Sir Ifan ab Owen Edwards was arguably the most important figure in the history of the Welsh language during the twentieth century. The Oxford-educated academic and writer worried desperately about the future of our language, realising how young people were increasingly speaking English across villages and towns. In Cymru’r Plant in 1922, Sir Ifan said young people were forgetting that they were Welsh.
His solution to this ever-growing problem was the Urdd, founded in the same year as his comments in the magazine, to create an active and dynamic movement to protect Wales’ greatest cultural asset. The organisation has since grown into the largest across the whole of Europe, and has become a key pillar not only of our own national life but a mainstay in the development of our young people.
Although it has experienced a remarkable rise, almost a hundred years later the Urdd now faces a fight to survival. Like many organisations, coronavirus and the effects of lockdown have put the Urdd under severe strain: last week, it told its 320 strong workforce that income is expected to collapse by £14m over the next two years. In reality, this means that 80 jobs and 70 casual posts are at real risk of being lost.
Urdd’s significant challenges are a hammer blow to its 55,000 members, all of whom are under the age of 25. The organisation provides a heroic service to them: from organising sports events and running residential centres, to hosting a yearly national Eisteddfod and offering apprenticeships, it is one of the great success stories of how to promote the Welsh language across a range of sectors and through various activities.
The news also comes at a time when all young people are facing the devastating effects of the virus. Phil Jones, director of the Prince’s Trust in Wales, warned in May that Wales’ future generations have had an “aspirational rug pulled from under their feet” due to the pandemic. Many have lost jobs, had their education disrupted, and lost access to valuable training; it is a sad reality that the ‘Covid generation’ will bear the brunt of financial and social inequality for years to come.
Wales therefore needs an organisation like the Urdd to rebuild its civic society after the most transformative period in modern history. While the organisation has already done tremendous work over decades in promoting the idea of a national community united by the Welsh language, the disruptive effects of the pandemic mean that the next few years will be crucial if we are to restore the fragmented communities in every corner of Wales. This is something that cannot be achieved by government alone – it needs to be a driven by a movement which has its foundations based on bringing people together in a common cause.
It is worth noting that the Welsh government has already given £3.1m in support packages to the Urdd, although anyone can see that this is not enough to sustain the organisation. As we wait for further details on arts and culture spending over the next week, all eyes are on whether our own government – which has committed to reaching one million Welsh speakers this century – will support the organisation that has done more than most to make this ambition a reality.
For 98 years, the Urdd has been a part of the social fabric of Welsh youth culture. It’s hard to think of an organisation in Europe that is so tied up with the experience and development of young people in one country. It is for that reason we – and our Welsh government – cannot let it fail.
To donate to the Urdd to support its work go to www.urdd.cymru/donate