Welsh, The Eight Wonder|
Survival of the Welsh Language: Part VII
In Chambers' Edinburgh Journal (vol 2, 1849), there is an entry that shows the prevalence of attitudes towards "native languages" in other parts of Britain as well as Wales:
That until the middle of the nineteenth century
the Celtic tongue in its varieties of Gaelic, Welsh,
Irish and Manx, should be employed as a vernacular,
is a matter not less of surprise than of national
discredit . . . No thought appears to have been
bestowed on the fact that large masses of the
population were isolated from general progress
on account of their inability to speak English
The great Welsh industrialist David Davies of Llandinam expressed similar concerns. In a speech at the National Eisteddfod, Aberystwyth, in 1865 (long before the all-Welsh rule was established), he said:
I am a great admirer of the Welsh language, and I
have no sympathy with those who revile it. Still,
I have seen enough of the world to know that the
best medium to make money is by the English
language. I want to advise everyone of my
countrymen to master it perfectly; if you are
content with brown bread, you can of course,
remain where you are. If you wish to enjoy the
luxuries of life, with white bread to boot, the
only way to do so is by learning English well. I
know what it is to eat both
In the same year, in a speech to the Congregational Union, Welshman Griffith Richards stated:
It would be an enormous advantage to the Welsh
and to the English if the Welsh language became
extinct before tomorrow morning and the Welsh
became absorbed into the English nation
The situation was not universally applauded; there were those such as Thomas Price, speaking before the Congregational Union in the same year, who deplored what he saw happening to the language and to his people:
Englishmen, English capital and enterprise,
English customs, and unhappily English vices,
are rushing in upon us like mighty irresistible
torrents carrying away before them our ancient
language, social habits, and even our religious
customs and influence over the masses
H.L. Spring also commented wistfully on the situation:
Had the mineral wealth of the principality been
discovered by the natives, and could it have been
properly put to use before they were subdued to
English rule, they might have preserved their
language and have been the foremost amongst
British subjects in wealth, manufactures and
arts; but as the English have, through Providence
means of opening out her resources, it is plain
that the English element must universally
prevail. (H.L. Spring, Lady Cambria 1867)
In Caernarfon, Gwynedd, an area still predominantly Welsh-speaking in the 1990's, there is a high school named after Sir Hugh Owen, a pioneer in education in Wales. Owen's untiring efforts to secure a university for Wales led to a commission to promote the idea in 1854, the university itself to be established through voluntary contributions. Owen's pleas to the government for financial help were unheeded, and it was public subscription that brought to fruition the old dream of Owain Glyndwr. In 1872 Aberystwyth University opened its doors to twenty-six students in a very impressive building on the seafront designed as a hotel, but which was fortunately vacant at the time. For the first few years of its existence, the college depended greatly on voluntary contributions from the nonconformist chapels, but it attracted many who would come to have profound influence on the culture of their nation. In so many areas it provided the foundations that led to the national revival of Wales in the late 1890's.
The work of Owen M. Edwards, in a period of language decline, was crucial in this renaissance. A native of Llanuwchllyn on the shores of Llyn Tegid (Bala Lake), Oxford University lecturer and later Chief inspector of Schools of the newly-created Welsh Board of Education, Edwards did much to popularize the use of Welsh as an everyday language. Alarmed by the decline in the language, he published a great number of Welsh books and magazines, with particular interest in works for children. In 1898 he founded Urdd y Delyn, a forerunner of Urdd Gobaith Cymru, the largest youth organization in Wales and one that still conducts its activities through the medium of Welsh.
Despite the success of organizations such as Urdd, one problem has remained for the survival of Welsh ever since the Acts of Union in the middle 1500's. The Welsh language has considered to be a great hindrance to one's feeling of Britishness. Even before the First World War, when British soldiers from all parts of the kingdom marched off under the Union Jack to fight the Boers in South Africa, the feeling took hold that "...side by side with the honourable contribution which the Welsh could make to the British Empire, the Welsh language could be considered an irrelevance..."
This idea was implanted even more firmly in the Welsh mind by the intention of the leaders of the Welsh-speaking community to show that the peculiarities of Welsh culture were not a threat to the unity and tranquility of the kingdom of Britain. When ideas of a separate government for the Welsh people began to take hold in the late 19th century, once again, the idea of a British national identity found itself overwhelming the purely local, isolated, and all too often ridiculed, aspirations of those who wished for a Welsh nationhood.
In mainly English-speaking South Wales in particular, feelings on the matter were sharply expressed. At a crucial meeting in Newport, Monmouthshire, in January 1898 it was firmly stated (by Robert Byrd) that there were thousands of true Liberals who would never submit "to the domination of Welsh ideas." With few exceptions, this seems to sum up the attitude of most Welsh politicians of the next one hundred years. There were too many in Wales whose close ties with English interests made the idea of home rule repugnant and one to be fought against at all costs.
Welsh-speaking Lloyd George, future Prime Minister, who was howled down at the meeting, questioned if the mass of the Welsh nation was willing to be dominated by a coalition of English capitalists who had made their fortunes in Wales. Yet even his motives were held with suspicion as being entirely self-serving. And, as a fluent Welsh speaker, he was mistrusted by many in the audience who looked with suspicion upon those who could speak a language that they could not.
In 1881, the Aberdare Commission's report showed that provisions for intermediate and higher education in Wales lagged behind those in the other parts of Britain; it suggested that there should be two new Welsh universities, Cardiff and Bangor. It was found, however, that there was a lack of adequately trained students for these new colleges and thus, in 1899 the Welsh Intermediate Act came into being that gave the new county councils the power to raise a levy (to be matched by the Government) for the provision of secondary schools.In 1896 came the Central Welsh Board to oversee these schools.
The result was that thousands of Welsh children from all levels of society were able to continue their education at a secondary level. Another result, however, was the continued decline of the status accorded the Welsh language, for the new secondary schools were thoroughly English, only very few even bothering to offer Welsh lessons. An educated class of Welsh people was thus created that fostered the cultural traditions of their country in the language of England.