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Eisteddfod a centuries-old celebration of song and poetry

Feb. 01, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

Many of you will no doubt know that Wales is part of Britain, but how many, I wonder, know that Wale's nickname is "the land of song"? The Welsh language, derived from the ancient British Celtic tongue, is a very musical one and is still spoken by some half million Welsh people and, surprisingly, by people in the Patagonia portion of Argentina.

Wales is a mountainous country and the south part had numerous coal mines. The mines are mostly exhausted now but the miners started a tradition of male voice choirs that still exists today. Some of these choirs are now world famous, but the Welsh culture of singing and poetry goes back many centuries to at least the 1100s.

There are records of a festival to celebrate Welsh music, singing and poetry held by a man called Rhys ap Gruffydd in the year 1176. The festival was called an Eisteddfod and Lord Rhys, who was the Prince of South Wales, sent invitations to all the famous bards and minstrels of his day to attend at his castle in the town of Cardigan. A panel of dignitaries judged the best poet, singer and musician and their reward was to be allowed a chair at the Prince's table. Lord Rhys's Eisteddfod may not have been the first of its kind, there are hints that the judging of poetry and singing goes back to ancient Celtic times, but it is certainly the first for which we have records.

During the middle ages, the tradition of the wandering minstrels and poets fell into abeyance and so there were few big Eisteddfods, although some smaller ones were held. A large-scale one was called in the city of Carmarthen in the year 1451, but the next big one that we know about was 117 years later in Caerwys in 1568. At this one, silver was given as prizes for the best performers. The best poet got a tiny silver chair, presumably to maintain the tradition of a chair at the Prince's table. The winning singer was presented with a silver tongue, the harpist with a silver harp and the fiddler with a silver crwth, an ancient stringed instrument once popular throughout Europe.

Queen Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen as she was known, ordered that all participants in the Eisteddfods of her day be examined and licensed but the nobility's interest in Welsh arts faded and the festivals became smaller and more informal as time passed.

In the year 1789, a man named Thomas Jones arranged to hold an Eisteddfod in the town of Corwen. To ensure the event was a success he allowed the public to be admitted for the first time and this led to a revival of interest in the events. One, organized by Edward Jones, was reported in "The Gentleman's Magazine" issue of October 1792 as being held in Primrose Hill, London, to "preserve native Welsh traditions".

It was actually a British government report, published in 1846, on the state of education in Wales that led to the revival of the Eisteddfod. The report slated the character of the Welsh nation and started a movement to show the world what Wales was really like. Twelve years later, in 1858, John Williams ab Ithel organized an Eisteddfod in Llangollen. It was an enormous success and the National Eisteddfod Council was formed immediately afterwards. This Council merged with an organization called the 'Gorsedd', based on the ancient Celtic druid traditions, and still arranges the National Eisteddfods today.

The largest and most popular of these is the National Eisteddfod of Wales, which has become the biggest competition of music and poetry in Europe. It lasts eight days in the first week of August and is held entirely in the Welsh language.

It attracts some 6,000 entrants and normally is attended by in excess of 150,000 visitors. This is only matched by the International Eisteddfod which is held in Llangollen, in July each year. This always begins with a prayer for peace, attracts singers, dancers and performers from all over the world and was once nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

As I said earlier, Welsh is spoken in Patagonia in Argentina and Eisteddfods have been held there for over one hundred years. They are similar to the competitions held in Wales except they are bilingual, in Welsh and Spanish, and include photography and video competitions. Other countries hold smaller Eisteddfods too, the Welsh were an exploring nation and the contests can be found as far away as Australia.

Of course the United States is not left out. In 2009 an organization called AmeriCymru (Cymru is Welsh for Wales) held an Eisteddfod in Portland, Oregon, and in 2011 the West Coast Eisteddfod was held in Los Angeles. Closer to home, the longest running music, singing and poetry competition in the United States is the Cynonfardd Eisteddfod held each year since 1889 in Edwardsville, Pa., while the Jackson School Eisteddfod in Jackson, Ohio, has been going since 1924.

Whether you cross the ocean and find yourself in Wales or merely cross a state line to one of our neighbors, if you are ever in the vicinity of one of these Welsh celebrations of music and poetry I would heartily recommend you give it a whirl, I think you'll find it well worth your time.

Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at tallderek@hotmail.com.