Saunders Lewis – dyfodol yr iaith

Paul Flynn reflects on the fiftieth anniversary of the most influential lecture delivered in Wales in the 20th Century

He is the only genius I have ever known. He arrived with the reputation of a legend. Teachers in my grammar school sent us to hear a lecture by Saunders Lewis. We were told that a fresh quotation from him would guarantee additional marks from our external examiners.

I vividly recall sitting immediately in front of him at a performance of one of his plays. He and Professor W. J. Gruffydd exchanged wisecracks and giggled uproariously throughout the performance. He was a delightful lecturer. His thin reedy voice, cunning humour and catholic tastes beguiled his students. I recall that he warned his class about the dangers of politics. “It can lead you to very strange places,” he said. In his case it was Wormwood Scrubs.

His civil disobedience was to burn part of a door at a bombing school in the company of two other patriots. Incredibly the Llyn Peninsula was to be the target for bombing practise.  Two areas in England had been considered and rejected because of local protests. The bombing never happened. The Welsh jury at Caernarfon refused to convict Saunders, Lewis Valentine and D J Williams. The case was re-tried in London.

Tynged yr Iaith The fate of the language

BBC Wales Annual Lecture delivered on 13 February 1962

“Restoring the Welsh language in Wales is nothing less than a revolution,” Saunders Lewis declared fifty years ago. “It is only through revolutionary means that we can succeed.”

In the lecture Lewis drew attention to the celebrated case of Trefor and Eileen Beasley of Llangennech who, between 1952 and 1960, refused to pay their local taxes unless the tax demands were in Welsh. The local authority (Llanelli Rural District) was 84 per cent Welsh-speaking in 1951, and Lewis pointed out that all the Rural District’s councillors and officials were Welsh speakers. At the end of the eight-year battle, during which the Beasleys had their furniture taken by bailiffs on three occasions, bilingual tax demands were finally issued.

Lewis took the Beasley case as a model for future action, but significantly added “this cannot be done reasonably except in those districts where Welsh-speakers are a substantial proportion of the population”. He proposed to make it impossible for the business of local and central government to continue without using Welsh. “It is a policy for a movement”, he said, “in the areas where Welsh is a spoken language in daily use”. It would be “nothing less than a revolution”.

The blood of Welsh speakers ran cold with the message of Saunders Lewis’s warning in 1962 that without revolutionary action the Welsh language would not survive into the 21st century. It shattered the cosy complacency of language loyalists. A language that was developed and sophisticated centuries before English existed could die of neglect in our generation. The chilling nightmare inspired action. There were heroic sacrifices by the young people of Cymdeithas yr iaith Gymraeg.

My minute contribution was to endlessly campaign within the Broadcasting Council for Wales for a fourth channel. Its success has played a major role in inspiring Welsh language creative activity. The blossoming of Welsh medium education has produced fresh generations of writers, actors, musicians and teachers.

If Saunders Lewis was living now, he would have been astonished and delighted at the continuing vibrancy of Welsh language life. The language of heaven is still the medium for literature, television, radio, tweeting, making love, cursing, and praying. He would have been delighted with the easy fluency of debates on all political subjects in a ‘parliament’ located on the soil of our own country.

We need to be jerked into a new reality. False optimism is debilitating. The language has retreated in many of its traditional habitats. A new pessimism should inspire fresh determination to guarantee a lively satisfying future.

Paul Flynn is MP for Newport West

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