On the thirteenth day of February 1962, a 68-year-old writer and political activist enters a BBC radio studio and clears his throat. 

"Rhaid imi gychwyn a gorffen sgriffennu'r ddarlith hon cyn cyhoeddi ystadegau’r cyfrifiad a fu y llynedd ar y Cymry Cymraeg yng Nghymru​," he begins. "I have to start and finish writing this before the returns of last year’s census of the Welsh-speaking population of Wales are published." 

The sense of urgency in his words is palpable, a prophetic, apocalyptic tone maintained throughout the address. 

The National Wales: Tynged yr Iaith was a radio lecture delivered in Welsh by Saunders Lewis on BBC radio on 13 February 1962Tynged yr Iaith was a radio lecture delivered in Welsh by Saunders Lewis on BBC radio on 13 February 1962

"I shall presuppose that the figures which will shortly be published will shock and disappoint those of us who consider that Wales without the Welsh language will not be Wales. I shall also presuppose that Welsh will end as a living language, should the present trend continue, about the beginning of the twenty-first century, assuming that there will be people left in the island of Britain at that time."

The speaker was already a towering – and controversial – figure in the story of twentieth century Wales. 

Almost forty years earlier, this lecturer in Welsh literature had founded a secretive group named Y Mudiad Cymreig – ‘The Welsh Movement’ - which aimed ‘to rescue Wales from political and cultural oblivion’. Then he had become instrumental in the formation of Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru in 1925, the party’s initial focus to foster a Welsh-speaking Wales. 

The National Wales: The Penyberth trio of Lewis Valentine, Saunders Lewis and DJ Williams on their way to court in Pwllheli. Photo: megan CC BY-SA 3.0The Penyberth trio of Lewis Valentine, Saunders Lewis and DJ Williams on their way to court in Pwllheli. Photo: megan CC BY-SA 3.0

And in 1936 he had – together with Lewis Valentine and D.J. Williams – quite literally ignited the cause of Welsh nationalism, setting fire to the RAF bombing school built on the site of a farmhouse associated with centuries of Welsh poetry, at Penyberth on the Llŷn peninsula. 

The National Wales: Llosgi'r Ysgol Fomio - The Burning of the Bombing School memorial. In September 1936 Saunders Lewis, Lewis Valentine and DJ Williams set fire to the bombing school being built in Penyberth. Photo: Alan Fryer CC BY-SA 2.0Llosgi'r Ysgol Fomio - The Burning of the Bombing School memorial. In September 1936 Saunders Lewis, Lewis Valentine and DJ Williams set fire to the bombing school being built in Penyberth. Photo: Alan Fryer CC BY-SA 2.0

Saunders Lewis – who was also a dramatist, novelist, librettist, historian and literary critic – was to go on to be nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

But despite his other achievements, and the many controversies that have seen him variously labelled and called out – both in his own lifetime and since – as ‘elitist’, ‘condescending’, ‘a crank’, ‘an extremist’ and ‘antisemitic’, it is that radio address sixty years ago next month that echoes loudest and longest in the annals of Welsh history. 

The lecture, which can be read in both the original Cymraeg and G. Aled Williams’ English translation here, is an excoriating account of how the Welsh language was systematically suppressed over the course of four hundred years. 

The National Wales: When the First World War broke out, Saunders Lewis enlisted as a volunteer with the King's Liverpool Regiment. He was promoted to full lieutenant in February 1916 with the South Wales Borderers When the First World War broke out, Saunders Lewis enlisted as a volunteer with the King's Liverpool Regiment. He was promoted to full lieutenant in February 1916 with the South Wales Borderers

Lewis traces the decline in Welsh-speakers he witnessed in census after census during his own lifetime to "the measure called the Act of Union of England and Wales" in 1536. 

He sarcastically compliments "the English Government" on the rigour with which the Welsh language was excluded from officialdom over the course of those four centuries, but does not spare Welsh-speaking Wales, arguably the principal target of his ire.

He regards the eighteenth century Cymmrodorion society as an "attempt to restore breadth of interest and the culture of nobility to the Welsh language", but describes how the Welsh were also complicit in "tolerating ignorance and how the Cymmrodorion "failed to nurture a cultured Welsh-speaking middle class".

The National Wales: Page 66 of the Blue Books: "The Welsh language is a vast drawback to Wales, and a manifold barrier to the moral progress and commercial prosperity of the people. It is not easy to over-estimate its evil effects." Source: National Library of WalesPage 66 of the Blue Books: "The Welsh language is a vast drawback to Wales, and a manifold barrier to the moral progress and commercial prosperity of the people. It is not easy to over-estimate its evil effects." Source: National Library of Wales

‘Tynged yr Iaith’ traces the origins of Welsh nationalism to "the reaction against the Blue Books", a reference to the infamous ‘Reports of the Commissioners of Inquiry into the State of Education in Wales’ in 1847.

These reports became widely known as Brad y Llyfrau Gleision – the Treachery of the Blue Books - causing uproar not only because of the commissioners’ disparagement of the Welsh language, but also for their slights on the country’s then prevalent religious nonconformism and supposedly slack morals. 

But Saunders Lewis says that "it was the Blue Books which triumphed", blaming Wales’ leaders, "both laymen and ministers" for supporting the "establishment of a thoroughly English educational system in every part of Wales."

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Although written at a time when small advances had been made with regard to the status of the Welsh language, ‘Tynged yr Iaith’ is highly critical of what its author perceives as a lack of political action on behalf of Welsh Wales.

In contrast to those he sees as supporting an "English upper deck" and a "second-class Welsh deck, not quite under the hatches", Lewis describes himself as "one of the stupid minority who see [bland bilingual policies as] a respectable and peaceful death and a burial without mourning for the Welsh language."

Much of the speech resonates not so much because of the vital history lessons it provides, but because the same issues afflict Welsh communities today. 

The National Wales: The famous Cofiwch Dryweryn wall which stands in a layby on the A487 outside Llanrhystud. Photo: Siriol GriffithsThe famous Cofiwch Dryweryn wall which stands in a layby on the A487 outside Llanrhystud. Photo: Siriol Griffiths

Writing about the drowning of Capel Celyn to provide the city of Liverpool with water, Lewis says: "To defend it is to defend a language, to defend a society, to defend homes and families… Wales cannot afford the destruction of Welsh-speaking homes. They are few and weak."

It is a battle cry taken up by Cymdeithas yr Iaith today. The Welsh Language Society was founded six months after ‘Tynged yr Iaith’, widely regarded as a direct result of the speech.

The National Wales: Cymdeithas yr Iaith blocks Pont Trefechan in Aberystwyth at its first ever protest in 1963. Photo: Geoff Charles, National Museum WalesCymdeithas yr Iaith blocks Pont Trefechan in Aberystwyth at its first ever protest in 1963. Photo: Geoff Charles, National Museum Wales

The society’s current chair, Mabli Siriol, says that the most important message in ‘Tynged yr Iaith’ was the call on ordinary people to take up the fight for the future of the language: "As with any other movement for social change, it wasn’t the state that gave us our rights, or secured the future of the language – it was us. That’s how Cymdeithas continues to understand the call to revolutionary action in the lecture."

To mark the sixtieth anniversary of Lewis’ radio address, Cymdeithas have promised a march of ‘historic significance’. Starting on Pont Trefechan in Aberystwyth, site of the society’s first ever protest in 1963, it will route past another famous early protest location at the town’s Post Office, before finishing in front of the Welsh Government offices. 

The National Wales: Cymdeithas Chair Mabli Siriol speaking at a rally at the Senedd in November. Photo: Rebecca WilksCymdeithas Chair Mabli Siriol speaking at a rally at the Senedd in November. Photo: Rebecca Wilks

In an echo of yet another famous Aberystwyth protest, in the early 1970s – when a pile of English-only road signs that had been pulled down by activists were crushed and left outside the authorities’ offices – Cymdeithas chair Mabli Siriol encourages those attending the rally to bring posters or signs bearing the names of their local communities.

"We will leave them outside the Government offices as a sign that we are demanding a future for our communities through a full Property Act giving democratic community control over local housing and planning," she said. 

The National Wales: Protest signs that were waved by locals during a 2021 protest against second homes in Gwynedd. Photo: Rhys TudurProtest signs that were waved by locals during a 2021 protest against second homes in Gwynedd. Photo: Rhys Tudur

"Sixty years ago, we had many communities where Welsh was the language of daily life, but with official English only signs. Today, we have won status and respect for the Welsh language and official Welsh signage, but the housing market and planning policies threaten the whole Welsh language basis of these communities."

In addition to the formation of Cymdeithas yr Iaith and several decades of demonstrations direct action – against road signs, offices, television and radio masts – Saunders Lewis’ call for an unprecedented mass campaign of civil disobedience led to a much greater degree of political will to support the Welsh language.

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Historian Gwyn Alf Williams credited ‘Tynged yr Iaith’ with inspiring a series of developments that together can be said to have made the Wales we live in today. 

A Secretary of State for Wales was established in 1964, now viewed as a significant step on the road to devolution. And after more than four centuries, the Welsh Language Act 1967 marked the first time that the British state conceded that: ‘it is proper that the Welsh language should be freely used by those who so desire in the hearing of legal proceedings in Wales.’ 

As to the wider culture of the country, Williams argued that ‘Tynged yr Iaith’ was the catalyst for the late twentieth century boom in Welsh-language publishing, film production and popular music that many growing up in Wales today take for granted.

The National Wales: Plaid Cymru leader, Adam PricePlaid Cymru leader, Adam Price

Writing ten years ago to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the speech, Adam Price – who now leads the party Saunders Lewis helped to found – described him as ‘that rare breed in a Welshman – someone who didn’t need anyone else’s approval, who said uncomfortable things, with brutal, unsentimental honesty.’ 

Price describes ‘Tynged yr Iaith’ as Lewis’ 'last great intervention in Welsh politics’ and ‘prophetic in the original sense… [combining] a recognition of the world’s pain, and hope, a recognition of the world’s possibilities.'

Mabli Siriol echoes this sentiment: "Another important message in the lecture that has resonance far beyond the language, and is crucial for us to remember today in the face of the climate crisis, is the importance of hope.

"Asking whether the situation was hopeless, Saunders Lewis answered yes — if we allowed ourselves to lose hope. But we didn’t, and thanks to Cymdeithas yr Iaith and many others, the language is where it is today. I think that’s a very important lesson for anyone tempted to lose hope in the face of all the various injustices of our world."

The National Wales: Direct action from Cymdeithas yr Iaith often involves placing stickers on non-bilingual road signs, such as this example in Llanidloes from 2018. Photo: Cell Maldwyn Cymdeithas yr IaithDirect action from Cymdeithas yr Iaith often involves placing stickers on non-bilingual road signs, such as this example in Llanidloes from 2018. Photo: Cell Maldwyn Cymdeithas yr Iaith

Writing in 2012, Price also condoned the ‘radical direct action’ approach often taken by Cymdeithas, and called for young Welsh speakers to go further. ‘How about… moving their own belongings into the thousands of unoccupied and under-occupied homes up and down Wales – a made-in-Wales occupy movement that could really force the pace of change?’

It would be interesting to know whether the Plaid Cymru leader still supports such an approach today.

What is certain, however, is that just as in 1962, the fate of the Welsh language hangs in the balance. Mabli Siriol says that "thanks to the work of Cymdeithas and others over the decades, we are confident the language now has a future’, but asks, ‘what kind of future?'"

Cymdeithas’ priority campaigns now include securing Welsh medium education for all, transforming the housing system, instituting an inclusive Welsh language citizenship for everyone who lives here, including universal free lessons, and securing a future for the language in the digital world.

"We don’t want a Wales where the language remains the preserve of a lucky few," says Mabli Siriol, "where every aspect of life is conducted through the medium of English but official bilingualism is used as window dressing and our economic system continues to destroy our communities."

As she warms to her theme, there is more than an echo of ‘Tynged yr Iaith’ in her words. "We want a country where every single child grows up to speak Welsh, where everyone can learn, use and enjoy the language in a meaningful way and all our communities flourish. That’s what we’re campaigning for now and what we hope to win for the decades to come."

And as another anniversary of ‘Tynged yr Iaith’ rolls around, it is instructive to revisit the whole text of Lewis’ prophecy. 

The final paragraph includes the prescient prediction "that the scorn and sneers of the English gutter journalist would be a daily burden" for any movement to preserve the use of Welsh.

And the penultimate sentence is tantalisingly ambivalent, whichever side of the independence debate you happen to be on. "Perhaps the language would bring self-government in its wake," writes Lewis, "I don’t know."

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