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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » The Cultural and Economic Importance of the Eisteddfod

The Cultural and Economic Importance of the Eisteddfod

There are eisteddfodau around the world, but it’s the big International August one that brings cultural and financial benefits to the whole of Wales.

The term ‘eisteddfod’ (plural: eisteddfodau) derives from the Welsh eistedd (to sit) and bod (to be). Bod is mutated to fod, and the whole means ‘sitting/being together’. It’s a gathering that has become a fixture in the Welsh calendar (first week of August) along with Christmas and Easter.

Alternating between north and south Wales, the Eisteddfod celebrates Welsh language and culture, and is the largest of its kind in Europe. It’s a mix of daily competitions with evening concerts, plays, gigs, comedy and exhibitions. Unlike many cultural festivals, this is competitive, with contests in dance, recitation, singing, brass bands, poetry.

Events are conducted in Welsh, but as BBC Wales observes: ‘everyone’s welcome. A translation service is available’. Visitors call at the Maes (ground or field) for information and refreshment. Welsh learners have an area for help. The atmosphere is abuzz with arts, crafts, music and dance for the family.

Over 150,000 visitors flock during the week. Competing ends late afternoon to allow ceremonies to take place. Awards are given for best work in free verse, best unpublished Welsh novel, prose, poems in strict metre. Competitions resume on Wednesday and Friday nights, often till late.

Historical Connections

According to the official Eisteddfod website, the national event is traced back to 1176, when Lord Rhys held a national gathering of poets and musicians at Cardigan. A chair at his table was awarded to the best poet and musician. This tradition prevails, and gave rise to other accolades.

Over the years, the idea developed into what BBC Wales calls: ‘a fully fledged folk festival on a large scale’ held around the country under patronage of different nobles and gentry. The National Eisteddfod Association (founded 1880) is charged with staging one annually, which with the exception of 1914 and 1940, it has done.

In the 16th Century prizes consisted of a miniature silver chair (best poet), silver crwth, archaic stringed instrument (fiddler), silver tongue (singer), silver harp (harpist). Queen Elizabeth I ordered that bards be examined and licensed to maintain standards, but after that, they declined and interest in Welsh arts with them.

There was a revival when the 1789 Eisteddfod at Corwen allowed public audiences. After this, there was even a gathering in London on the autumn equinox, as people rediscovered the joys of Welsh music, poetry and literature. During much of the 19th Century there was conflict between bardic native Welsh traditions and a new breed of Methodists, exacerbated by controversy over the highly critical Treason of the Blue Books (1847), a report into the state of Welsh education, which among other criticisms, questioned the morality of Welsh women.

Like all traditions that grew in contentious action and past beliefs, the modern eisteddfod is a mix of folk-memories, written records and contemporary sensibilities. That it’s a celebration of Welsh culture, tradition and language is indisputable. The question in an era of fiscal belt-tightening might be: is it viable and affordable? Most Welsh people would say it is.

Economic Benefits

Torfaen County Borough estimated that the 2010 Eisteddfod in Ebbw Vale was worth ‘£6-8 million during the week itself’. There is also a tourist ‘legacy effect’, similar to the Olympic effect that is built into long term cost-benefit analysis of major events.

The August 2012 National Eisteddfod will be held in Llandow, Vale of Glamorgan, and an agenda from March 2011 showed how Vale of Glamorgan Council are planning in terms of economic benefit. It will cost about £3.6 million to stage, of which a quarter will come from the Welsh Assembly.

‘The event is seen as a major opportunity for the Council’, said the report, ‘to raise the profile of the area’. The 2011 Proclamation Ceremony, public procession, opportunities to promote attractions and accommodation, transport and access, health and safety, food standards, waste collection, major incident planning and licensing are among the detailed issues being considered.

It’s big business, and with a rolling venue policy (though some want a permanent Eisteddfod location) it spreads opportunities across Wales. The economic benefits are undisputed and local businesses are as committed as authorities. Other Glamorgan gains are seen as: ‘the holding of a Welsh language event in a predominantly English speaking area will give opportunity for participation of English speaking visitors as well as those learning Welsh’.

Wales and Beyond

Some schools hold them, particularly on St David’s Day; small competitions are held across Wales. The concept has travelled to Los Angeles where Welsh Americans, in touch with their roots, organise events, which began in Portland, Oregon titled Left Coast Eisteddfod.

In Pennsylvania and Ohio there are localised versions. The 1926 Eisteddfod in Pasadena, California evolved into a one-act play festival, and there may be similar threads in most drama and music competitions today. Celtic/Gaelic music is the common link between Scotland’s Gaelic Mod and France’s Breton Kan ar Bobl.

Eisteddfods (their plural) have been absorbed into Australian culture, competing in musicianship, acting and dancing, generally for children but sometimes for adults and/or professional performers. They’ve been in Argentina since Welsh people settled in the late 19th century, where they bilingual these days, Welsh-Spanish.

There are even non-Welsh-specific eisteddfodau. The Methodist Church in England used to run them for youth groups, which is interesting, given hostility from Welsh Methodists in the 1840s. Kettering had one for decades and Cornwall and Jersey have their versions, while Bristol’s Festival of Music, Speech and Drama was originally known as the Bristol Eisteddfod.

It’s proof, if any were needed, that the ancient Eisteddfod heritage is alive and well and continuing to evolve, inspiring many with Welsh tradition, and producing useful community revenue.

First published on Suite 101, 5 August 2011

Image: Glydwr Banner of Welsh National Eisteddfod – AlexD

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