to declare "Neb" yn deilwng, a neat contradiction. In 2002 the crown was won by "Pawb yn y Pafiliwn" (everyone in the pavilion), achieving the same but opposite effect.

This year's crown competition saw an entry from a "Mr Arthur Guinness" which commemorated visits to Dublin, Paris and Cardiff in the 1998 Five Nations Cup [Championship]. Unlike the drink of his pseudonym the judges found the poet talented but uneven. Perhaps a slower pull and a more even and creamier head will see this poet back in the fray and successful at a later date.


This year's Prose Medal competition was for a prose entry of not more than 40,000 words on the subject of change. It was won by Annes Glynn, originally from Anglesea. She submitted a series of short stories in the form of snapshots or sketches. Annes has a background in journalism, print, radio and television, and she joins the increasing pool of women who are becoming eligible as candidates for Archdruid.

Up to a few years ago candidates for the position of Archdruid had to have won either the crown or the chair. Until 2001 there had never been a woman winner of chair, and female crown winners were almost non existent. However, following a strong campaign by the present Archdruid, who, himself was a Prose Medal winner (1980) but ineligible then for contesting the position of Archdruid, Prose Medal winners were recently included in the list of eligible candidates. This also brought in a higher proportion of women than hitherto. Nevertheless, the next three years will extend the unbroken male occupancy of the office.

Archdruid elect, Selwyn Griffith [Selwyn Iolen] may prove less controversial than Robyn Lewis. He is on record as saying " I feel the role of the Archdruid is not important compared to the joy of seeing individuals being honoured ... I won't make statements to grab the headlines the next morning unless I feel it is just and right."

Fine art

The Gold Medal in fine art was won by Stuart Lee for his photographs under the title of "water level", which examined bodies of water which are man made or stocked and managed for recreational use.

Craft and Design

The Gold Medal for Craft and Design was won by an international potter, Walter Keeler. He participated as a judge the last time the Eisteddfod visited Newport in 1988 but this was his first time submitting his own work.


There was a lot of fuss this year over the ending of the ban on alcohol on the Eisteddfod field. There were dire predictions of vandalism and violence, particularly following incidents at the Royal Welsh (Agricultural) Show earlier. Eisteddfod organisers pointed out that alcohol had been allowed on the youth field at the Eisteddfod since 1997. It was also allowed in the caravan and camping areas and there was nothing to stop people drinking in the adjacent town.

After the event, the police reported that there had been no arrests on the field during the festival. This is presumably not connected with the fact that the Welsh Carreg Beer, of which around 5,000 pints were sold on the field, was brewed in Belgium using Czech stock. Carreg Beer's managing director, Meurig Evans, said "It's a Welsh recipe. It's difficult to see how it could be more Welsh." The company hopes to open a brewery in Wales in the near future.

Wales? .... never heard of it !

Not only is the Eisteddfod catering to a minority within Wales, but, of course, Wales itself is only a minor part of the territory and population of the UK. We Irish are used to the misuse of geographic and ethnic terminology. Invariably we are assumed to be English when abroad because we speak English. But the Welsh and the Scots are also often assumed to be English rather than British, and we hear frequent references to the English Government, or the Government of Great Britain, when what is meant is the UK Government. Northern Ireland frequently falls down the cracks.

However, the story of the Ghanian woodcarvers is something else. They were refused visas to visit the Eisteddfod by the British embassy in Accra, Ghana. Ffred Ffransis, chairman of the company "Cadwn" which invited the carvers to exhibit at the Eisteddfod, said "it is incredible that an embassy, which is supposed to be representing Wales, has to ask a Ghanian what is the National Eisteddfod - one of the largest festivals in Europe". The Foreign Office declined to release the reason for the visa refusal but insisted it had nothing to do with the National Eisteddfod. " There was no slur on the National Eisteddfod as far as any member of our staff was concerned."

The newspaper "Wales on Sunday", from the Western Mail stable, reported that, when contacted, one worker at the British High Commission in Accra claimed she had never heard of Wales. Adam Price, MP, drew attention to the fact that promoting Wales is part of the embassy's mission statement. The snub rankled as the Llangollen International Eisteddfod, held a fortnight earlier, had similar problems relating to visas and reported that a greater number than usual of overseas competitors either pulled out or arrived late as a result.

Chief Sitting Bull

Chair Bard Dic Jones may have thought he deserved a quiet life at this stage. But his son Brynach Llyr got the idea of opening up a tourist reservation on his father's property using red-indian tepees

A brave move, given the connotations of minorities and reservations evoked by the tepees, and one Dic took some time to adjust to. Some of Dic's colleagues were quick off the mark and christened him "Chief Sitting Bull". I suspect he was not amused.

The Western Mail reports that, since opening last year, there have been as many as 26 people staying on the site at one time.

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Those pictures not my own are gratefully nicked from BBC who do a wonderful job of covering the festival.