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.
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