Friday blog at the Eisteddfod
This morning’s speakers at our Eisteddfod stand shared an amazing tale that is relevant to all organisations active in Wales that aim to preserve our country’s linguistic diversity.
A sizable audience gathered to listen to prominent author, columnist and language campaigner Angharad Tomos talking with Delyth Prys about her inspirational mother, Eileen Beasley. The tale they shared is one of dogged determination and personal sacrifice, which I would like to summarise here…
One day in the early 1950s an ordinary brown envelope fluttered down onto the doormat of a house in the village of Llangennech on the outskirts of Llanelli in Carmarthenshire. Ordinary this letter may have been, but the reaction to its arrival was anything but ordinary. It led to a seminal eight-year campaign of civil disobedience that continues to have relevance to the status of the Welsh language, nearly seven decades later.
The householder – coal-miner Trefor Beasley – picked up the letter and opened it to find an English-only tax demand from the local council. He showed it to his wife Eileen saying, “Dydi hwn ddim yn gwneud synwyr.” (This doesn’t make sense). She immediately grasped the absurdity of the situation. Despite living in a strongly Welsh-speaking area, where all the Council members spoke Welsh, all official documentation was only in English. Eileen’s reaction was adamant: “Does ddim rhaid i ni dalu felly.” (In that case, we don’t need to pay).
Several years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in Alabama, Eileen resolved to make a stand. And after an epic eight-year battle, still living in a house emptied of its family heirlooms by bailiffs, Eileen won her battle. The Council agreed to make all its communication bilingual; a highly symbolic victory that eventually led to the 1998 and 2011 Language Acts that gave Welsh equal status with English.
Not for the first time in this blog of my week at the Eisteddfod I ask the question, “What has this got to do with the National Trust?” Again, I must answer by saying “Quite a lot, actually.”
The ancient language of our country happens to be an essential part of the history and day-to-day life of so many of our Welsh properties. Take Chirk Castle for instance, one-time home of Thomas, the 8th Baron De-Walden. Known in Welsh cultural circles as Tommy Ellis, he was once described as Britain’s wealthiest bachelor. He embraced all things Welsh, learnt and wrote poetry in the language and used his fortune to bank-roll the National Eisteddfod in the 1930s.
Then there’s the Ysbyty Estate, where the language and way-of-life of its tenants have always informed the Trust’s aims. The Trust’s agent in the 1960s, John Tetley, was on record saying that he measured his success as the estate’s manager by the fact that the village school playground still resounded to the sound of children, every one of them fluent in Welsh of course.
This morning’s fascinating talk – delivered in the festival that is the beating heart of Welsh identity – has reminded me how important it is that the Trust continues to play its part in supporting our native tongue, and that the Beasley’s sacrifice was not made in vain.