70 welsh protest

The Welsh language is the common heritage of everyone living in Wales, and to 797,717 (28.4%) of Wales’s population, it is a medium of existence (according to the 2001 census). It is the language of their cities and their countryside, their happiness and their fears, their love and hate. It is more than just a medium; it is a symbol of the continuation of tradition and of embracing the future.

The Welsh language has an unbroken literary tradition stretching back, in written form, to the 13th century, and orally, to the sixth century at the latest. This is the period in which poets, soldiers and maidens living in northern England spoke Welsh, the period of the Old North as is it known. But the language is also stepping confidently into the future. Bands play in gigs the length and breadth of Wales every week, entwining the twin influences of the traditional and the modern, new poets and authors are writing in old, old meters, and all other types of culture are coming to fruition, all through the medium of Welsh.

It could have been very different. Following the policy of the British government at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the last century, where any child caught speaking Welsh would receive a thrashing from the headmaster (among other things), the number of Welsh speakers plummeted, and Wales was making funeral arrangements.

These circumstances led in 1925 to the founding of Plaid Cymru, a political party seeking self government and the preservation of the language and culture of Wales.

Initially this new party had little impact. Then three of its leading members carried out an outrageous arson attack on the RAF bombing school in Penyberth, North West Wales. It was a turning point in Welsh language politics and the first time since the Glyndwr revolt that violence was committed in the name of Wales.

In 1962 one of the founders hit the headlines again with the BBC radio lecture Tynged Yr Iaith (The Fate of the Language), declaring that the language would die unless revolutionary methods were used to defend it. He hoped to persuade Plaid Cymru to adopt these tactics, but the suggestion was robustly resisted by the party leader.

Instead a number of young people were spurred to form the pressure group Cymdeithas Yr Iaith Gymraeg (Welsh Language Society) which campaigned for reforms such as bilingual road signs and cheaper local housing.

Throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s hundreds of its members were imprisoned for breaking the law with non-violent direct action.

“Funnily enough, the first campaign was actually started by accident
five months before Cymdeithas had even been formed. Gareth Miles, a
student at the University in Aberystwyth, was arrested one evening for
perpetrating the heinous crime of carrying a friend shotgun on his push-
bike. Such a major road-traffic offence deserved severe punishment and
he was duly summoned to appear before the town’s magistrates.
However, being a fervent supporter of the language Miles was annoyed
with the fact that the summons he received was a monolingual scrap of
paper with no hint of Welsh on it. In protest he ignored the summons and
the court case had to proceed in his absence where he was fined for his
offence. Once again the court order calling for payment of the fine was
ignored since it was again in English only, and Miles was consequently
arrested for non-payment of his one-pound fine and spent the night in a
police cell. This strange, bordering-on the inane episode laid the
foundation for Cymdeithas’s first campaign of demanding bilingual
summonses. The summons—a legal order compelling a citizen to answer
for his crimes—was a strong symbol of the supremacy of the English-only
State, where the Welsh language was legally deemed to be inferior.”

The months that followed witnessed a systematic campaign of law breaking, culminating in an infamous mass rally that brought the town of Aberystwyth to a standstill in February 1963.

Protest and civil disobedience have remained key weapons for Cymdeithas in its campaign for the language throughout the last forty odd years. Essentially, protest was a means of proving how serious the condition of the language had actually become. The fact that thousands of people were prepared to break the law and accept the consequences of their actions proved the immensity of the crisis facing the language. But pragmatically, protest was also a valuable means of gaining publicity. A mass rally with hundreds of protesters would certainly be reported in the papers or on the radio and television. This would be especially true if the protesters were holding a sit-in, invading a television studio, or painting a slogan on government buildings.

The recent growth of bilingualism in Wales is thanks largely to the efforts and sacrifices of these people.

A limited Welsh Language Act was passed in 1967, but probably the biggest concession wrought from the British government was a Welsh language television channel.

A long campaign by Cymdeithas came to a head in 1980, when party leader, Gwynfor Evans announced that he would go on hunger strike until the newly elected Conservative government honoured its manifesto commitment to provide a separate Welsh language TV channel. In 1982, S4C was launched.

Many battles were won over the years – bilingual forms and road signs, a Welsh medium television channel, and the Welsh Language Act of 1993 which made it compulsory for any public body to provide services bilingually. These battles would simply not have been won were it not for the willingness of hundreds of members to sacrifice their freedom.

Yet the battle for the future of the language is still raging. Welsh could be a comprehensive medium for existence for everybody living in Wales if the political will existed to put the necessary circumstances in place. At the moment, private sector businesses trading in Wales do not have to offer any type of services through the medium of Welsh, and therefore, the vast majority of them do not. Welsh citizens cannot therefore use their language in all facets of life. They have no right to shop in their local supermarket through the medium of Welsh, communicate with their mobile phone companies through the medium of Welsh, or book a holiday in the language. The rights which citizens of countries the world over take for granted are refused to the citizens of Wales. If the language is to live, then this right must be established. It must be ensured that the language is seen and heard everywhere, in order to re-establish it as a part of the identity of the whole of Wales, and to show non-Welsh speakers that it is a language worth learning.

It is sometimes difficult to explain to a Welsh person why the Welsh language invokes such fierce loyalty and radicalism of word and action. It is even more difficult to explain to someone from another country. It is the language of the writer and the fisherman, the academic and the farmer, musician and miner, prostitute and nun. It is a sign of diversity in a world in which the homogeneity of Anglo-American culture threatens cultures that are different. It is a mode of identifying with cultures and languages of the whole world. It is a sign of the ability of the Welsh nation to survive in the face of many threats, it is more than anything the people’s natural medium of existence. They speak, think, count and dream through the medium of Welsh, and one could argue that ensuring the future of this fundamental part of life, this basic human right, is something in which everyone should take an interest.