History of the Welsh Eisteddfodau

The Beginnings of the National Eisteddfod

By the time we reach the end of this exciting movement with the last of the Abergavenny eisteddfodau in 1853, it's obvious that the Eisteddfod is on the threshold of a particularly exciting period. By then there were railways the length and breadth of Wales, and this made it possible to bring thousands of people from every part of Wales to the different venues where the eisteddfodau were held. A new era had dawned, and by the middle of the 1850s people were beginning to talk of a National Eisteddfod. The time had come to create one single eisteddfod, yearly, if possible, that would encapsulate Wales's eisteddfod culture on an annual basis.

What part did that culture have to play in upholding Welsh morale, Welsh spirits? By the time we come to the 1850s, the Eisteddfodau are in the shadow of the Blue Books. The Blue Books appeared in 1846/7 and launched a notorious attack on the character of the Welsh as a nation, finding them lacking in the extreme. From 1847 onwards it's as clear as day that it has become extremely important for the Welsh to create a new national image, an image that would defend their reputation and show that they were a nation deserving of approbation rather than insults. To promote such an image, well, you needed a stage or, if you like, a shop window, so you could tell the world that you'd been hard done by, and deserved better.

By the 1850s discussion was rife, for you had no other national institution that could stage a compensatory image of that kind. Talk of a National Eisteddfod began in earnest, and in 1858 something wonderful happened. Another of the clergy, John Williams ab Ithel, a man who was intoxicated by the ideas of Iolo Morgannwg, and believed one hundred percent in the Gorsedd of Bards, and a man with quite a bit of the entrepreneur about him too, saw the significance of the coming of the train. He decided to hold an eisteddfod complete with Gorsedd in Llangollen in September 1858, one that would be, if not exactly a proper National Eisteddfod, then certainly a prefiguring of what a National Eisteddfod might be like.