William Powell shares his thoughts on the first National Eisteddfod in Abergavenny for over 100 years
The Maes is gradually being dismantled and most of the flags and banners that had graced Abergavenny’s Castle Meadows on the bank of the Usk have by now been stowed away, but the memories of this year’s Eisteddfod Genedlaethol and its legacy will live on for a very long time.
I was not born into an Eisteddfod going family – and prizewinning stage presence has regrettably skipped a generation in me. Nevertheless, I have come to enjoy the annual pilgrimage to the Maes, and have only missed a couple since the turn of this century. My own county of Powys has had the privilege of hosting on two occasions in that time, and Meifod provided a magical setting for the Eisteddfod, in 2003 and again last year.
In the run up to this year’s National Eisteddfod, some were sceptical about the task facing Monmouthshire in hosting this most ancient of Europe’s cultural celebrations. Over the centuries, Monmouthshire has had a richly documented special relationship with Wales, and one that cannot always be properly described as cordial. The latest 2011 census figures for Monmouthshire revealed that only 9.9 % of the local population speak Welsh, itself a modest increase on 9.3% in 2001. In this context, Abergavenny, which last hosted the National Eisteddfod in 1913, on the eve of the Great War, pulled off a real coup in delivering such a friendly, inclusive and successful Maes this year.
As well as being styled as the Gateway to Wales, the bustling market town is also in a very real sense a crossroads between the agricultural heartlands of the Brecon Beacons and the valley communities only a few miles to the South. As Vaughan Roderick commented to me on the Maes, Abergavenny and its hinterland has much in common with Breconshire as recently as the 1980s, Gilwern and Brynmawr were part of the old Brecknock. As a youngster who grew up in the Black Mountains in the 1970s, I apparently asked my Aunty Mary if it would be possible, as a birthday treat, to go to both Brecon and Abergavenny on the same day – I think that my request was granted!
One of the real legacies of this year’s Eisteddfod has been the rebirth of interest in the Nineteenth Century Welsh cultural heritage of Lady Llanover and local priest Thomas Price, whose bardic name was Carnhuanawc, sometime Vicar of Cwmdu, my mother’s home village. It has been heartening to see the level of coverage in the local press, notably The Abergavenny Chronicle and South Wales Argus, and this was richly represented in Lle Hanes and in period costume drama on the Maes.
As one of the team of Welsh Liberal Democrat volunteers at the Eisteddfod, I benefitted from the rich aromas of the Pentref Bwyd which was just adjacent to our stand. The wealth of food on offer, drawing on Welsh and more exotic cuisine, served to remind us of a more recent development amongst Abergavenny’s multiple identities, as a foodie Mecca. Maybe it was this, at least as much as our campaigns on the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol and the impact of #Brexit on Wales that led to the strong footfall that we enjoyed this year. As well as visitors from every part of Wales, the UK and several other Celtic nations in Europe, we also had a chance to chat not only with Vaughan but also with Bethan Rhys Roberts and BBC Arts Correspondent, Will Gompertz. His subsequent 10 O’Clock News feature on the Eisteddfod was interesting and far more insightful than we usually expect from the London based media.
My own musical favourites from #steddfod 2016 included the Cymanfa Ganu, with the 200 strong Eisteddfod Choir and the prize winning Tredegar Brass Band, all under the masterful Alwyn Humphreys; Catrin Finch’s inspired Serenestial production with Newport’s own Ballet Cymru and Cowbois Rhos Botwnnog, whose headline set on the Llwyfan y Maes delighted the long stayers on the closing night.
There were the usual media skirmishes in the background to the Eisteddfod – a grumpy Archdruid being cast as an out of touch purist for not sharing the enthusiasm of seemingly everyone else in Wales for the achievements of Chris Coleman’s Euro 2016 Squad; outrage at the rogue tweet of a BBC Radio Five Live researcher, advocating the death of the Welsh language, rightly condemned by Welsh Language Commissioner Meri Huws and subsequently disowned by ‘Auntie.’
If the target of 1, 000,000 Welsh speakers by 2050, launched on the Maes by First Minister Carwyn Jones, and Alun Davies, Minister for the Welsh Language, is met, maybe the Monmouthshire Eisteddfod will be seen as the turning point. While this target may seem optimistic, even for me as a Welsh Liberal Democrat, whose very currency is optimism, one thing is clear. This year’s National Eisteddfod, with attendance figures in excess of 140, 000, almost doubling that of the population of the rural host county, was an unqualified success. Indeed, the attendance on the final Saturday was the highest for over a decade.
In a momentous year, when many are concerned about a ‘for Wales, read England’ approach following Brexit, Monmouthshire has played a distinctive and positive role, confounding the sceptics and reasserting its claim to be very much part of the Welsh Nation.