How to describe the National Eisteddfod? There’s a question.
Yes, it is a Welsh cultural festival that includes such traditional Welsh entertainment as harps, male voice choirs, folk dancing, and poetry, but it’s much, much more than that. It’s like getting a pass to another world – one where Welsh is the language of the majority, and everyone feels like part of one big community.
The Pink Pavilion
A newcomer like me might think that the main performance pavilion has always been pink, but in fact it first appeared in its current alluring shade for the Eisteddfod of 2006, in Swansea. In early times it wasn’t even a tent, but took place in various different structures, sometimes tent-like but other times wooden structures of varying shapes and sizes. Over the past ten years though people have become rather used to the Pink Pavilion but the current contract came to an end with this Eisteddfod in Meifod so it will be interesting to see what happens next.
There are some who spend most of their time in the pink pavilion, avidly watching all the competitions and discussing whether they agree or disagree with the judges’ decisions, but I tend to just pop in there occasionally when there is something on I particularly like. The rest of the time I divide between volunteering in Maes D (the learners’ pavilion) or wandering about the rest of the Maes, the extensive area that the Eisteddfod covers – and it is extensive. Ceredigion is considering a bid to hold the 2020 Eisteddfod, but first we have to find a location that offers 140 acres of flat land … not an easy task in a hilly country like Wales!
Every year I try to spend some of my time helping out in this special area for learners of the Welsh language. There are taster sessions for those that haven’t tried learning before, and other activities to encourage people to use their language. There is also a pod off to one side with a stage and the special competitions for learners are held there. Yes, the Eisteddfod is not just for the top class performers! It caters for all, and learners come from far and wide across the world to have a go.
This year my first task was as a llysgennad, a sort of wandering ambassador tasked with trying to encourage visitors to Maes D. I tried surreptiously listening in on conversations to see which language they were in, then bowling up to English speakers with what I hoped was an engaging smile and not the look of a lunatic. I would start with “Bore da! Ydych chi’n siarad Cymraeg?” and if they looked blankly at me or replied “Er, not really but I’m trying to learn”, then I would give them a little spiel about Maes D and encourage them in that direction.
Occasionally I found they were Welsh speakers who just happened to have slipped into English for a phrase or two, as bilingual people commonly do, and then I explained in Welsh that I was there to encourage Welsh learners. They were generally very helpful at that point, trying to think of any learners they knew that might be on the Maes, and one even immediately phoned his non Welsh-speaking wife on his mobile to tell her there was a lot happening in Maes D and she should get herself down there!
But it wasn’t the easiest of tasks, especially when I was only wearing a tiny identity badge that you had to be one foot away from me to read! A nice big Maes D t-shirt would make a difference!
I had the most success when I loitered near the main entrance and watched for people who looked a bit lost or bewildered when they came in, immediately going over to nearby tables to sit and study their Map of the Maes. A reasonable number of these turned out to be first-timers at the Eisteddfod, so I had a few successes, including a conversation with a very nice student from the Basque Country. He confessed he was really in the UK to improve his English but he found Welsh a fascinating language so he was soon on his way to Maes D for his first taster lesson.
My other main duty in Maes D was taking care of the children’s corner – chatting with Welsh-speaking children while they coloured in pictures of Sali Mali, and characters from Cyw. I enjoyed that, and had some interesting conversations with their parents, some of whom could speak Welsh, but others who were learning in order to support their children’s education – a very positive sign for the future.
On the Maes
The rest of the time I spent visiting the various stands that dot the Maes – some selling their wares, but others giving information about Welsh services and organisations. I deliberately didn’t go into the Teithio Tango stand this year as I didn’t want to hear “You again! Are you ever going to go to Patagonia?” for the third year in a row – I will get there one day! – but I stood and listened to a great performance by a young choir called Mimosa who were leaving very soon for the 150 year celebrations of the founding of Y Wladfa, the Welsh colony in Argentina. They were introduced by Rhys Meirion and quite a crowd gathered to listen to them.
I dropped by the Tŷ Gwerin which is often bulging at the seams due to the popularity of the folk music and dancing that happens there, and I browsed the art exhibition. I attended a talk on the need to ensure that ALL children in Wales are confident in Welsh hosted by Cymdeithas yr Iaith, and I met up with lots of people that I knew through SaySomethinginWelsh.com or that I had previously met at other Welsh events.
For me the National Eisteddfod represents a wonderful week where everywhere you go speaking Welsh is normal and there are too many places in Wales where, sadly, that is no longer true. The Eisteddfod brings people together from across the country and beyond and, no matter what their background and where they come from, very soon everyone feels like family.