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Friday, 26 October, 2001, 18:29 GMT 19:29 UK
Patagonia, land of song
Welsh traditions are kept alive by the community
BBC News Online's Grahame Davies reports from Patagonia on the revival of Welsh cultural traditions - and samples a full-blown Eisteddfod, 8,000 miles from Wales.

Male choirs, the chairing of the winning bard, the dance of the flower maidens, the hushed conversations in the Welsh language - the sights and sounds of this Eisteddfod are familiar to anyone acquainted with the culture of Wales.

But what makes this particular event special is that it is all taking place 8,000 miles away from Wales.

This is the Eisteddfod of the Welsh community in Patagonia in Argentina.

It has been held every year since a group of emigrants set out from Wales in the second half of the nineteenth century to establish a new Wales in the desert of south America.

There are no accurate figures for the number of Welsh speakers in modern Patagonia.

The revitalised links with Wales give hope the unique Welsh character of this community still has a future

But the figures can certainly still be counted in the hundreds, scattered between the main town of Trelew - named after one of the colony's founders, Lewis Jones - the villages of Gaiman and Dolavon in the lower Chubut valley, and the offshoot communities of Esquel and Trevelin in the Andes.

For long the language of the older generation only, Welsh is now undergoing something of a revival, stimulated by a scheme, sponsored by the Welsh Assembly, of placing a number of teachers of the language in Patagonia for a year at a time.

They teach the language to hundreds of learners, ranging from pre-school children to those children's grandparents.

An ambitious internet project linking Welsh learners in Patagonia with schools in Wales is also underway.

Order of druids

The increasing ease of international travel has also brought a growing number of visitors from Wales as is shown this year by the visit of 30 members of the Gorsedd of Bards, including the Archdruid himself, Meirion Evans.

The Gorsedd are visiting to reconstitute and relaunch the Patagonian Gorsedd - the ceremonial order of druids who provide the pageantry for Eisteddfod ceremonies.

The Gorsedd was re-established on Thursday at a ceremony in a specially-constructed stone circle on the hard scrubby earth of the Patagonian landscape on the fringes of Gaiman.

The Gorsedd also provided a spectacular backdrop for the main ceremonies of the eisteddfod at Trelew on Saturday.

If Macsen grows up to be a football player, he can play for Argentina. But if his sport is rugby, it has to be Wales.

In scenes reminiscent of the chairing ceremony at the National Eisteddfod of Wales in Denbigh this year, won by a woman for the first time ever, the chair went to one of the settlementīs women poets, Monica Jones de Jones, who runs a hotel in Gaiman.

She won with a poem on the set subject of "Rhyddid", "Freedom".

The Patagonia Eisteddfod itself, while sharing those elements common to Eisteddfodau in Wales itself, nonetheless is, in other respects, quite a different affair.

As well as haunting Welsh folk tunes, and recitations in the unique Spanish-accented Welsh of the Patagonians, there are also rousing displays of Argentinian folk dancing which owe everything to the culture of the gauchos and nothing to the somewhat tamer dance routines of the Welsh homeland.

Welsh emigrant

The highlight of the two-day Eisteddfod came on Saturday when the winning bard, Monica Jones de Jones - one of nine writers who competed in the Welsh-language poetry competition - was announced and chaired.

It was a popular win. Monica Jones is married to a recent Welsh emigrant, Gwyn Jones, from the Conwy Valley.

Like a surprising number of the children of the Welsh community, their four-year-old son Macsen, is being brought up Welsh-speaking.

The revitalised links with Wales and the amazing popularity of Welsh as a second language among the younger generation of residents of the Wladfa, give hope that the unique Welsh character of this community still has a future.

Gwyn Jones jokes that he and his wife have a deal. If Macsen grows up to be a football player, he can play for Argentina. But if his sport is rugby, it has to be Wales.

It seems a fitting indication of the rich shared heritage of those who, in Argentina at the start of the twentieth century, have inherited the desert dream of their Welsh ancestors.

See also:

11 Jun 01 | Wales
Patagonia ties renewed
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