Gorsedd y Beirdd Ynys Prydain (The Gorsedd of Bards of the Island of Britain) was founded in 1792 by Iolo Morganwg as part of his project to imaginatively re-construct druidry. The insititution has survived with the same name up until the present and is closely associated with The National Eisteddfod of Wales. The Gorsedd performs ceremonies such as the announcement of the annual Eisteddfod festival, the presentation ceremonies of the main literary prizes in the Eisteddfod pavilion and the setting of the competitions for those prizes, including the tasks to be fulfilled by those competing for the Chair (a long poem in cynghanedd, using the strict metres) and for the Crown (a poem in the ‘free’ metres). The Gorsedd also honours practitioners in the other arts and those who have contributed the cultural life of Wales and in the Welsh language, conferring druid robes of white, green or blue for different categories to be worn when taking part in the Gorsedd ceremonies.
This year a proposal to change the name simply to ‘Gorsedd Cymru’ was announced. This has caused some controversy. Those in favour welcome the acknowledgement that the Gorsedd now has a far wider remit than poetry and that it is a specifically Welsh institution and the name should recognise that. Those against deplore the break with the tradition going back to Iolo Morganwg who also devised many of the ceremonies on which the current practices of the Gorsedd are still based. But the main objection is that the name change also breaks the link with the practice of composing poetry in the language inherited from the earlier inhabitants of Britain according to rules devised by the medieval bards who sought to define and continue that earlier tradition.
The arguments and counter-arguments are essentially those of pragmatists, identifying a need to work with current realities and present a modern image, against idealists who see the Gorsedd as embodying an expression of Welsh life inherited from a time when the Bards of the Island of Britain were just that. They see the proposed name change as undermining an important idea at the centre of Welsh identity: that the Welsh language, and the bardic tradition expressed in that language, continues a cultural thread that binds the modern inhabitants of Wales to the Brythonic-speaking peoples who inhabited Britain when the Romans invaded and who continued to speak that language in spite of the dominant influences of Latin and, later, the first English speakers.
Identity and tradition are tricky things which need to evolve and to adapt in order to survive. But they also need to retain certain characteristic features to continue evolving rather than simply being replaced by something else. Does ‘Gorsedd Cymru’ replace the idea that Welsh is the language of the bards of the Island of Britain with an acknowledgement that it is simply the language of the people of Wales? And if so, does this reinforce the sense of Wales as a separate part of of Britain or does it undermine an essential aspect of the identity which underlies and reinforces that sense of separateness?