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.
6 thoughts on “Da iawn Sir Fynwy – reflections on this year’s National Eisteddfod”
Hear, hear. A warm and enthusiastic welcome was given by the people of the town and the locality.
The arts pavilion (Y Lle Celf) had an excellent exhibition based on Raymond Williams’ Border Country, and matched the mood of the event perfectly.
The Eisteddfod Genedlaethol can be an addictive experience. Even at the distance that separates me from Wales, I am not satisfied until I have viewed video clips of the principal competitions and major ceremonies. Nor am I fully satisfied until I have purchesed Y Cyfansoddiadau, to savour the full adjucations during the winter.
But it goes beyond that, to what I, and others, call the “Eisteddfod effect” on the communities where it is held. Meifod and Abergavenny are excellent examples. The planning that goes into the event, and the learning and economic effect for communities can be signifiant, as the organizers know. The logistics of setting up the event each year are impressive, and the grumpiness of an Archdruid is an expected part of the ritual.
So value the social, economic and cultural heritage value of this quirky, but wonderful, lollapaooza of an annual event. And in Gwent consider asking Merddyn ap Dafydd to explore the Lower Wye Valley and publish a book that explains the background of the place name Dindeyrn (Tintern). The Archderwydd might like the idea.
I’m delighted that William Powell AM had a good time at the Abergavenny ‘festival’,and that approximately 140,000 tickets were sold for the 6/7 day event,however I do wonder how many people actually attended over the period. We live in a free country and people can therefore attend events as they require,and plainly the Abergavenny Eisteddfod was well attended by in the main our welsh language ‘community’, and hosts of broadcasters from both BBC Wales/CYMRU and S4C. I remember when the Eisteddfod was held some years ago in Llandow,which is about 5 miles from my village,and quite frankly if ever there was a non-event that was it as far as 99% of people living in the V o G. I can only ‘applaud’ the people who participated in various competitions,however whether it merits the wall to wall coverage by S4C,(publically funded broadcaster),and reports by the English language part of BBC Wales? It seems to me that there are ‘areas’ of welsh life that are ‘sacrosanct’ and beyond criticism/parody as the welsh ‘elite’ are tuned into each other,whilst the mass of plebs(like myself) just grin and bear it and turn on SKY to get back into the real world.In comparison the HAY festival attracts huge interest/visitors and has truly ‘world’ class speakers/contributors whilst BBC Wales shows virtually no interest in it all. Where is Gwyn Thomas when you need him!!
Gwyl Y Gelli offers some great experiences for attendees . However a lot of what it’s “world class speakers” deliver they already deliver elsewhere, in print, on line or on radio and tv. However if you’re an avid SKY viewer I can understand that you might think you can only access their genius at an event like the one at Y Gelli Gandryll.
I assume, organisers and speakers willing. that there’s nothing stopping the BBC (UKwide) televising more of Powys’s literary festival or any of the other literary festival that’s held in the UK. But if you give BBC2 and Radio 4 a try you’ll still find a lot similar stuff going on throughout the year not just over a few days in May.
Howell, No one regards you as a pleb until you declare yourself to be one. We do wonder though where you got that huge chip on your shoulder about your country. And if you regard what SKY presents as an undistorted version of the “real world” I think you need to adjust more than your set.
A well thought out article. I very much enjoyed the Eisteddfod for the week, the site right next to the town being very positive. I would disagree with Howell about the attendees, as there were many non-Welsh speakers on the maes, enjoying all it had to offer. I remember the Maes near his home and believe that the Eisteddfod has improved what it offers to non-Welsh speakers since that event. I was critical at the time and as a learner, can see the change. Apart from the Eisteddfod always trying to use local firms, the main economic gain is the return visits. Many who attend every year stay in an area of Wales for the first time and Monmouthshire being so beautiful, I have no doubt that many will return.
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