Between 1834 and 1853, ten eisteddfodau were held in Abergavenny, organised by Cymreigyddion Y Fenni, the Welsh language society which still meets today. The eisteddfodau were sponsored by Augusta Hall, the famous Lady Llanover, also known by her bardic name Gwenynen Gwent. Lady Llanover is perhaps best known for creating the image of what came to be regarded as the traditional Welsh costume, as well as for her support of Welsh harp music and folk songs.
In her patronage of the Abergavenny eisteddfodau, Lady Llanover was supported by her husband, Sir Benjamin Hall (of Westminster`s “Big Ben” fame) and by Thomas Price, “Carnhuanawc,” one of the greatest Welshmen of the nineteenth century. He, like Lady Llanover, was a fervent advocate for the Welsh language in an age where Britain`s minority languages were far from being a popular cause.
Lady Llanover and her husband offered very substantial prizes at the Abergavenny eisteddfodau, sometimes as much as eighty guineas. Competitors included some of the greatest European Celtic scholars, as well as major Welsh literary figures of the day.
In 2002, the Abergavenny eisteddfod was revived by a local group led by local town councillor Douglas Edwards and his wife Edna, together with head teacher of Abergavenny`s Welsh primary school Mrs Bronwen Green. In 2003 Ceri Thomas took over the chairmanship of the eisteddfod committee from Bronwen Green, and since 2012 the post has been held by Rosemary Williams.
Initially competitors were invited from local schools, with competitions being held at King Henry VIII Comprehensive School. From 2003 onwards, adult competitors have also been attracted, from all over Wales and beyond, and from 2004 onwards the evening competitions have been held at the town`s Borough Theatre.
The eisteddfod tradition is very old. The original meaning of the word “eisteddfod” was a gathering of people “sitting together,” then a tournament of bards competing against each other for much-prized patronage by wealthy noblemen. In time it became a festival celebrating Welsh art, language and culture, similar to what we see today in eisteddfodau throughout Wales.
According to some the first eisteddfod in history was held at Lord Rhys ap Gruffudd’s castle in Cardigan in 1176. What is more certain is that the eisteddfod as we know it was strongly influenced by competitive events in Carmarthen around 1451 and Caerwys in 1523 and 1567. It was during this period that the patronage system was regulated and poets and musicians were graded according to their rank and status.
We know little about the subsequent history of the eisteddfod until the end of the 17th century. At that time almanacks began to be printed, cheap leaflets which foretold the weather, gave astrological readings and published poetry and carols. In 1701 Thomas Jones, an almanack publisher, organised an eisteddfod in Machynlleth. This was followed by others in Llandegla in 1719, Dolgellau in 1734 and Bala in 1738.
A little later Edward Williams, known as Iolo Morgannwg, decided to establish a new bardic tradition called “Gorsedd Beirdd Ynys Prydain.” He was linked with an Eisteddfod of historic significance held at the Ivy Bush Inn in Carmarthen at the beginning of the 19th century. By this time, the Eisteddfod was no longer confined to poetry but had developed into a fully fledged folk festival on a much larger scale.
The eisteddfod movement received a boost in several areas in Wales through the work of the Cymreigyddion Societies, including the Abergavenny Cymreigyddion, established in 1833 and still active. The first National Eisteddfod as we recognise it today was held at Aberdare in Mid Glamorgan in 1861. In 1880 the National Eisteddfod Association was formed and charged with the responsibility of staging an annual festival. The National Eisteddfod has been held annually ever since, with the exception of the war years 1914 and 1940.
Wales has other national and local Eisteddfodau, including the Urdd National Eisteddfod (for young people) and the International Musical Eisteddfod, held each July in Llangollen. The first International Musical Eisteddfod was held in 1947, with the aim of promoting peace between nations after the second world war through the international language of music. This week-long Eisteddfod attracts 2,500 competitors from over 40 countries.