Rescuing the National Eisteddfod

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

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.

5 thoughts on “Rescuing the National Eisteddfod

  1. An important topic and I have some immediate responses:

    1) It’s true that despite the propaganda from the anti-Welsh language brigade that Welsh speakers as a group are relatively poor BUT there are many wealthy Welsh speaking individuals. I have worked in several large City law firms, for example, with leading Welsh-speaking partners who draw hundreds of thousands a year. Where are the trusts, scholarships, charities to support Welsh culture that they have set up? Don’t see ’em. Two or three of these individuals together could have set Y Byd on its way. Much lower down the incomes scale, Welsh teachers or cultural workers failed to support Y Byd. They could have bought a share for the price of a new sofa or an extra foreign holiday. The lack of a culture of contribuition, perhaps linked to the lack of sufficiently large and confident Welsh-speaking mercantile class, is part of the problem. Not that I am going to let criticism of the minoritized culture get the British state off the hook. They are cutting S4C disproportionately, for example, and there doesn’t seem to be any lack of money for pet British projects, such as the Olympics, NHS computers or foreign policy adventures.

    2) On the old chestnut of a settled home for the Eisteddfod, I haven’t heard your compromise solution before. I think it’s crucial that the Eisteddfod continues to move because this way it draws in a much wider range of individuals and contributes to unifying Wales and creating a sense of ownership of the language throughout the country. More could be done to increase the economic benefit to local town centres that y Brifwyl brings as well. I do not have a clear picture of how costs have increased over the years and why. You do not explore that above, so maybe there is nothing more they can cut, in which case, the compromise may be one way forward.

    3) Hay Festival: just tell them they won’t get any more funding from Welsh state agencies unless they put up bilingual signs and make more of their Welsh side on the website etc.

  2. I sympathize with much of Efrogwr’s note but differ on one point. I do not think nationalist supporters of Wales own national cultural festival should be looking to central government for support. If Wales cannnot maintain and run an eisteddfod itself how on earth could it maintain and run a state?

  3. Gerry, It sounds an appealing idea financially, but those who attended the National Eisteddfod on the one year it visited the Royal Welsh Showground at Llanelwedd in 1993 (again to save money), remember it as a less than satisfactory affair, and not only because of the rain. The facilities for stands at the showground are quite good, with tarmaced road, but the show ground centres on the main ring, and I doubt that it could be used for the main pavilion without destroying it for the Royal Welsh’s main purpose, given that the Eisteddfod and the Show are less than a month apart. It has taken years to restore the patch of ground on which the pavilion stood in Cardiff’s castle grounds a few years ago. In 1993, with the main ring off limits it felt like an Eisteddfod without a heart. Anybody else recall it? Is my memory playing tricks on me?

  4. Just an idle thought, but the Barnett consequential on the 10+ billion the Olympics are going to cost would be 500 million. An endowment of that size would allow the Eisteddfod to go anywhere it wanted, without any need for subsidy.

  5. I defer to Geraint’s memory of the 1993 eisteddfod; I wasn’t there. But even if establishing a permanent home for the eisteddfod, albeit with some shared facilities, required substantial investment, it would still be cost effective and pay back over a few years.
    On Sion’s point, apart from the fact that in practice there is no Barnett consequential for the Olympics, I have some sympathy with R.Tredwyn’s point. Surely this is something we have to do for ourselves.
    I am pleased to see, however, that no-one disagrees about the claims of Aberdare!

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