I picked up some Czech hitchhikers on their holidays on my way to the Eisteddfod this year and was asked where I was headed: ‘What is the National Eisteddfod?’ It isn’t an easy question to answer, because the Eisteddfod Genedlaethol is so much more than simply a cultural festival. This was my second proper Eisteddfod. So having having learnt about the Eisteddfod last year and done it a little more knowledgeably this year, it’s time I should teach someone else how to do it.
It is important to tell people about the Eisteddfod, as so many people in Wales, previously myself included, don’t go to the Eisteddfod or follow it in the media because of this strange phenomenon of being ‘intimidated by the language [Cymraeg/ Welsh]. I know, my very first Eisteddfod experience was when I was fifteen and got a job as a plate scrubber on the Maes when it came to my area and I was like ‘I don’t speak Welsh, people will expect me to speak Welsh, arghhh!’ This is really just plain silly, so many people are missing out on quite a wonderful event, which can be enjoyed whether you speak Welsh or not. So, I hope the following guide will help people overcome any feelings of intimidation about going next year.
Cystadlaethau / Competitions
Eisteddfodau are essentially a collection of competitions in various art forms, predominantly cerddoriaeth [Music and poetry, which are essentially the same thing]. The grand poetry prize of the Eisteddfod is the Chair [Eistedd = to sit, on the cadair [chair]] The competitions are the very serious bit at the National Eisteddfod. Personally I used to have a problem with competition in art, because it’s an oxymoron, you don’t do creative things to win things, that isn’t the point. However after two Eisteddfodau [Eisteddfods] I have been convinced. I have heard so many hugely talented young musicians at the Eisteddfod, who just completely push themselves to give their very best at the Eisteddfod and I have been blown away so many times by their performances. There are so many competitions to enjoy, particularly if you love the sound of the telyn [Harp] as much as I do. You do not need to understand Welsh to appreciate the music.
I’m sure there are many people who have a blissful week, just listening to the competitions, yet there are also people who spend the entire week not listening to a single competition, there is so much else going on.
Gwyl Cerddoriaeth/ Music Festival
Outside the competitions, the Eisteddfod is also a celebration of Welsh language culture. So, the Eisteddfod is also a regular music festival, with the best of Welsh language bands and singers on lots of different stages giving performances throughout the day and into the evening, so you can treat the Eisteddfod as just another music festival. So yes, expensive beer and food stands a plenty! Yet again, there is no need to speak Welsh to enjoy music is there? This is my favourite part of it because I love Welsh popular [?] music, yet, liking classical music as well sometimes a competitive performance will win me over! Yet there is still more.
Theatr / Theatre
There are a couple of theatres at the Eisteddfod giving performances of plays and other things by established Welsh theatre companies. The great thing about theatrical performances is that you can follow the story through actions and tone of voice and can really enjoy a show without understanding a single word, which I’ve often done whilst travelling, which is actually a really good primeval way to watch a drama unfold.
There are also actors who wander around in bizarre costumes looking for members of the public to interact and do silly things with. This year some ladies with lampshade heads were dancing with me.
Y Babell Len a Pabell Cymdeithas/ The ‘Curtain Tent’? [ I am still learning Welsh I’m not sure of this translation!] and the Societies Tent
I know there are some people who don’t like music. I don’t understand these strange folk, but they do exist, maybe you are one of them? So in these tents there are a host of lectures and discussions about all manner of topics. They are in Welsh of course and even I, after eighteen months of learning Welsh, only understand about half of what is said. So, there is this mini Welsh Hay festival going on too.
It is worth going just to experience simultaneous translation. Basically the translator listens to the Welsh and then instantly translates it into English to you via headphones. These people are amazing, to be able to keep listening in one language, translate and speak in another language, while continuing to listen in another language, without going completely mad is such a high level skill and so impressive.
Y Stondin / The Stands
All of the above can be overwhelming and far too exciting, so you may need a break, angen paned o goffi [need a cup of coffee] and the opportunity to stretch your legs for a bit. So head to the stands. The stands are essentially trade stands , but so much more. There are squillions of book shops to stock up on Welsh language books, because, sadly, most bookshops don’t stock books in Welsh, I understand there are some books in English too, lots of other shops to browse/ buy cakes from, but also the stands of various organisations in Wales, where you can find out about what they do, have a nice chat in whichever language you fancy, a paned and often these stands hold their own musical performances and programmes of discussions too. Sometimes you will stumble on some very strange yet wonderful things:
Pethau eraill / Other Things
As if all that wasn’t enough there is also an art gallery, a history museum, a science and technology tent (well this tent seems to largely cater to keeping children entertained with fun things to do, but worth a going as an adult too).
If you are Welsh you will also meet random people from your childhood/ earlier life, which is always nice. So there is so much to enjoy and do and I haven’t even mentioned Y Gorsedd, who wear strange robes and perform strange rituals at various points of the week and carry around a very large sword; it’s ok, mae’n heddwch [there is peace]. I have no idea what happens if there isn’t peace…
There is so much to do and enjoy at the Eisteddfod. I went for just three days this year and didn’t get to do as much as I wanted to and wished I could have had more time. And you really don’t need to speak any Welsh at all, a simple ‘Dw i ddim yn siarad Cymraeg’ / ‘I don’t speak Welsh’ is all that is required if someone seems to be speaking Welsh at you.
Of course if you are learning Welsh, the Eisteddfod is an amazing playground to practice speaking and listening and the more Welsh you know, the more a part of the Eisteddfod you will become. Personally I did indeed enjoy the Eisteddfod even more with another year of Welsh under my belt. However even if you have zero Welsh, timetables and maps are provided in English to help non-Welsh speakers navigate their way around the Eisteddfod, it’s very accessible and very friendly, there is no need to feel intimidated at all.
Just cofio [remember] that Welsh speakers have to speak in English all the time, every day, so really appreciate the Maes as a place where they can speak in Welsh all day yn gyntaf [firstly], yet are happy to speak English with anyone who hasn’t learnt to speak Welsh yet. Speaking in Welsh isn’t being rude and neither is speaking in English rude as long as you are willing to listen and communicate as you can. It’s ridiculous that this non-issue comes up so often. Rant over
Amgylch y Maes / Around the Maes
Y Maes / The Maes / The ‘field’ is where all the action described above takes place. I and others are not sure how this is going to work next year when the Eisteddfod will be in the centre of Cardiff, the Welsh capital, but the concept of the Maes is quite important I think. However there are other ‘Maeses’ which can confuse the uninitiated:
Maes B is usually located outside the main Maes. It contains an adult campsite (the cheapest place to stay at the Eisteddfod!) it is generally full of young Welsh speakers. Indeed spending a week at Maes B is regarded as a rite of passage for young Welsh speaking adults, to chill and make new friends. Also, for the last four nights of the Eisteddfod the big names of Welsh rock perform late night concerts on the Maes B stage in front of the aforementioned young and now often quite drunk people. It is quite an experience, though there are usually a few old fogies like me bopping away ar y cefn [at the back]
Maes C ( Maes Carafannau a Campio) isn’t very exciting, it is simply the camp site next to the Maes where families stay, it’s quite pricey and books up early.
Confusingly, Maes D, Maes y Dysgwr [Learners Maes] isn’t really a Maes as it’s part of the main Maes itself, it is found next to the Mynedfa (Entrance) and is the Welsh learners tent. I think the idea is that you pop in to learn some Welsh over a paned to prepare you for entry to the Maes proper. A place if you lack confidence in your Welsh, or somewhere supportive to ymarfer siarad [practice speaking], want to learn a few phrases or to start the day with a reasonably priced coffee, give Maes D a visit. Maes D also has it’s own stage, for Welsh lessons, discussions and a few musical performances tailored to those not yet rhugl [fluent]
There is no Maes E. Well there is the song ‘Maes E‘ by Datblygu about the Eisteddfod experience. Incidentally , the song which I heard them perform at my very first Eisteddfod when I was fifteen! However, there is usually an Eisteddfod ‘fringe’ of competitions, discussions, gigs etc held at venues close to the Maes, but not ‘officially’ part of the Eisteddfod.
So there you are then, a guide to the Eisteddfod Genedlaethol. Just by reading this article you probably have enough Welsh to enjoy the Eisteddfod.
Edrych ymlaen i weli di ar y maes flwyddyn nesaf [Looking forward to seeing you on the Maes next year]!