‘These days, in many villages, and in most towns in Wales, children play and read in English. They forget that they are Welsh.’

Not an excerpt from a columnist in The National, nor a tweet from one of the nation’s self-appointed online Jeremiahs – but the most famous sentence in a letter written a century ago at a time when the Welsh language faced an existential crisis; words that called for the creation of Urdd Gobaith Cymru – perhaps better known as simply ‘the Urdd’.

The contents of that letter, addressed to the children and youth of Wales and written by Sir Ifan ab Owen Edwards in Cymru’r Plant, will come into renewed focus this month as the Urdd celebrates the centenary of its founding in January 1922.

Often translated to English as the League of Welsh Youth, Urdd Gobaith Cymru literally translates as ‘The League of Welsh Hope’.

The National Wales: The Urdd's Llangrannog camp in CeredigionThe Urdd's Llangrannog camp in Ceredigion

And during its one hundred year history, the organisation has certainly injected a great deal of hope for the future of the Welsh language and youth culture in Wales.

Today it boasts more than 55,000 members, making it the country’s largest organisation for children and young people, and one of the biggest in Europe.

The National Wales: Dawnsio gwerin (folk dancing) is an enduring feature of Urdd Gobaith Cymru activitiesDawnsio gwerin (folk dancing) is an enduring feature of Urdd Gobaith Cymru activities

Best known for its residential centres at Llangrannog and Glanllyn and the iconic Mistar Urdd, a personification of the organisation’s triangular tricolour logo – green to represent Wales, white for faith and red for the whole of humanity – the Urdd has 170 staff, 10,000 volunteers and 900 branches across the length and breadth of Wales.

But it all started with that letter. 

The National Wales: Participants of the Rhyl Colour Run in 2019 warming up with the Urdd Eisteddfod's mascot Mistar Urdd. Photo: Phil MicheuParticipants of the Rhyl Colour Run in 2019 warming up with the Urdd Eisteddfod's mascot Mistar Urdd. Photo: Phil Micheu

Urdd founder Sir Ifan ab Owen Edwards was the son of O.M. Edwards, Wales’ first Chief Inspector of Schools, who had himself started up Cymru’r Plant, a Welsh-language magazine for children, in 1892.

Sir Ifan’s son, Owen Edwards, was in 1981 to become the inaugural chief executive of S4C – and so in many ways the achievements of this distinguished family encapsulate the story of how the Welsh language survived the pressures of globalisation in the twentieth century. 

The National Wales: Statue of Owen Morgan Edwards and Ifan ab Owen Edwards in Llanuwchllyn, Gwynedd. Photo: Roger W. Haworth CC BY-SA 3.0Statue of Owen Morgan Edwards and Ifan ab Owen Edwards in Llanuwchllyn, Gwynedd. Photo: Roger W. Haworth CC BY-SA 3.0

Sir Ifan’s letter was published after census data in 1911 and then 1921 showed a precipitous decline in the numbers of Welsh speakers.

The surveys revealed that, of a population of 2.5 million, just 43.5% and then 38.7% spoke Welsh, an alarming decline even when compared to just one generation back – 1891 being the last time a UK-wide census revealed a half of Wales’ population to be fluent in the language.

And just as the current Welsh Government target of one million Welsh speakers by the middle of our own century depends largely on more young people being educated through the medium of Cymraeg, Sir Ifan ab Owen Edwards understood the importance of children’s play to any hope the language had for survival in the shadow of the global lingua franca.

The National Wales: Children enjoy their time at Gwersyll yr Urdd Glan-llyn at Llyn Tegid in the 1980sChildren enjoy their time at Gwersyll yr Urdd Glan-llyn at Llyn Tegid in the 1980s

Rather than bemoaning the situation, together with his wife Eirys, he enthusiastically took upon himself the task of administering the nascent organisation from his home at Llanuwchlyn, near Bala. 

The first Urdd branch was set up at Treuddyn in Flintshire in 1922 and within five years the organisation had grown to a membership of 5,000, with 80 branches, crucially including many in areas where Welsh was no longer the first language of a majority. 

Flourishing through the mid twentieth century through its innovative use of residential camps to create the excitement of meeting others, it allowed children and young people from across Wales to access new experiences in different areas of the country.

The National Wales: Activities with the Urdd have included taking to the water in boats such as Brenin Arthur, seen here at Llyn Tegid in GwyneddActivities with the Urdd have included taking to the water in boats such as Brenin Arthur, seen here at Llyn Tegid in Gwynedd

Despite the obvious setback of the Second World War, Sir Ifan’s efforts to support the resurgence of the Welsh language showed no sign of abating during this period. The annual Urdd eisteddfod was instituted at Corwen in 1929, with new elements added to the festivities every May, the Urdd eisteddfod even went ahead in 1940, with a one day event in Rhyl. 

Sir Ifan’s cinematic collaboration with John Ellis Williams ‘Y Chwarelwr’ (‘The Quarryman’) was the first ever ‘talkie’ in the Welsh language. Made in 1935 at a cost of £2,000, the Urdd supported a travelling cinema to allow audiences in all parts of Wales to see the film and learn more about the activities of the Urdd. You can watch the film online for free here

Sir Ifan ab Owen Edwards and the Urdd were also responsible for instituting some other pillars of the modern Welsh nation. At Sir Ifan’s prompting the first Welsh-medium school – Ysgol Lluest in Aberystwyth – was opened in 1939, and the Urdd’s regular book campaigns to support the reading of Welsh literature led to the creation of Cyngor Llyfrau Cymraeg, the Books Council of Wales, in 1962.

The National Wales: The ability to take part in sport is one of the central features of Urdd Gobaith CymruThe ability to take part in sport is one of the central features of Urdd Gobaith Cymru

The National Wales: The range of sports offered by the Urdd has expanded over the years to include activities such as basketballThe range of sports offered by the Urdd has expanded over the years to include activities such as basketball

Today the Urdd eisteddfod encompasses 400 competitions, from singing and cooking to dancing and designing websites, and attracts 90,000 visitors every year, to a different place in Wales during the May half term. The centenary edition will take place in Denbighshire from May 30 to June 4.

The residential centres, established in the 1930s by Sir Ifan ab Owen Edwards, have recently benefitted from a £6.5m modernisation programme, and a presence at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff adds an urban site to the suite of venues available to the organisation. 

The National Wales: Urdd Gobaith Cymru has a base at the Millennium Centre in Cardiff BayUrdd Gobaith Cymru has a base at the Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay

The Urdd’s commitment to ensuring children from all over Wales are able to access opportunities – in sport, in music and drama, in outdoor pursuits and through volunteering, apprenticeships and training opportunities – is also complemented by a growing environmentalism, with a brand new centre at Pentre Ifan due to open this year near Newport, Pembrokeshire. 

Even the centenary celebrations planned for later this month underline how the organisation has refused to stand still, with a virtual birthday party aimed at younger members being hosted on Zoom and a Guinness World Record attempt for ‘the most videos of people singing the same song uploaded to Facebook in one hour and Most videos of people singing the same song uploaded to Twitter in one hour'.

It might all sound a far cry from the now yellowing pages of Cymru’r Plant, but something tells me Sir Ifan ab Owen Edwards would most definitely approve. 

If you value The National's journalism, help grow our team of reporters by becoming a subscriber.