Druid at the 2008 Eisteddfod

Return of the druids

The 18th-century interest in all things Celtic saw the revival of the ancient druidic order of the Gorsedd of the Bards.

The mid-18th century saw the birth of industry and the beginning of the modern age in Wales. At the same time came a rebirth of interest in the country's past, and one of the most colourful figures in this revival was the enigmatic Iolo Morganwg.

Born Edward Williams in Flemingston in the Vale of Glamorgan, Iolo was to have an impact on Welsh culture comparable to the industrialisation of the country. Thanks to him we can witness the spectacle of a future Archbishop of Canterbury ordained as a druid.

He was responsible for the establishment of the Gorsedd of the Bards, which he saw as the guardian of the language and culture of Wales. This supposedly ancient druidic order was established in a ceremony at Primrose Hill, London, in 1792.

It was a fantasy, of course, as scholars have found many of Iolo's works to be. Yet the body of bards he established resonated with the Welsh people. It gave them an institution which esteemed and cherished the language, something which hadn't existed since the Age of the Princes hundreds of years earlier. In 1819 the Gorsedd was formally linked with the Eisteddfod, an act which ultimately led to the National Eisteddfod we know today.

Iolo was not working in isolation. The era saw a revival of interest in all things Celtic. The London visionary William Blake, for instance, was particularly interested in the druids. Welsh exiles in the English capital formed societies like the Cymmrodorion and the Gwyneddigion and published editions of ancient Welsh literature to remind the English, but more importantly the Welsh, of the ancient British roots of the language.

This interest in Welsh occurred at a time when society was changing rapidly in the face of new, large scale industry. Some scholars applied their study of the language to invent new Welsh words to describe new circumstances.

Not all their endeavours were to be successful. Indeed, many terms were invented by the scholar William Owen Pughe on the basis of fantastic theories about the origins of Welsh and how it should be spoken. His gave his translation of the phrase "the Welsh language" as "Yr iait Cybraeg"; quite a contrast to the present day "Yr iaith Gymraeg".

Yet the endeavours of Pughe and others showed that there was no shortage of enthusiastic, if occasionally misguided, people willing to work on adapting the language to this new age.


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