The Beginnings of the National Eisteddfod

The Eisteddfod and the Welsh Language

These early National eisteddfodau under the auspices of the Eisteddfod and its Council are quite amazing and have left their mark on the Eisteddfod to this day. It was during these eisteddfodau in the 1860s, by the way, that you saw the English language literally overtaking Welsh. One of the saddest things in the history of the Eisteddfod is the way in which the first National Eisteddfod was turned into a kind of English Eisteddfod, mainly because the Welsh were living so much in the shadow of the Blue Books and were longing, really, to be considered as representatives of a progressive nation. The early National Eisteddfod was colonised by the English language and by the culture of the concert hall. It was the concerts and the choirs and the soloists who counted above all.

This is where the famous Hugh Owen, later Sir Hugh Owen, comes into the story. Here was a man who longed above all to establish a national system of education in Wales, and he worked remarkably energetically to do so. Of course, what he had in mind was an education system dominated by the English language. Hugh Owen came to the Eisteddfod in Aberdare in 1861 and saw the remarkable possibilities it offered for propagandising for a national system of education. In Caernarfon in 1862, he added a completely new section to the Eisteddfod, calling it simply the 'Social Science Section', where all aspects of life in Wales would be discussed, mainly through the medium of English. Every aspect possible: her religion and morals, her education, her industries, with the emphasis firmly on improving living standards in Wales.

And so, through the culture of the concert, and the influence of Hugh Owen's Social Science Section, you see the English language infiltrating every part of the National Eisteddfod. It's very important that we should realise this, because in fact, down to the year 1950 when the Welsh rule, or as the Archdruid Cynan called it, the Welsh principle, came into operation in Caerphilly, the English language was more prominent, really, on the stage of the National Eisteddfod than the Welsh language. Up until then, for the greater part of a century Welsh had been fighting for its life on the stage of the National Eisteddfod, and we should remember that.

It's only comparatively recently that we can refer to the Eisteddfod as a kind of bastion of the Welsh language. Up until 1950, from 1861 to 1950, Welsh at the National Eisteddfod had been fighting for its life against the 'progressives' who feared that the English (Who else? They were the great nation next door who counted) still considered the Welsh to be a little people who lived, as the Blue Books had it, 'under the hatches'. The story of that fight is quite central to the story of Welsh-language culture in the twentieth century.