AN Eisteddfod? Isn’t that is all about druids in bed-sheets prancing about to harp music in a muddy field? Far from it. It’s true that TV coverage might sometimes give that impression. But Wales’ three greatest eisteddfodau – that’s the plural of an eisteddfod – provide platforms for top notch arts events that encompass virtually everything to do with the arts, and beyond.

From classical to folk or rock music or heavy metal, or theatre, or dance, or film making, or literature, or comedy, or technology, or the visual arts. Yep, some will attend events featuring politics, poetry, history, train spotting, you name it. But equally you’ll find people going along just for the fun, to socialise, and to over-indulge in food and drink. Guilty as charged.

When he summoned Wales’ finest poets and minstrels to his Cardigan stronghold in December 1176, little did Rhys ap Gruffydd – ruler of the ancient kingdom of Deheubarth –  think that his brainchild would still be going strong more than 800 years later.

That competitive gathering at Cardigan Castle became known as the first ever National Eisteddfod, where poets and musicians were granted licences to ply their trades in the nation’s grand houses and royal courts. The castle hosts a permanent exhibition about the history of the eisteddfod and its traditions.

An eisteddfod (pronounced roughly as ey-steth-vod, with the th soft as in this not as in thing) translates to something like a sitting. Hundreds of local ones are held every year in village halls and schools nationwide. Young and old grasp the opportunity to showcase their prowess at any artistic genre. It has proven to be the first step on the path to international stardom for many a performer, with stage fright banished from a tender age.

Provincial eisteddfodau such as Eisteddfod Powys and Eisteddfod Môn, and the Young Farmers’ version, provide a mid-way point to apply the necessary polish before stepping up on to the national stage.

National Eisteddfod

Looming large at the head of this cultural pile is the behemothic National Eisteddfod. This is the mother festival of the three main eisteddfodau, and is held alternately between north and south at huge temporary citadels of culture during the first week in August.

With upwards of 6,000 competitors and attendances of 160,000 or more, (the admission-free experimental event in Cardiff in 2018 attracted 500,000), it really is a big cultural beast. And while the competitive activities and evening performances in the main pavilion get the lion’s share of the broadcasters’ attention, that is in reality only a small part of what goes on. Many – probably the majority – never venture near the pavilion.

And while the performances and the competitions are all in Welsh, a language spoken by about a million people worldwide, that needn’t deter those who don’t understand it. Free Welsh to English translation facilities are provided on request. But with 400 trade exhibitors, music and dance of all genres, art exhibitions, bars, restaurants and street food, children’s play areas, there’s plenty to keep you occupied. The nearest town or city usually also aims to chip in, not to mention benefit, with events held off the Eisteddfod site. The Maes B youth festival held simultaneously in the near vicinity is one the year’s major showcases for modern Welsh music in all its guises.

Yes, the Gorsedd of Bards, founded in 1792 and formally known as Gorsedd Cymru, does turn up in quasi-druidic garb for a number of ceremonies. But they’re druids, with the Archdruid’s role one of considerable kudos both culturally and politically, in an artistic rather than spiritual sense. Indeed former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, a Welshman and former head of the Anglican church worldwide, is a member of the Gorsedd.

And after all, it’s just another little bit of national fancy dress, just like England’s Beefeaters or the Vatican’s Swiss Guard.

Urdd Eisteddfod

Meantime the warm-up act is the National Eisteddfod’s junior cousin for youth competitors, the Urdd Eisteddfod. This is a similar but slightly smaller scale event, again held alternately between north and south on temporary sites, usually in the last week of May to coincide with Welsh schools’ half term holiday. It typically attracts attendances in the region of 100,000 and is organised by Urdd Gobaith Cymru – which translates as Wales’ League of Hope.

The Urdd (pronounced roughly as ear-th, with the th soft as in this not as in thing) was established in 1922 and is one of Europe’s largest youth organisations, employing some 300 people. With 53,000 active members and three permanent residential centres, it caters for the nation’s youth from a very tender age up to 25.

The Urdd Eisteddfod is a very upbeat event attended by people of all ages, not just parents and grandparents. The main differences between it and the National Eisteddfod are that the Gorsedd doesn’t participate, and the understandable lack of bars on the Maes, the main festival site. Not that that prevents the older competitors from thronging to the nearest town’s hostelries to celebrate their successes, or to drown their sorrows.

Llangollen International Eisteddfod

The Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod is a multi-lingual celebration where Wales welcomes the world, a laid-back jamboree of colour, music and dance. It is held during the second week in July on a permanent site in the pretty little town of Llangollen, where the glorious Afon Dyfrdwy – the River Dee – tumbles past on its way to the northern coast where it forms the border between Wales and England.

It was established in 1947 as Wales’ attempt at re-conciliation between former enemies after the horrors of World War II. 13 countries took part in the first event, and by 1949 the first German competitors made their way to Llangollen. Since then some 300,000 competitors from more than 100 nations have taken to the Eisteddfod stage.

Llangollen is typically awash with colourful costumes and musical instruments and a plethora of languages throughout the Eisteddfod week, as 50,000 attendees flood into town. And the competitors don’t just keep to the on-site pavilion, but gleefully provide impromptu performances wherever and whenever the fancy takes them, elsewhere on the Maes or out on the streets.

Evening concerts feature some of the world’s top stars, which in recent years have included Luciano Pavarotti – who first performed here with his home town choir in 1955 – Kiri te Kanawa, Yehudi Menuhin, José Carreras, Elaine Paige, James Galway, Wales’ own Katherine Jenkins and Bryn Terfel, Russia’s Red Army Ensemble, Nigel Kennedy, Montserrat Caballé, Placido Domingo and Burt Bacharach.

And should you have become so enchanted with the area that you just can’t leave, you could just linger about a bit for the following week’s English-language Llangollen Fringe event. It offers a cornucopia of eclectic arts events from music and comedy, to theatre, story-telling, crafts, possibly a musical trip on the canal, and a spectacular fireworks finale.

Ian Parri
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