Our intern Ann writes about her experience of the National Eisteddfod and muses on the idea of Welshness.
This week, I spent two days at the National Eisteddfod in Cardiff.
One of the things that was most immediately impressed upon me was how foreign I felt. I speak English fluently, and up until now, I had not had to deal with many language or cultural barriers, but at the Eisteddfod I was a total stranger. Everywhere, I was surrounded by people and signs speaking a language I had no idea how to decipher. These people didn’t necessarily peg me as a foreigner right away, and so I had more than the usual number of awkward encounters of “Sorry, I don’t speak Welsh” and “Pardon?”
So I went and bought a Welsh-English pocket dictionary, which quickly became a treasured possession. Suddenly, I could understand (somewhat) all the cariad, hiraeth and croeso that I saw everywhere on merchandise and souvenirs. My fourth Welsh word was bin sbwriel, courtesy of the kind people from Mermaid Quay who laboriously labelled everything.
In the mostly non-Welsh speaking south Wales, Cardiff Bay became a haven for Welsh, a tiny enclave of adamant Welshness. It was quite interesting to witness, especially given my academic interest in identity politics. I particularly enjoyed the Welsh-speaking kids’ events and seeing how much energy was spent on keeping the children interested in learning Welsh or giving the native Welsh speakers the equivalents of all the English language paraphernalia of childhood such as talking toys, posters and wall hangers. Had I doubted it before, this would certainly have convinced me that Welsh is very much a living language – not some antiquated relic that is being artificially sustained. It was a joy to be a part of.
Parthian had a lovely little stand in the Craft in the Bay area, where many of their titles were beautifully on display. Richard Davies, Parthian’s managing director, said I could just take a book if I liked it, but of course that was too much responsibility to handle for a book hoarder like myself, so I decided not to tempt myself. It was interesting to see the books in the ‘flesh,’ so to speak, as I am so used to only looking at the cover photos on a screen. It made the whole Parthian-business much more tactile and real, somehow.
During my visits, I saw how the Parthian stand became a meeting point for Parthian-lovers and Welsh literati alike, and I began to realise just how vast a literary network Parthian is a part of and how much the Parthian people do to sustain it. I also had the pleasure of meeting some authors and most of the Parthian team during the Parthian Get Together Friday evening. It was a nice introduction to the co-workers I don’t see every day.
I had an enlightening two days in Cardiff. It was a memorable experience, and one that truly showed me the depth of some Welsh experiences. After a month and a half in Swansea, I’ve felt that on the surface the city is rather like the rest of the United Kingdom. It wasn’t till I came to the Eisteddfod and saw the numerous stands and events that I could really begin to understand what people mean when they talk of Wales. Here, I saw the things that were highlighted about Welshness and national pride such as flags, dedicated literary talks, Welsh catchphrases printed on T-shirts, local and souvenir crafts and Welsh food and cakes.
Of course, the culture of a country is more than what can be found in a souvenir shop, and I can’t wait to delve deeper into the idea of Wales.