Awake. If I was ever asleep. The hangnail moon still grizzling above a slick black sea. Wet sand sticking to my face. It’s less than 24 hours since I boarded the T2 for Pen Llŷn, Eisteddfod bound, and now I’m ready for home.
The bus had cruised north, Y Rhinogydd crisply defined. We collected a musician sucking vodka through a straw at Porthmadog, before I changed at Pwllheli onto a shuttle bus to Y Maes (the festival site). ‘Efallai Merched y Wawr?’ the young boy next to me said after a moment’s thought, in response to my question about what was enjoyable about the Eisteddfod. Maybe thirteen, in his vintage Gerrard shirt, he had been making conversation with me – shyly asking where I lived, how long I’d been learning Cymraeg. And then instead of telling me what appealed to him, had suggested what I might like – Merched y Wawr being a kind of Women’s Institute. I know I wear rose-tinted sbectol, especially when it comes to Cymraeg, but to me this polite boy symbolised the best of rural Welsh culture and I was not taking them off.
The end of Pen Llŷn is visceral. Cymraeg prevails and I almost tiptoe around a landscape so often described as being ‘denau’ (‘thin’ – referring to the space between heaven and earth) you might yawn if you didn’t know it to be true – though if heaven was present at the Eisteddfod I wasn’t tuned in. Only when I raised my eyes above crowds and tents to familiar hills did I remember their magic. Possibly Boduan was not far enough west. Probably there were too many earthly distractions; colours, smells and sounds. But the language was more than present. Cymraeg was rampant.
Though I’ve lived in Cymru for years, I’m not fond of summer heat and am often skint so this was my first Eisteddfod. I had been given a ticket by Cymru a’r Byd (Wales International) in exchange for signing my books in their tent, after which I was free to roam. Cymraeg filled the air. Cymraeg first. Cymraeg confidence like I’d never experienced. On stages and among friends, Welsh people freely expressing themselves in their own language, without judgement, adjustment or apology. Without pause. I soaked it up.
Eisteddfod means something like ‘sitting together’. Small eisteddfodau are held annually throughout Cymru at schools and at a regional level, while the International Eisteddfod has a permanent home at Llangollen. Meanwhile, like Yr Urdd (the Youth Eisteddfod), the National Eisteddfod is located in a different part of Cymru each year. Although it has expanded to become a festival of arts, music and literature with the associated smorgasbord of eateries, charities and commerce you’d expect, what defines it are Welsh language contests in music, poetry and prose. Competitors vie for prizes of carved wooden chairs. Particularly important events are the chairing of the bard who has written the best poem in awdl (strict meter) and the crowning of the bard who has written the best poem in pryddest (free verse).
I happened upon a prize-giving ceremony (the award for best drama) in Y Pafiliwn Mawr. A choir of children sang. Brass musicians sounded a fanfare. Plaudits were made by the judge, before the winner ‘Wasabi’ (entries are made under a pseudonym) was announced, and spotlights whipped about the audience for seconds of theatrical suspense before Wasabi (actual name Cae Evans) sprang to his feet. Whereupon he was advanced upon by druids who draped him in a cloak and led him to a wooden chair where he sat, facing the audience, wiping a tear from his eye. I was moved by the ceremony, dazzled by the pageantry and slightly unsettled at having witnessed a man being propelled to a chair.
Clac clac clac… by contrast the ‘cloc-sio’ competition left me exhilarated. No plush pavilion here, instead the audience were crammed onto wooden benches in a small warm grass-smelling tent while five young competitors performed tricks at the heart of Welsh clog-dancing, which was started, so it seems, by slate quarrymen on lunch breaks. The audience clapped as the dancers clacked and leapt through the tricks; ‘Tobying’- Cossack-style squat kicking, step dancing around a broom, snuffing out candles by extinguishing the air between their leaping heels, and jumping back and forth over a twisted hanky. They left us breathless. Such stamina and agility! It was hard not to compare it to my very different experience as a teenager in England. That kids and young adults were here embracing tradition and making it this cool, blew me away. Competition has its failings but also its merits. I mused now (my sbectol extra rosy after the clog-off) that with competition being so integral to eisteddfodau and eisteddfodau being so endemic to Welsh culture, that there must be a link between eisteddfodau and the humility in victory, and grace in defeat I find so refreshing, so moving, at Welsh sporting events.
In 1176, Lord Rhys of Aberteifi Castle hosted one competition in poetry, and one in music – the first known Eisteddfod. Similar tournaments were held in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries but declined in popularity until revived in the eighteenth century by London-based Welsh people, in particular Iolo Morgannwg. (It was Morgannwg who introduced the druidic flourishes.) Across the centuries as bardic tradition ebbed and flowed against a background of turmoil, eisteddfodau have been crucial in the struggle to keep Cymraeg and Welsh culture alive. At an eisteddfod in 1734 only six poets turned up to impress a panel of twelve judges. In 1858 The Times reported the eisteddfod as being ‘simply foolish interference with the natural progress of civilization and prosperity – it is a monstrous folly to encourage the Welsh in a loving fondness for their old language.’
Keeping Cymraeg relevant and thriving is still of potent concern. (As I write, anxiety is being expressed in the media that the 2024 Eisteddfod to be held in Rhondda Cynon Taf might struggle, it being a largely English-speaking area). While earlier this year, rapper Sage Todz released a statement – he would not after all, be performing at the 2023 Eisteddfod because his songs contained too much English. The Eisteddfod committee explained that the integrity of Sage’s lyrics was as important to him as their Cymraeg-only policy was to them. Vaughan Gething (Minister for the Economy in Wales) was among many who suggested the Eisteddfod might relax their rules, pointing out that Sage had introduced Cymraeg to a wide and diverse audience. Izzy Rabey, also a rapper, declared that she would turn down her slot if the Eisteddfod did not reconsider their Cymraeg-only policy – not for competitors she was keen to stress, but for those like her and Sage, who’d been invited to perform at a concert. I bumped into Izzy the day before she released her statement. She was full of apprehension. With good reason, social media being as savage as it is. The Eisteddfod did not back down.
Cymraeg was everywhere. The cultural richness impressed me. I floated about revelling in it, with a very expensive pint of fruity cider. I heard snatches of opera. Caught a whole Meinir Gwilym gig in Pabell Gwerin. Was wowed by the art (and the curation of it) in Y Lle Celf. I witnessed a circus act performed by kids which was so beautifully strange I couldn’t suppress my giggles. I laughed out loud at a comic play acted by young farmers in Y Pafiliwn Bach, danced to Tsunami with the crowd at Y Llwyfan Y Maes, and sat at the back of Pabell Lên while two poets presented an animated history of Welsh poetry. By this time my not-very-good Cymraeg was so stretched I stopped even trying to understand. But the cadence and delivery I loved.
A great crashing noise drew me once more, to Y Pafiliwn Mawr. What sound was this? I crept in at the back, truly stunned. Welsh hip hop stars were performing one after the other on stage, backlit by a mesmerising lightshow and supported by a full orchestra – a bizarre yet absolutely brilliant combination. As the vocalists worked the crowd and bossed the stage, the orchestra pulsed. I was so immersed in the whole experience, felt such fondness (my cider being also rose-tinted) for the screaming kids at the front and the rest of the somewhat older-than-you-might-expect-for-hip-hop crowd who were there probably in part for the comfy seats but also because this was their Cymru, that it took me a long time to notice that the guy a few rows in front of me, half out of his chair with his arm held long and strong in an enduring air-punch, was I believe, Sage Todz. Only then did I realise that this was that gig, and remember that Izzy was not there.
I have still not worked out where I stand in this year’s language debate, but believe the discussion was necessary and felt. Nevertheless, my euphoria was ever so slightly chastened as I made my way across the crowded Maes for a third cider – especially when my card was declined. I handed over my emergency tenner, then mollified, realised I’d spent my bus fare home. Time to call it a day while I still had £2 for the shuttle bus as far as Pwllheli. Joining groups drifting in a tired but satisfied haze towards the gates, I heard a teenage girl behind me sighing contentedly to her friends in the manner of someone who’d had a lovely day she was already nostalgic for – ‘o bydded i’r hen iaith barhau.’ ‘Oh may the old language continue’ – the last line of the Welsh National anthem.
The shuttle bus was packed, the passengers drunk, happy and very loud. Suddenly I noticed the Cymraeg behind me had changed to English. The pack of teenagers had recognised a kid new to the area in their midst. A girl invited him onto her knee while the boys extolled the virtues of Spar, and the adults looked on with affection, while it struck me that one of the greatest causes of the seemingly permanently fragile state of Cymraeg, is kindness.
It is raining when I reach the beach. Drizzle kisses my face and moistens my boots which have slipped out from beneath the tarp I’ve wrapped myself up in. But it is quiet, the moon is astonishing, and I do sleep a little.
Is it morning? Yes. There again, the sound that woke me, the plaintive call of an oystercatcher. I stuff everything in my rucksack and at 5.15am, put up my thumb at the edge of Pwllheli, and score a lift all the way home with an NHS worker bound for Abertawe. Y Rhinogydd are cloud-swaddled today. As we head south, my rose-tinted sbectol slightly scuffed but still firmly on, I have an impression as the country unfolds, of the Eisteddfod as a colourful, noisy, dynamic entity. A soul-searching pioneer and fun-loving fugitive, constantly on the move, igniting flares of Cymraeg and passion wherever it pauses.
The photograph at the head of this essay is by Rhiain Bebb.