Cymdeithas at 50: When dreams become reality

Angharad Tomos looks back at a lifetime of campaigning






Angharad Tomos

I didn’t see prison as a sacrifice. It was a Monopoly card that was an inevitable part of direct action. It suspended the campaigning, but only for a while. Once you’d done your time, it was a matter of taking up from where you’d left off. It was something you had to do, for Wales. And it was much more exciting than attending lectures…

I smile as I remember the difficulties, and the frustation. This was the  neolithic age before photocopying machines, computers, e-mails, mobiles, and texts. You got by with typewriters, kiosks and stamps, and it all took so much more time. Just that was the one thing we didn’t have – or the Welsh language would die.

Fighting for the language

In a series of articles through this week we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg in 2012. Tomorrow Menna Machreth explains how non-violent direct action can become a way of life.

We’d done the research on the mast, we’d rustled up the money to pay for some gear, we’d even got the activists – or, rather, we carried on re-cycling  them. The one thing we did not have was a driver to take us to our destination, a TV transmitter north of Manchester. It was easy enough to hire a car, but you had to have a 21-year-old person to drive one.  This was a mythological character, a figment of the imagination. I remember agonising one night, if only I’d been born two years earlier…

Thinking of that, my one great fear was that it would all be over too soon. That we’d achieve our aims, and that I would have missed out on the fun. I’d missed the Sixties by being a child, and I’d been too young to take an active part in the roadsigns campaign. I didn’t want it all settled before I’d played my part. Maybe this was how the fifteen-year-old lads felt before running off to war.

I needn’t have worried. The great debacle of 1979 came, just before my 21st birthday. We were back to square one. The campaign for a Welsh TV channel still hadn’t been won. I was now eligible to hire a car – just that I had not passed my test. Whitelaw had decided that the Fourth TV channel would not be allocated to the Welsh language. We went back to the drawing board and threw ourselves back into campaigning. In the end, Gwynfor Evans put the trump card down.

Suddenly, everything was dead serious. For the first time ever, there was no shortage of activists. I started a list of people who refused to pay the licence. I called a meeting of activists in my parents living room. Twenty four people turned up, and we hadn’t enough chairs for them all. We went down to London to protest, and after failing to get arrested, two of us went to Trafalgar Square and painted a slogan on Nelson’s Column. My main problem was spelling – how did you spell ‘Tory Betrayal’ with Japanese tourists taking your  photo? In the end the police came and took us away. They took it personal, and asked me how would I like it if they came to Wales and destroyed the most precious thing we had. “You already have” we replied. I was given a three month prison sentence for my artwork, and I missed the summer of saving Gwynfor.

One November night, we went next door to see the magic words on the TV screen – Sianel 4 Cymru – we didn’t have a TV ourselves. I remember my feeling at the time. Direct action really does work. It’s not all idealism. Slogans can become a reality…

But the Eighties weren’t so idealistic. Mines were closed, workers lost their jobs, men went to war, women went to Greenham, policemen got tougher, and hunger strikers died in jail. We carried on. The needs of the language created a long list that kept growing – a new Welsh Language Act, a body to develop Welsh Medium Education, the requirement to consider the Welsh language as a factor in council planning decisions. I attended more council meetings than a councillor! We gained experience, we were known to people in power, but the situation got no better. However hard we tried, the Welsh speaking communites kept rapidly declining.

“Every time we give you a concession, you just want more,” said Wyn Roberts, then Minister of State at the Welsh Office. That’s right we agreed. Rhaid i Bopeth Newid er mwyn i’r Gymraeg fyw.

In the end, another dream became a reality, Thatcher left 10 Downing Street. We celebrated the much anticipated event by catching a boat to Britanny. However bad it was in Wales, it was always worse in Britanny. By the mid-nineties, we’d got rid of the Tories as well, and a mood of optimism spread through the land. We marched for a Senedd i Gymru, and by the Autumn, we’d won the referendum (by a hair’s breadth).

It actually did come, not some old offices given a new lease of life. We had a brand new building to house the National Assembly. It didn’t have the powers Wales needed, but we felt that we’d achieved something historic. It was high time that I settled down. I got married. By 2003, I’d produced my finest work – a Welshman.

Maybe this is the hard bit. Bringing up a child and hearing him talking after coming from school. This wasn’t the standard of Welsh that I’d spoken. If this is how it is in the most Welsh parts of Wales, God help us. Maybe this is the sacrifice that they spoke about. Living in 21st Century Wales and pretending that things are improving. Knowing that tens of thousands of people are leaving Wales every year because of unemployment. A new nuclear power station is on the horizon. A developer wanting to build six thousand houses in one go. In whatever part of Wales I go I see the gradual decline of Welsh. This is not the new Wales I’d envisaged.

Then I look in the mirror and tell myself off for being so downhearted. Things have been this bad before. It’s a Welsh past time to think that you’re the last generation. We’ve been doing it since 1282.

Time I got into gear. I went to the Cymdeithas AGM. We’ll be 50 in 2012. There were difficulties and frustation, wild dreams and impossible demands. There were visions in plenty and not enough workers. Unexpectedly, someone came up to me, a fresh young face, and asked if would I come on a protest. Me? A middleaged lady with responsibilities? “Maybe I’m a bit old for that kind of thing” I explained, tactfully, then felt the familiar surge of guilt. “But tell you what, I would be willing to help. If you’re stuck, I’m willing to help out with my car.”

The fresh young face looked up at me. “We’re going by bus,” she said. “Are you coming or not?”

Angharad Tomos is a novelist