Rescuing the National Eisteddfod

Gerald Holtham argues for some reverse colonisation to turn around the financial fortunes of our greatest festival

Crowds of people flocked to this year's Eisteddfod in Ebbw Vale, but the festival continues to run at a loss

The recession is hitting many aspects of Welsh life and is likely to keep doing so for some time. One institution suffering is the National Eisteddfod, which has made losses over the last couple of years amounting to more than £120,000. The Eisteddfod is the lynchpin of much Welsh culture and many of the things that make the nation distinctive. As such it enjoys the goodwill of many Welsh people who do not speak the language as well as the vast majority of those who do. Yet the festival is heading towards another financing crunch. What is to be done?

The trouble for the Eisteddfod is that the people who are its main supporters, the Welsh-speaking part of the community, are a fairly hard-up group. This was underlined for me when I suggested some months ago that a charitable trust could be set up to support S4C. The idea was tax efficient and afforded a way for viewers to have more say in the running of the station. I was quickly told that Welsh-speaking Wales was already forking out to support the Eisteddfod, Cymdeithas yr Iaith and other local activities and charities. An S4C charitable trust could not raise enough money to be worthwhile without damaging other institutions.  If I wanted proof, the attempt to get investment and subscriptions to launch a Welsh-language daily newspaper, Y Byd, had come up short.

There are no fairy godfathers or mothers. The few Welsh billionaires like Michael Moritz and Terry Matthews are expatriates who don’t speak the language and have no particular interest in its culture (though Matthews has been a massive supporter of Welsh businesses).  The Eisteddfod already receives public subsidy and in these times it won’t get any more.

There is no escape, therefore, from cutting its expenditure to fit its level of support.  The obvious way is to modify the tradition of moving around to a new location every year. It would be a terrible shame to abandon the peripatetic tradition entirely but that isn’t necessary. The Eisteddfod could have a permanent home for use every other year and move in the off-year. Since it alternates north and south, the permanent home should be in mid-Wales and there is an obvious place. Let the Eisteddfod share the royal agricultural show ground near Builth Wells. The town is used to a July influx of visitors so could surely cope with, indeed probably welcome, two influxes. And sharing ready-made facilities must cut costs. Then the festival could afford a trip north or south every second year.

Now, there is not much Welsh in that part of Powys. Indeed, while a great event, the nearby Hay Festival, which takes place in early June, is conspicuously deracinated, and generally ignores the fact that it is occurring in Wales. If the Eisteddfod steps up the degree of local cymreictod it would be a notable bit of reverse colonisation.

When it resumes its travels, one of the Eisteddfod’s earliest moves should be beyond dispute. The first modern eisteddfod was held in Aberdare in 1861. The last time the festival went there was 1956. It did not go back in 2006, the 50th anniversary of the last time it was there or 2011, the 150th anniversary of the festival itself. Although the town no longer enjoys its 19th Century eminence (when it was said that what Aberdare thinks today, Wales thinks tomorrow), the town is still about the twelfth largest in Wales and is the birthplace of many notable contributors to Welsh culture in music and in both languages. After settling into Builth, it would be shocking if the Eisteddfod did not go back to Aberdare in 2016, the diamond anniversary of its last visit. I am sure I should think the same even if I had not been born there myself.

Gerald Holtham is a trustee of the IWA.