national eisteddfod

Defending the Welsh language at the National Eisteddfod

Musician and comedian Hywel Pitts reflects on the recent furore that has seen some artists’ decisions to withdraw from performing at this year’s National Eisteddfod in protest against the Welsh language rule, and the subsequent discourse on social media.

Recently, Welsh drill artist, musician and poet Sage Todz voiced his disappointment at being unable to perform at this year’s National Eisteddfod. He had been offered a space performing with the Welsh Pops Orchestra on the festival’s biggest stage, with the proviso that he perform exclusively Welsh language material in accordance with the Eisteddfod’s long-standing Welsh language rule. Sage is a bilingual artist through and through, and rather than rewriting his material he chose not to take part.

Last week, two more excellent artists – Izzy Rabey and Eädyth Crawford – announced their intention to step down from their slated slots at the National Eisteddfod in solidarity with Sage. While I fully support and respect an artist’s right to convey themselves through whichever medium they feel the most comfortable, the discourse around the Eisteddfod’s Welsh language rule has become needlessly toxic.

The whole point of the Eisteddfod is to celebrate the Welsh language and the culture to which it is integral; the music, the literature, the art that’s created through the medium of Welsh.

It should go without saying that the artists in question and the art that they create have an important place within that society. They’re needed, they’re necessary, and their organic, authentic artistic expressions make Welsh-medium art accessible to audiences that may not otherwise resonate with the Eisteddfod’s usual provision. And I reiterate: I believe that artists should absolutely have the right to refuse to compromise their artistic integrity.

But the answer isn’t for the Eisteddfod to compromise its own integrity.

The suggestion that the language rule should be abolished or heavily amended to accommodate artists who choose not to perform primarily in Welsh is an overly simplistic and fundamentally flawed solution to a complex and nuanced problem. To take that particular argument to its logical endpoint is to suggest that the English language should have parity with (if not precedence over) the Welsh language at the Eisteddfod.

It should really not need to be explained why this would be detrimental to the Welsh language. If English is introduced into the Eisteddfod’s provision, it must be at the expense of the Welsh – it’s unavoidable. Abolishing the language rule would dilute the Welsh language’s prevalence in the only festival in the world that exclusively celebrates it.

And it’s not even a question of preserving the ‘purity’ of the language.

A number of successful Welsh language artists and public figures are pretty slack with their grammar, objectively speaking. Nobody really notices nor cares (aside from the odd pedant like me); the vast majority of Welsh speakers are just glad that people are actually using the language.

I’m not saying for a second that the Eisteddfod as an institution is absolved of responsibility, aren’t culpable for people feeling ostracized; I’m saying that maybe the wrong questions are being asked of it. Maybe the question shouldn’t be: “What can the Eisteddfod do to platform Welsh people who want to write and perform primarily in English?” Perhaps the question should be: “What can the Eisteddfod do to ensure that artists are more comfortable in creating and writing and performing through the medium of Welsh?” Painting the Eisteddfod as some tyrannical, intrinsically conservative, insular, traditionalist organisation that wants to impose some strict draconian rules on its contributors is well wide of the mark. It’s a (surprisingly small) group of human beings who are trying hard to organise a fun and inclusive celebration of the Welsh language arts. Like most human collectives, it’s flawed – and every now and then it makes some mistakes. Protecting the Welsh language rule isn’t one of them.

Now, the Eisteddfod has a choice. It can either adopt a defensive mindset, as people and institutions often do when they’re under attack. They could yield to the pressure to save face, taking steps backwards in terms of its primary purpose of promoting and celebrating the Welsh language; or it can adopt a self-reflective, outward-looking mindset and ask itself: “Why do people have this perception of us?”

“What more can we do to ensure that all demographics are encouraged and empowered to write, perform, and live authentically through the medium of Welsh?”

“What gives people the impression that the Welsh language and its culture is unwelcoming and inaccessible, and how can we take steps to address that?”

I would argue that the vast majority of Welsh-speakers and Eisteddfod-goers would say that they’re supportive and open and thoughtful. Not to say that they don’t have their unconscious biases and some dodgy heuristics that need addressing, but there’s certainly an intention to improve and learn amongst most of those I know. At this stage, however, discussing this topic without discussing race is sadly unavoidable, thanks to a handful of bigots on social media who have been levelling ignorant, racist vitriol at the performers in question since their announcement. As far as the Welsh language rule goes, race just shouldn’t be part of that particular discussion. The people who have made it about race should absolutely be addressed and condemned in the strongest possible terms. It’s devastating that people are made to feel marginalized by the behaviour of a few particularly vocal idiots on social media, and are consequently discouraged to attend what is meant to be a welcoming, lively week of Welsh-language immersion.

Racists should be called out, and they should be educated. They certainly shouldn’t be given a platform to spout their ignorance, and they shouldn’t be empowered by other people’s complacency.

I think the Eisteddfod could and should do better on that front. We should listen to ethnic minority Welsh people to understand their experience – I certainly know I can’t speak on their behalf, and there have been plenty of people on social media who have raised important questions about their experience with Welsh-language culture. Izzy, Eädyth and Sage are absolute stars and have worked incredibly hard over the years to create and produce important, influential, ground-breaking art both fully in Welsh and bilingually. Their work speaks for itself, and some of the hostile language and outright disrespect that has been thrown their way is unacceptable. They don’t owe anyone a performance in protest.

But I’d implore anyone who has been given a platform by the Eisteddfod to use that platform to say something important (provided they have something important to say). Because stepping down and silencing oneself is the antithesis of protest. Highlighting problems without offering solutions isn’t conducive to progress. So if you’re an artist or an activist who’s been given a platform, use it. Stand up there and say something important.

Be radical. Be outspoken. Speak from the chest.

But think carefully and thoughtfully about the issues you wish to speak out against; ’cause the survival of a minority language probably ain’t it.

Hywel Pitts is the host of the Gigio podcast.