Heather Neill reports on Wales's annual celebration of its language and culture
Wales finds itself in the news. Devolution and Ffion Jenkins, the Welsh-speaking fiancee of the leader of the opposition, have thrown an emphasis on the principality and its culture, even in the London-based tabloids. Anyone who really wants to know more could do no better than make the journey to Bala, in Snowdonia, this week to catch the annual celebration of the Welsh language, arts, crafts and sport, the Royal National Eisteddfod.
The origins of the eisteddfod are venerable enough - the first recorded one took place in Cardigan in 1176, established by Lord Rhys, scourge of the Normans. A successful bard could win a seat at the lord's table - hence the name (eistedd means to sit) and the chief honour at the modern eisteddfod, to win a specially crafted chair. The ceremonies of recent eisteddfodau were only initiated in the 19th century, however, and bear the hallmarks of the pious nonconformity of the period. Nevertheless, young people are at the heart of the eisteddfod's purpose and this year their presence has been acknow-ledged in a new departure - a pavilion for Welsh rock gigs just off the main site with, for the first time, alcohol permitted.
Young people come from all over Wales, with their backpacks and bedrolls, to pitch camp in the nearby fields and to take part in the competitions. Every evening in the main pavilion - a vast yellow and blue striped structure, with excellent acoustics and which can house 3,500 people - there are different concerts, from opera to variety, always in Welsh. This evening it will be the turn of the National Youth Orchestra of Wales, playing Elgar. Every day, competitors (mostly in their teens on the first day), step dance, sing (individually and in choirs) recite, folk dance in groups and play a variety of instruments to win the coveted honours. Competition is fierce: one singer of about 15 was spotted squashed behind a Portakabin going through her paces, with full facial expression, for the benefit of her music teacher-cum-conductor.
The winner this year in the open section for instrumental groups aged 11 to 16 was an entertainingly tuneful and energetic steel band from Fitzalan High School in the Cardiff Docks area. If the Eisteddfod is in danger of looking inward (and sometimes backward) here was a breath of fresh air. The band, who had left home at 6am for the long journey north to this remote and beautiful part of the Snowdonia National Park, were chosen as winners by the harpist Ieuan Jones whose own music couldn't be more traditional. He had played Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez with fine artistry at the opening concert.
Fitzalan is an urban, multicultural comprehensive with 1,500 students and 21 languages on site (facts which drew gasps from the audience in this underpopulated rural area). There are always 50 who arrive with no English, but everyone learns Welsh too. The head, Angus Dunphy (who is English), says that a Welsh school should have a Welsh dimension. The school holds its own eisteddfodau and regularly competes at the Urdd (Youth) competitions. This was their first visit to the National and, hearing the news of their success during an afternoon set, the band launched into an unforgettably exciting and rhythmic version of "The Blue Danube" conducted by a dreadlocked teacher with music in every nerve.
Local schools plan and practise, like the rest of the community, for at least a year when the eisteddfod is coming - it alternates between north and south Wales. Ysgol Y Berwyn has a stand of its own among the hundreds selling Welsh produce, advertising all kinds of institutions and businesses and celebrating Welsh arts and crafts (for which there are also prizes) from all over the principality and beyond. Berwyn's head, Geraint Owain, is proud of his pupils' involvement on the field (or maes) and in the town where fish and chips seems to be served exclusively by 14-year-olds this week.
Children feature in the solemn ceremonies too. On Monday afternoon, a new bard was crowned, the winner of the free verse competition. Representatives from other Celtic nations - Brittany, Scotland, the Isle of Man, Eire and Cornwall - addressed the Gorsedd of Bards (the bardic circle, made up of Welsh-speaking poets, prose writers and musicians dressed in blue or white druidic robes) in their own languages before the poet Nesta Wyn Jones, one of the three adjudicators, gave her assessment of the poems, each submitted under a pseudonym. Sloppiness and bathos are severely criticised. "When skimming the milk to find the best, we encountered a number of flies," pronounced Ms Wyn Jones in Welsh.
But the winner, writing a modern version of the tale of Branwen from the folk legends, the Mabinogi, this year's set task, was roundly praised. A former primary and secondary teacher of Welsh, Ken Williams from Anglesey is now in higher education. Ffarwel haf (Farewell summer), his nom de plume, was announced and a procession of bards led him, robed in purple, to the stage to take his place and receive the crown for 1997. Part of the annual ritual of celebration involves local primary school girls performing a floral dance to symbolise the commitment of the flower of young talent to Wales. On Wednesday, the prose medal was awarded and, this afternoon, the chairing ceremony will acknowledge, with equal pomp, the winner of the difficult traditional poetry section.
Educational activities go on between eisteddfodau. The product of some of this year's artist-in-residence workshops, bright murals on the theme of food, decorate the business tent, where adults can watch cookery demonstrations and buy Welsh fudge, jam and cheese.
Preparations are already in hand for the next few years. In 1998, the venue will be Bridgend in the industrial south and no doubt schools are already planning their contribution.
The final day is tomorrow