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Saunders Lewis and The Fate of the Language

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 14:10 UK time, Friday, 10 February 2012

Perhaps not many people - certainly not those outside the country - are fully aware of the fact but Monday 13 February 2012 marks an important moment in the history of Wales and the Welsh language.

Saunders Lewis

It was exactly 50 years ago this year, on 13 February 1962, that the writer and political activist Saunders Lewis delivered a radio lecture on Tynged yr Iaith - the Fate of the Language.

In itself that might seem interesting but hardly world shattering. Except that the lecture was a seminal moment in Welsh history, one that triggered the formation of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh language Society) and, ultimately, the creation of much of the bilingual policy and material - forms, documents, road signs and so on - that we now have in Wales.

Even Welsh language radio and TV services owe a huge debt to Saunders Lewis' crucially important broadcast, made on what was then the BBC's Welsh Service.

Saunders Lewis was born on 15 October 1893, the son of a Welsh minister who, although he was born in Cheshire, was raised in a Welsh speaking family. He went to Liverpool University, where he studied English, but his studies were interrupted by World War One. He served in the South Wales Borderers, returning to university after the war to finish his degree.

Patriotic and hugely conscious of his Welshness, Lewis became a lecturer at Swansea University in 1922 and three years later, along with men such as HR Jones, was instrumental in founding Plaid Cymru, the National Party of Wales. He was president of the party from 1926 until 1939.

He was a writer of great skill and range, producing novels, critical studies (including one of William Williams, Pantycelyn), essays and poems. In the main, however, he considered himself to be a dramatist, producing no fewer than 21 different plays, although his real mission and purpose was, arguably, to alter the course of Welsh history.

Lewis was a writer who produced work with a highly intellectual element - something which later added fuel to the charge of elitism in his writing and views - working mainly from history and legend. He became a Roman Catholic in the early thirties and took up a stance of opposition to what he regarded as "Godless communism."

He was certainly opposed to socialism and even the pacifism that he encountered in the 1930s was suspect in his eyes. As far as he was concerned, the main purpose of politics was to defend civilisation - a nation or a people without traditions, he believed, was in danger of disintegration.

It was, perhaps, inevitable that his views would lead him to extreme action. In 1936 he took part in an arson attack on the government bombing range at Penyberth in North wales.

Penyberth was a military range that had been established despite half a million Welsh protests and which, due to strong objections from local people in other parts of the United Kingdom, had already been rejected in Northumberland and Dorset. In the eyes of many it had been imposed on the Welsh by an uncaring government that had little understanding or recognition of Wales as a nation.

Saunders Lewis, DJ Williams and Lewis Valentine were sentenced to nine months imprisonment for their part in the affair and Lewis was dismissed - before the guilty verdict was returned - by Swansea University. Such was the strength of feeling, however, that the three Welshmen were greeted by a crowd of nearly 15,000 when they returned to Caernarfon after their release.

He continued to write, working as a journalist, farmer and teacher, but returned to academia as a lecturer in Welsh at Cardiff in 1952. His greatest moment came, however, with his radio broadcast, almost exactly 10 years later.

Tynged yr Iaith was basically an appeal to Plaid Cymru members living in predominantly Welsh speaking areas to give up what Lewis thought were useless or futile electoral campaigns to send MPs to Westminster. They should concentrate, instead, on creating an atmosphere where all forms of government, local and national, were impossible without the use of the Welsh language. He predicted the decline and death of Welsh unless there was a campaign to rescue it.

Consequently, at that year's National Eisteddfod, some members of Plaid Cymru - many of them young - decided to establish a Welsh language movement or society, separate from Plaid. Since 1962 the Welsh Language Society has achieved much. It has been an important element in establishing the whole concept of bilingualism and the saving of the Welsh language. The Welsh Language Acts of 1967 and 1993 also owe much to this pressure group.

And, of course, it can be argued that none of this would have happened had it not been for that one crucially important radio broadcast by Saunders Lewis in 1962. Nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, he died on 1 September 1985.

Saunders Lewis remains an important cultural figure in Wales, having been voted number 10 in a 2005 poll to establish the 100 greatest Welshmen of all time.

Radio Cymru has been celebrating the Fate of the Language lecture over the last week and will continue to do so next week with a series of special lectures. All the content in the links below are Welsh language content.


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