The Welsh Language Society

A look at the background to the Welsh Language Society

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The Fate of the Language – 13 February 1962

The Fate of the Language was the BBC radio lecture given by Saunders Lewis on 13 February 1962. Saunders Lewis was the former president of Plaid Cymru, and his lecture had a stupendous effect on Welsh-speaking Welsh people.

Saunders Lewis called on Welsh people to refuse to fill in forms and pay taxes and licences if it was not possible to do so through the medium of Welsh. His opinion was that campaigners needed to be ready to pay fines and face prison in order to save the Welsh language. Here is part of the lecture -

“In April 1952 he and his wife bought a cottage in Llangennech near Llanelli, in an area where nine out of ten of the population are Welsh-speaking. All of the councillors who belong to the rural council of which Llangennech forms a part are Welsh-speaking: as are the council officers. So when the local tax bill arrived from “The Rural District Council of Llanelly”, Mrs Beasley wrote to ask for it in Welsh. Her request was refused. She then refused to pay the tax until she received the bill in Welsh. She and Mr Beasley were summonsed over a dozen times before the magistrates' court. Mr and Mrs Beasley insisted on a Welsh hearing in court. Three times the bailiffs removed furniture from their house, and the furniture was worth far more than the tax demanded. This continued for eight years... Their predicament became a subject of debate throughout the land, and the newspapers and radio and television pestered them every day. The cases in the court were interesting and important.

For example, the tax official's answer to Mr Wynne Samuel: 'The Council is not bound to print the tax papers in any language but English.' ...The Welsh language can be saved. Welsh Wales is a fair sized portion of Wales and the minority is not yet completely unimportant. Mr and Mrs Beasley's example shows how to proceed. During the eight years of Mrs Beasley's struggle, only one other Welshman in the rural district asked for the tax bill in Welsh... Restoring the Welsh language in Wales is nothing less than a revolution. Only through revolutionary means will success be had.”

This lecture led to the formation of the Welsh Language Society on 4 August 1962 during the Plaid Cymru Summer School at Pontarddulais.

Trefechan Bridge

The Trefechan Bridge protest is considered the first battle for the Welsh language. This protest was held on 2 February 1963, almost a year after Saunders Lewis' “Fate of the Language” lecture. But stopping the traffic from arriving at and leaving Aberystwyth was not the protest's original aim.

Gareth Miles, from the Caernarfon area, followed Saunders Lewis' example when he was arrested for riding a motorcycle with his friend also on it in 1962. He refused to attend a court as the case would be heard solely in English. Welsh language students at Aberystwyth and Bangor Universities decided to get themselves arrested and every one of them would then insist on a Welsh-language trial.

It was arranged that the protesters would meet at the Home Cafe in Aberystwyth. Some had posters stating “Use the Welsh Language” and “Official Status for the Welsh Language” and put them on the town's Post Office, others on County Council buildings, and even on the police station, yet no-one was arrested! Gareth Miles and his friend once again rode the motorcycle, and they were not arrested either! So a second meeting was held at the Home Cafe, some saying that they must be more aggressive, and others thinking of leaving. It was decided that those who wished to carry on, some 30 Welsh speakers, would close Trefechan Bridge, and obstruct any traffic from entering and leaving Aberystwyth from the south!

The bridge was closed for around half an hour, but it was a busy half-hour. A Post Office van was prevented from entering the town, and the postman began revving his engine closer and closer to the protesters, with some members of the public urging him to run them over! The public and police began throwing the women protesters from the middle of the road to the pavement, and the traffic was stopped.

Once again, no-one was arrested, but the incident got a great deal of attention in the press, and journalists filled the town's phone booths, sending the story throughout Britain, including London. Articles appeared in newspapers as different as Y Cymro and the Daily Express! The fact that there was not enough respect for the Welsh language in establishments and in public got a great deal of attention. This was the most important milestone in the history of the Welsh Language Society, even though no-one was arrested that day.

Prison for the love of his language

During the 1960s and 1970s there were many similar non-violent protests and campaigners were imprisoned or fined. Amongst them was the popular singer Dafydd Iwan. Some concessions were won from the Government, including the Welsh Language Act 1967, and bilingual forms were produced by some public bodies. For a period English-only road signs throughout Wales were painted green or damaged by Society supporters, and this campaign led to establishing the principle of bilingual signs in Wales.

At the beginning of the 1970s the Welsh Language Society began campaigning for a Welsh radio and television service. Some protesters refused to buy television licences and others climbed television masts and caused disturbances in television studios. The pressure on the broadcasting authorities to offer a Welsh-language service mounted and in 1977 Radio Cymru was established by the BBC. There were also plans to establish a separate television channel for Welsh programmes but in 1979 the Conservative government announced that it would not keep its promise to provide such a channel. So Gwynfor Evans announced that he would not eat unless the government honoured its promise. His threat caused quite a stir and there were worries that it might lead to violent campaigning. Eventually the government gave way to the pressure and it was announced in September 1980 that Welsh-language programmes would be broadcast on the new fourth channel. Sianel Pedwar Cymru (S4C) was launched in 1982.

Welsh Language Act

The 1967 Welsh Language Act did not satisfy Welsh language campaigners and in 1982, after publishing the Welsh Language Society manifesto, a campaign was launched for a new, comprehensive Welsh Language Act. After a long period of protest a new Welsh Language Act was passed in parliament on 21 October 1993. According to the Act a statutory board would be established to promote Welsh and public bodies would have to prepare plans to show how they would treat Welsh fairly. But the Act was criticised by the Welsh Language Society, saying it was 'a toothless, null and void, Act'.

The Welsh Language Society continues to fight for a new Welsh Language Act. It believes that the 1993 Welsh Language Act is weak and misses the mark. It does not give the Welsh language official status, ensure a Welsh-language service in the private sector or ensure a place for the Welsh language in the technological revolution. For these reasons the society remains strong in Wales.

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