Review: Rhaid I Bopeth Newid, edited by Dafydd Morgan Lewis
This celebratory volume marks sixty years of the existence of Cymdeithas yr Iaith, the Welsh Language Society.
Created as a consequence of Saunders Lewis’ radio lecture ‘Tynged yr Iaith,’ which took a dim view of the language’s future unless something changed, Cymdeithas has been an effective campaigning body.
One need only read Elin Haf Gruffudd Jones’ account of how the Welsh governmental ambition to have a million Welsh speakers came about to understand at least part of the process.
The 2011 census showed a slight but vexing slip in the proportion of Welsh speakers to under 20%, suggesting that policies in place at the time were not delivering.
When Jones talked about this with Colin Nosworthy, Cymdeithas yr Iaith’s political lobbyist at the time, the idea of a million speakers had its first airing, a target that was ambitious, credible and considered achievable.
This notion was swiftly promulgated and it soon went from Cymdeithas slogan to party manifesto pledge and then on to become government policy.
Being a pressure group, they didn’t then rest on their laurels, soon coining a new phrase, “Miliwn a mwy,” being “A million or more,’ which nudged even that ambitious statistic a little further.
Menna Machreth similarly shows the efficacy of Cymdeithas’s pressurising. She details the campaign to create Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol, charting how it grew from loud shouts through loudspeakers on the campus of Aberystwyth University into policy papers to becoming an actual body within Welsh higher education.
She notes how this caused a psychological shift in her and perhaps, she suggests, in her generation, a belief that things could change.
Such a belief is often shored up by or manifested as hope. In Cymdeithas’ current chair Mabli Siriol Jones’ striking analysis she dismisses the way in which hope is often dismissed as something soft and light, mooting, rather, that it is solid, akin to steel. Jones quotes the philosopher Ernst Bloch:
Hope, superior to fear, is neither passive like the latter, nor locked into nothingness. The emotion of hope goes out of itself, makes people broad instead of confining them…The work of this emotion requires people to throw themselves actively into what is becoming, to which they themselves belong.
Hope has been very much present in Cymdeithas yr Iaith’s ethos and makeup ever since the early days. Indeed, as the volume’s editor Dafydd Morgan Lewis points out, it was even occasionally referred to as Mudiad y Gobaith, The Movement of Hope.
Such a steely emotion was needed by some of its members such as the indefatigable Ffred Ffransis, who spent part of the early 1970s in prisons such as Pentonville and Swansea.
Not that he saw himself behind bars, but rather envisioned himself as a citizen of the new Wales who celebrated every opportunity to express the spirit of freedom and enjoyed every step the British state took against them as it seemed to legitimise the cause.
He also found solace in Dr Phil Williams’ advice that the best way to win one’s freedom was to behave as if one was already free.
Meanwhile, another member who did prison time, Wynfford James redacts a story about when he was interviewed for a job with Sain Records actually within the prison walls.
Even stalwarts activists of the society such as Angharad Tomos would occasionally find themselves edging towards the Slough of Despond, not least when she eavesdrops outside school gates to hear precious little Welsh coming from young lips.
But she finds heart in the flourishing of community schemes such as Partneriaeth Ogwen, the Bethesda-based partnership which has seen locals open up empty shops and young people have turned the bank into a pizza place, underlining the need for local economies to thrive in order to stop young people haemorrhaging away to the cities.
Many of the contributors to the book agree on key needs such as teaching Welsh history in schools as well as Wales having control over broadcasting within further devolutionary powers.
It is a book not without it laughs and levity, too. Lleucu Roberts, one of the best prose stylists in the language, has written a sharp short story about a conflicted political aide in Cardiff Bay who promotes a hollow, meaningless language promotion to his masters while eventually realising the effect this might have on his own children.
And Tamsin Cathan Davies recounts a laugh-out-loud account of the day she borrowed Owain Glyndŵr’s costume from the Parliament building in Machynlleth and accidentall took his left hand off in the process. Then the owner thought some burglars had been in and a comedy of errors unfolded…
There may be a catalogue of successes but there’s a long litany of jobs left to do, such as ensuring much, much better Welsh language provision in the Welsh Government’s £ 120 million apprenticeship schemes.
The scourge of second homes and the Covid-driven flight from the city into the countryside are exacerbating problems as is growing inequality and the deepening of social injustice.
One of the important contributions to the book is that by Joseff Gnabo from the Ivory Coast, who came to Wales as an asylum seeker and is now a Welsh language tutor.
Gnabo stresses the importance of not differentiating between refugees and asylum seekers and the importnace of setting a value on the advantages of learning the language.
He also puzzles at the irony of the UK Government welcoming refugees from the Ukraine while at the same time arranging deportation flights to Rwanda.
All of Cymdeithas’s successes have been achieved by non-violent means and have been shored by by a collective sense of fairness and an aligment with other minorities, not always linguistic.
‘If the Welsh language is to live, then everything must change,’ is the full version of the title of the book’s sentiment.
This lively volume amply shows how Cymdeithas has been an accelerant in many changes, from bilingual road signage through Welsh language education to official status for the language.
But it also shows how there is so very more left to do.
Support our Nation today
For the price of a cup of coffee a month you can help us create an independent, not-for-profit, national news service for the people of Wales, by the people of Wales.