What is this old and mysterious yet vibrantly alive Eisteddfod? Where is it held each year? What does it really mean to be there? Read our amazing Eisteddfod facts to find out more!
20 Eisteddfod facts
1. Did you know that in Welsh, Eisteddfod literally means “a sitting” or “sitting together” …Eistedd means “to sit” and “bod” is to be!
Well, the Eisteddfod is certainly the place to be, to sit and enjoy a hearty, vibrant festival of literature, music, performance and much more; or maybe you’d like to compete in one!
There are several Eisteddfodau held each year in Wales; the national ones across the country; one year in the North, the following in the South; alternating each year for fairness! However, be warned if you go along for there’s sometimes more than a touch of passionate rivalry between the Gogs (Northwalians) and Hwntws (Southwalians) when they come together in competition!
Wales – the land of song
2. I’m sure you’ve heard that Wales is the “land of song”; this is truly celebrated at each Eisteddfod Genedlaethol (National Eisteddfod)!
There are so many musical competitions; solos from exciting, modern Welsh musicals and world-famous operas, duets, traditional and modern-style choirs, musical ensembles, instrumental soloists and groups, orchestras, brass bands and canu gwerin (folk singing). There are even prestigious prizes for many genres of musical composition!
3. Prizes such as the Blue Riband for vocal soloists are given for those between 19 and 25 years of age who show the most promise! The male and female soloist receive £2500 each. This enables them to obtain further training at a prestigious music college or school. They can also opt to have lessons from a top vocal coach, so it’s well worth their making the effort to practice in readiness to compete!
4. His experiences of competing in front of live audiences at the Eisteddfod’s main stage as a young man was especially important to world-famous opera singer Sir Bryn Terfel in starting his long career. Now the most promising tenor, soprano, contralto or bass who competes as the youth “Urdd” Eisteddfod of late Spring is awarded the Bryn Terfel Scholarship £4000 Scholarship. Hey, not bad to help kick-start your musical career! Diolch Bryn!
Honouring ancient traditions… and new ones too!
5. Did you know that the Triple Harp (Y Delyn Deires) is fondly thought of as Wales’s national instrument? Used for centuries to accompany folk-singing, dancing and poetry recitations, the triple harp epitomizes Wales’s rich literary and musical heritage, and continues to be used throughout each Eisteddfod to accompany the competitors on the big stage! The age-old Welsh tradition of unaccompanied folk singing in duet or solo form, and a folk song accompanied by a different melody on the humble harp, can be heard by competitors of all ages; these are uniquely and beautifully haunting to hear!
6. It’s not all about the music though! Did you also know that competitions range from writing the many diverse (no pun intended!) forms of traditional Welsh poetry, novels, short stories, speeches, cookery, art, scientific inventions, modern and folk dancing, acting, comedy sketches and recitation. The Eisteddfod is open to all competitors from nursery age up to 25; you’d have plenty of time to master an art and try your hand at it! Or maybe you’re young enough to have a go!
7. You’ll be amazed by this… every single Welsh-speaking school holds their own Eisteddfod on St David’s Day (the 1st of March); the entire school including all teachers and support staff are divided into four teams and dress in either blue, green, red or yellow on this day every year! Members of each team compete in order to win the Eisteddfod on behalf of the whole team. It can become a raucous event indeed!
In fact the school Eisteddfodau are often held as the unofficial first round; winners and other competitors can go on to compete at the official county rounds on the weekend. The winners go on to the warm-up rounds at the main Eisteddfod and those who come first, second and third in the first round go on to compete against each other at the main national stage in front of a large, captive audience!
Bringing creative potentials alive for the benefit of all of society
8. School pupils can also enter the invention/innovation prize competition which is an exciting competition in the areas of science and technology. The winner is someone who presents innovative and creative ideas which are of benefit to society. It can be a completely new idea or invention, or a solution to a current problem within any field; the environment, agriculture, medicine …… Who knows what the next eager group or individual will come up with! Wales is full of passion; and maybe you have an idea to share with us?!
Our ancient Celtic history
9. Did you know that in Celtic cultures, a bard was a professional storyteller, verse-maker, music composer, oral historian and genealogist? The bard would be employed by a patron to commemorate one or more of their ancestors, and to praise their own activities.
Perhaps the most important ceremony within the Eisteddfod is The Crowning of the Bard’; the final one at the end of the week-long celebrations and competitions where a hand-carved chair is traditionally awarded to the best poet. Dancing flower-girls in green druidic costumes celebrate as the poet is invited to sit (eistedd!) on the stage in his new chair. The ceremony is closed by the words “A Oes Heddwch!” spoken by the Archdruid meaning “Is there Peace!” to which everyone fervently replies, “Heddwch!”
10. We are now half way through our list of 20 fascinating Eisteddfod facts, and you may now be wondering; what on earth is a druid? They were members of the high-ranking class in ancient Celtic cultures. Perhaps best remembered as religious leaders. They were also legal authorities, adjudicators, lore keepers, medical professionals, and political advisors. Druids were concerned with the powers of nature and considered trees sacred, particularly the oak. Guests from other Celtic countries are welcomed onto the main stage on the Monday of each Eisteddfod. Honorary members of the Gorsedd (an ancient Druidic circle celebrating the Celtic Bardic tradition) are welcomed on the Friday and given blue or green robes depending on their field of interest. These are individuals that have made great contributions to Wales.
When did it all begin?
11. Did you know that the date of the very first eisteddfod has been widely debated? Renowned historian Hywel Teifi Edwards defines the earliest form of the Eisteddfod as a competitive meeting between Celtic Bards and minstrels in which the winner was chosen by a noble or royal patron. The history of the Eisteddfod may be traced back to a competition held by the Lord Rhys in Cardigan Castle in 1176. It’s been going ever since then, although the competitions and events declined during the reign of Henry Vlll. Banning the Welsh language from law courts and public offices was never going to be easy though; as I say, we’re full of passion, and we soon began our fight-back!
12. Indeed, symbolism and ceremony played an important role in a Welshman’s life during the 19th and 20th centuries. These customs fed into an effort to protect Welsh identity, at a time when indigenous cultures were consciously displaying their uniqueness according to Elen Haf Jones at the National Library of Wales. Indeed, London-based Welsh societies revived the tradition of the Eisteddfod. Iolo Morganwg, inventor of the famous Gorsedd of the Bards ceremonies and influential poet, played an important role in reviving the Eisteddfod on a national scale, by associating the Gorsedd with the institution at the end of the 18th century. How wonderful that they decided to work together!
13. The Mystic Mark (Y Nod Cyfrin), the symbol /|\ was created by Iolo Morganwg. It represents the virtues Love, Justice and Truth. The symbol was widely used on Eisteddfod programmes, and represented the Gorsedd’s presence at the event. How exciting that we still celebrate these virtues at each Eisteddfod!
2020 was still a year to remember …. and onwards to the future!
14. Even during the global pandemic of 2020 the energy and enthusiasm of creative Welsh youth and older generations was celebrated through the land! The Eisteddfod was held via social media platforms such as Zoom and broadcast on Welsh-language TV channel S4C, as usual. This included “the singing farmer” and other incredibly humorous sketches as well as the more serious and splendid competitions! The Eisteddfodau are so important to Wales that they’re broadcast throughout the days and evenings of the Whitsun and summer weeks during which they’re held on Welsh language TV channel S4C and BBC Radio Cymru. You can watch your friends and relatives competing on TV if they’re lucky enough to win a spot on the main stage! How exciting!
15. The 2019 national Eisteddfod was held at Llanrwst, Conwy County. Unfortunately and understandably, the 2021 Urdd (Youth) Eisteddfod for those aged 18 and under and national (August) Eisteddfod for those who are up to 25 years of age have both had to be cancelled due to the pandemic. However, surely the use of social media will keep the spirit of the Eisteddfod alive until 2022. Urdd Gobaith Cymru is the name of the Welsh-language youth movement, who organise the youth Eisteddfod. Its name literally means Grace-Hope-Wales.. I think that’s a positive message to take forward during this difficult time and, indeed at any time of adversity!
16. Did you know that the young winners of public speaking competitions at the Eisteddfod are sometimes invited to Brussels to use their talents more widely internationally! This is a fantastic opportunity for them to develop their abilities to connect with our European friends and share ideas towards building a bright future.
International friendships are very, very valuable to us Welsh folk …
17. Did you also know that there is an International Musical Eisteddfod which takes place every year during the second week of July in Llangollen, North Wales? Singers and dancers from all around the world are invited to take part in over 20 competitions, followed each evening by concerts on the main stage.
The “Choir of the World” competition sees countries such as South Africa, Indonesia, the USA and Estonia, competing in the full colour and glory of their traditional costumes with splendour and energy. I don’t know how the judges come to a decision on who is the winner each year! The beauty of diversity holds a special place in the heart of Eisteddfod Llangollen, as it’s known. You can watch parts of the Eisteddfod on BBC programmes; honestly, you won’t be disappointed!
18. Did you know that as well as hosting several thousand performers, Eisteddfod Llangollen has hosted some pretty famous musicians such as Beverley Knight and Jools Holland… Cool! At the National Eisteddfodau (plural of Eisteddfod!), there are Maes B events which is a separate area dedicated to the youth. These events are full of modern and more traditional bands and artists such as Dafydd Iwan; the folk singer, human rights campaigner and politician.
Our beautiful minority language and culture can only survive by action, and in community with others …
19. Traditional produce such as foods, clothes, soaps, oils, jewellery and Welsh-language music and books are sold in colourful stalls at each Eisteddfod. If interested in viewing the type of Welsh gifts produced feel free to browse our own range of products. There’s also the opportunity to learn more about various societies and clubs that gather to promote their work! You should come along too!
20. Phew! The last of our Eisteddfod facts. Welsh learners compete at the Eisteddfod; there’s even a “Dysgwr y Flwyddyn”, Learner of the Year prize. Dragons honouring past warriors, harps, costumes and flowers: they can all be seen somewhere in our Eisteddfod and we love to celebrate our heritage. What better way to do that than by honouring those who’ve taken the time and effort to learn the Welsh language. Diolch i chi. Thanks to you.
We really hope you’ve enjoyed reading 20 amazing Eisteddfod facts about the Eisteddfod! We hope even more that you’ll one day come and venture to deepest rural Wales (or to Cardiff Bay when it’s held in the capital city) and join in to see the fusion of ancient Celtic energy and ever-changing youth in action!
“Dewch!” See you there some day! “Heddwch!” Peace!
Elen Haf Jones, National Library of Wales https://blog.library.wales/welsh-identity-symbols-and-the-national-eisteddfod/ accessed on 3/02/2021.