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

11 thoughts on “Saunders Lewis – dyfodol yr iaith

  1. I agree with Paul Flynn when he argues that Saunders would be delighted with the progress of Welsh medium education over the last two or three decades. However, I don’t think strategies on the language should be confined to the ‘Fro Gymraeg’, or any other part of Wales for that matter. Politicians of all colours have been complacent when it comes to the language, and I think that Cymdeithas yr Iaith’s priorities have sometimes been misguided. Yes it is important for Welsh language legislation to be enforced and the rights of Welsh speakers be upheld. But I would rather see a greater emphasis put on free Welsh language lessons for adults by volunteers across Wales, and the promotion of the benefits of bilingualism and the value of integration whilst using the Welsh language.

    With every trip home to North Wales, I note with great sadness the diminution of the language. It is becoming the language of the elderly in many areas. To counter this, Welsh should not be seen to be treated as a special case, or an issue preserved through legislation. Welsh should be normalised whenever possible, so that more people who choose to come and live in Wales will hopefully discover a newfound value and respect for bilingualism. An increasing number of people, born both in Wales and in England, want to see their children given the chance to be bilingual – a chance that wasn’t offered to them. We must make the most of this by ensuring that their children’s Welsh isn’t confined only to the classroom.

    I am optimistic that the Welsh language can survive, indeed thrive, in the coming years. But it will be a difficult process which will rely on the good will of the Welsh Government, the hard work of voluntary organisations and the determination of the communities themselves.

  2. And yet… the BBC references Hywel Jones’ analysis of the situation of the Language and suggests that there is a net loss of about 3000 fluent Welsh speakers a year. There can be no vibrant Welsh speaking community without Language fluency. Why would someone who couldn’t express themselves fluently in Welsh actually use Welsh? Since the WLB estimated that there were 317,000 fluent speakers in 2006 we have lost 17,000. On top of that there has been net inward migration.
    To continually consider that the growth of Welsh Medium Education in the South and South East is a sign of Language vitality is a mistake. The BBC programme, “The Welsh Knot” pointed out that proficiency in Welsh was not enough. Pupils with good Welsh skills gained in Welsh Medium education still did not converse in Welsh. Part of the problem is the motivation of parents when choosing a Welsh Medium Primary school; if it is based on a determination that their child should learn Welsh, fine, but I suspect that some parents are using WM schools to avoid catchment schools with high levels of pupils from deprived backgrounds or, dare I say it, high numbers of Ethnic Minority children.

  3. There is no evidence to support the assertion regarding ethnic minority children in the post above, and should be withdrawn.

  4. What would pass as evidence Dr Brooks? I seem to remember that in your “English Colonists out days” you made quite a few unsubstantiated statements. Since your early career was based around discrimination against people from England I would have thought that you would recognise the same motivation now that you have moved to Canton…No?

  5. @ Jon: so you don’t have any evidence, then? You just “suspect” and move on to attack Simon Brooks?

  6. I do hope the remark about avoiding ethnic minority children is in error.

    It is of interest to note in south west Wales that many ethnic minority children (and their parents) are picking up Welsh and becoming genuinely fluent. Therefore they are very welcome in our Welsh medium schools and make a great and positive contribution. I suspect that this is due to their being less hang-ups about learning Welsh along with many of them already being comfortable with bi-lingualism.

  7. I hope that you haven’t misunderstood me David Lloyd. Perhaps it will help if I explain what I mean and the basis for it. The Welsh medium schools do not discriminate on the basis of race. Parents from different social and economic backgrounds tend to choose primary schools in markedly different ways and people from minority ethnic communities tend to choose schools on a particular basis. There is anecdotal evidence (and this is as near as you are going to get to any kind of proof) that middle class parents, looking for a “nice” primary school, are including the number of ethnic minority pupils in a school in the evaluation of what constitutes “Nice”.

    Some research has been done on choice criteria according to class and ethnicity by Bristol University in relation to schools in England. They were looking to see if choice would lead to socio-economic stratification between schools and decided that this was happening but that any drastic effect was reduced by the lack of availability of unlimited places in “Good” schools.

    In Wales outside the Fro Cymraeg there is an unfettered supply of Welsh Medium schools, only limited by financial constraints. This is because it is established in law that Authorities must evaluate demand for such schools and match with supply. In Cardiff, where Dr Brooks is living, the LEA has even supplied one school for just 8 pupils and several of the WM schools are “Micro schools”. One thing is evident though; WM schools have far smaller percentages of pupils on Free school Meals and far fewer ethnic minority pupils. Since the economic and educational status of parents is such a strong determining factor in the educational attainment of school pupils, it is clear that Welsh Medium schools have better results than average and this becomes a strong factor in attracting more middle class parents to WM schools. I think that three LEAs have done research into parental preferences in relation to language medium of schooling. As far as I remember the main driving force for choosing WM was the standard of education not Language medium of instruction.

    The result in Wales is a accelerating division in schools not just on the basis of Medium but on the basis of class and ethnicity. I find it ironic in many ways that although we freely denigrate the country to our East for being class ridden, we have done far more in Wales to divide our children from one another. Consider Dr. Brooks wanting to remove my contribution to an open forum. He is on record as advocating that Welsh speaking children in Welsh speaking schools don’t mix with English speaking children in their playtimes. This is to prevent the dilution of the Welsh Language purity of the school environment. And of course Dr Brooks, who would deny me the right to free expression on a matter that should concern us, was a keen proponent of the movement a decade ago which expressed themselves by painting “ENGLISH COLONISTS OUT” on the walls around where I live.

    I do think that there is a certain hypocrisy in Wales. A certain desire to see our institutions and behaviour as untainted by baseness. If I had said that in England middle class parents send their children to schools where there are few Ethnic minority pupils whenever possible everyone would be sagely nodding over their computer key boards in agreement. There is a law of unintended consequences; where is the research into the effect of the Two Medium education system on social cohesion in Wales?

  8. JJ – May I suggest a simple answer to this. If Welsh medium education became the norm, then the perceived ‘need’ for exercising this choice would be ground away. I appreciate this is a hypothetical question as it depends on resources (teachers and so on) and political will, but it is a thought.

  9. Your hypothesis can’t be faulted David but, as you suggest, the logistics will prevent this happening and Welsh Medium schools will remain “Elite” schools. Political will is not a problem I think, parents wanting a Welsh Medium education are pushing at an open door but there are factors which may eventually inhibit WM schooling growth. Last year only 300 odd pupils took GCSE A level in Welsh first language. You have to ask where the high quality Welsh linguists are going to come from in future. The overall desirability of Welsh Medium schooling depends very much on the perception that they are succesfull academically and the fact that they have relatively fewer pupils from deprived backgrounds certainly gives them the appearance of being “Good Schools”. In 2011 88% of Welsh Medium GCSE examinees were in secondaries with less than 15% on free school meals. The corresponding cohort in English Medium schools formed only 41% of English medium school GCSE candidates.

    But despite all the advantages that Welsh Medium schools enjoy, when you compare like with like, English medium schools have better GCSE results. So, in fact I suspect that if an LEA expanded its middle class English Medium schools rather than just building new Welsh Medium schools for the upwardly mobile then the growth of WM schooling would grind to a halt. Of course such a move isn’t on the political agenda and until someone seriously looks at the effects of Welsh/English school system on academic outcomes no such thing will happen.

    What may happen of course is that parents in the Fro Cymraeg, where there is no option for a child to be educated through his first language if he comes from an English background, could go to court to force equal educational opportunity for their children. Such a move would bring “Choice” to Ynys Mon, Gwynedd and Ceredigion and much of Carmarthenshire. The percentage of first language Welsh speakers in school in the Fro Cymraeg has fallen dramatically since the 1970s as young Welsh speakers have colonised Cardiff rather than bring up their children in Tal Y Bont.

  10. Coincidentally, from an OECD report on Equity and Quality in Education :-

    “Students from lower socio-economic backgrounds are particularly affected by academic selection and in particular by early tracking,” said the report.

    The OECD also calls for parents’ choice of schools to be “managed” to stop schools being “segregated” by ability, background or ethnicity.

    Ms Pont added: “You have to give parents enough choice to be able to choose the right school for their child, but with improvement of equity taken into consideration.”

    At some point we in Wales have to decide whether we care at all about pupils from poorer backgrounds and ethnic minorities or whether the juggernaut of the political drive for Welsh Medium education is going to be allowed to steamroller the disadvantaged without any consideration of the ruin being perpetrated on the school system as a whole.

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