Poetry competes with Olympics for place in the sun

John Osmond reflects on the continuing resurgence of Welshness marked by last week’s Eisteddfod

While much of Britain was preoccupied with the London Olympics, an entirely different competition was underway in a small corner of the Vale of Glamorgan last week. With its giant pink tent, the National Eisteddfod had landed, like something out of Dr Who, within sight of the Somerset coast across the Bristol Channel, but on a distinctly different planet.

Europe’s largest festival of its kind, celebrates the best of Welsh literature, music and performance. The Eistedddfod dates back at least to the 12th Century. It was revived at the end of the 18th Century by Iolo Morgannwg, a Welsh polymath born near Llancarfon just a few miles from this year’s event.

For a week much of what is most Welsh about Wales is bottled together in a concentrated dose, some say overdose, that is a pick-me-up for even the most jaded in their enthusiasm for their country. Each year the weather proves a defining characteristic. Everyone remembers the Eisteddfod at St Davids in 2002 when the unremitting rain created a First World War Flanders-like landscape that one enterprising artist turned into a large-scale mud-carving of a map of Wales.

This year, apart from one day of penetrating wetness that turned parts of the Maes into a bog, the weather has been kind, allowing the festival to spread its wings. The cultural highlights come at the beginning and end of the week, with the poets who win the Crown and Chair. If the required standard is not reached these cannot be claimed. I’m glad to say that this year both were awarded.

On Monday Wales’ first national poet Gwyneth Lewis took the Crown. The competition attracted 32 entries. The task was to write a sequence of poems of not more than 250 lines on the subject Ynys.

Gwyneth’s winning work was inspired by the story of Branwen, from the second branch of the Mabinogi. This collection of mythical stories comes from Medieval Welsh manuscripts, and was first translated and published in English by Lady Charlotte Guest in 1838. After losing the war in Ireland, Brân’s head was removed from his body. The Welsh contingent spent eighty years feasting on the island of Gwales near Pembrokeshire, and throughout this period, Brân’s head conversed with the group. Finally they opened a forbidden door on the island and, as a result, Brân was silenced. Then they travelled to London where they buried the head , thus creating the foundation for the city.

Gwyneth’s Eisteddfod success continued with her play Y Storm, a translation of Shakespeare’s Tempest. It was performed to acclaim by Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru, as part of the World Shakespeare Festival and the London 2012 Festival.

Then on Friday Dylan Iorwerth, Managing Editor of the weekly Welsh language magazine Golwg was awarded the Eisteddfod Chair. This competition was for a sequence of poems, of not more than 250 lines in strict metre, on the subject ‘Tide’. The poems were motivated by the death of Dylan’s father, Thomas Edward Jones – or Twm Glasbwll – earlier this year. A mix of the imaginary and reality, they are all based on the experience of being with his father during his final months. They deal with this personal experience, but the wider background looks at life itself and its continuation from generation to generation.

On winning this year’s Chair, Dylan joins a small group of poets and writers who have won the Chair, the Crown and the Prose Medal at the National Eisteddfod, a rare feat. Speaking after the ceremony, he said: “I needed to write about this and if it hadn’t have been for the competition subject I might not have written about it. So it gave me a chance to open that door”.

And he added, “If you’re a poetry writer, the Chair has to be important, and it’s only in Wales. Anyone who writes poetry will admit they would like to win it.”

Another winner at the Eisteddfod was Robat Gruffydd, who runs Y Lolfa publishing company at Talybont in Ceredigion. He won the Daniel Owen Memorial Prize given for an unpublished novel. His novel Afallon is centred around a middle aged man and his realisation that ‘big brother’ military powers are killing the spirit of small countries likes Wales.

Gruffydd immediately donated his £5,000 prize to a new Welsh language movement, Dyfodol I’r Iaith that was launched at the Eisteddfod. The launch came as Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg marked fifty years of campaigning, often deploying what it terms non-violent direct action (violence to property not persons) in pursuit of its aims. Over the years Cymdeithas yr Iaith has achieved some remarkable objectives, not least the concession of bilingual road signs, that are now taken for granted across Wales, and of course the creation of the television channel, Sianel Pedwar Cymru (S4C) in the early 1980s.

Dyfodol is designed to complement Cymdeithas yr Iaith, conducting its activities within a purely constitutional framework. It is a belated response to the new constitutional status of Wales, with is own devolved legislature and Welsh Government. As one of the main architects of the new movement, Cardiff University lecturer Simon Brooks, put it, “Nothing is more symptomatic of this failure than the astonishing fact that 13 years after devolution, no Welsh language pressure group has ever seen fit to appoint a member of staff to lobby full-time at the National Assembly.

“Now that we have primary legislative powers, this situation can no longer be tolerated. The Welsh language needs an organisation committed wholly to making Welsh devolution and Welsh policy-making work as effectively as possible for the growth of the language.”

Nothing more underlined the validity of his argument than Andrew R.T. Davies AM, new leader of the Welsh Conservatives, declaring that we should now call the National Assembly a Parliament. As he explained, “In this, the week of the National Eisteddfod, the most important Welsh cultural event in the calendar, I feel it is now time to have a Welsh Parliament. Polling and the recent referendum show that the electorate want an institution as strong as a Parliament, and in reality the National Assembly is in all but name the Welsh Parliament.”

All that would be required, he added, was a small amendment to the 2006 Wales Act. What’s in a name you might ask? Quite a lot, according to Andrew R.T. Davies, “The Assembly deserves the respect of the executive, and it deserves to be an institution that stands out. Some may question why there needs to be any change at all. There is a Parliament in Scotland with primary law-making powers, so why not in Wales?”

The call reflects how far Wales has come in an astonishingly short time. Not long ago Welsh Conservatives were opposing any notion of devolution for Wales. During the closing hours of this year’s Eisteddfod, dusk crept across the flags flying high above the big pink tent. As a friend observed, “Who would have thought that we would ever have seen the flag of the Welsh Government flying there?”

John Osmond is Director of the Institute for Welsh Affairs. This piece was written for the OpenDemocracy OurKingdom website.

5 thoughts on “Poetry competes with Olympics for place in the sun

  1. A most informative and beautifully written article. I believe though that there is an ommission regarding the Welsh broadcaster and its desire and ability to reach the Welsh diaspora. I am an illigitimate son of Wales in that I do not speak the language, but I love to hear it and to immerse myself in the music and culture that the Eisteddfod delivers so wonderfully. We tune in to S4C from all over the world and we are always bemused by the degree of ‘chat’ by so called experts, and the dearth of actual performance. There is no subtitle or other translation facility, and by this ommission a great opportunity is missed in drawing in those children of Wales who want to enjoin with the culture of their heritage.

  2. Good article John. I thought that this year’s Eisteddfod was the best I’ve ever attended, and I’ve been going since the 1960’s. The talent, and especially the young talent, that we have in Wales is astounding, and it is something that we should all celebrate and cherish. This ensures that there is a tangible positive vibe on the Maes these days. Long may it continue to flourish!

  3. A very enjoyable summary. Everyone will have their own personal highlights. For me, these included events in the tent of the new Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol, Leanne Wood’s speech calling for a long-term aim of trilingualism in Welsh schools (as in Luxembourg or Finland) and the raucous “Stomp”, an irreverent competition by some of Wales’ most talented younger poets on Friday night. It was also a delight to discover more of the Vale and its rich Welsh cultural heritage.

  4. I enjoyed the Eisteddfod from afar via BBC Cymru, and was encouraged by this article. The Eisteddfodd Lecture was outstanding. There is now a female Archdderwydd. On the other hand, the lack of a winner for the literary prize was a signal to budding authors about standards.

    One thought which crosses my mind regularly during Eisteddfod week is the notion of its function as an element of civil society in Wales. The Eisteddfod process at any particular place takes well over a year, perhaps two years, from the selection of a location to the closing ceremony. During this time, there is a great deal of work done in the community to raise money and generate interest. The prospectus for the Eisteddfod in the following year is published a year in advance to enable competitors to prepare whatever they want to do. In addition to individual performers there are brass bands, choirs of all sorts and dance groups, many of whom compete at local eisteddfodau during the year to hone their skills for the big event. For me, there is also the publication of results and adjudications immediately following the Eisteddfod, which remains on hand to be browsed for most of the winter.

    Stepping aside from the various competitions and categories, there appears to be a strong and continuing impetus at the local level to get involved in a key cultural event.

  5. John,
    Seeing you at the IWA stall on the maes (rain or shine) is always an uplifting experience!

    The National Eisteddfod is a magical event which I attend all week every year, but I am keen to see the organisation rise to the challenge made by Leighton Andrews last week and attract more non-Welsh speaking visitors. Of course, it would not only be wrong but pointless in diluting the language rules of the Maes, as this is the very thing that should attract so many more of the 80% of our nation who do not speak Welsh.

    Despite the regular anti-language scribes who moan and groan in the Western Mail and its blogs, there are hundreds of thousands of Welsh who while not speaking Welsh, are proud and supportive of it. Let’s give more of them the opportunity to experience our truly unique festival of Welsh. It may even bring in a few more IWA members!

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