Saturday, 25 November 2017

The Collapse of Welsh in Much of Southern Gwynedd

The district of Meirionydd, is
today part of  Gwynedd but 
was one of Wales's 13 count-
  ies before 1974.                       
Like the piece that I wrote on Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire, this is not a topic that I would have liked to have to write about, but like with those two counties, this is also a topic that I feel needs to be discussed.

Meirionydd, the home of Hedd Wyn, of the endemic Gwyniad, of the beautiful moutains of southern Snowdonia such as Cadair Idris and Aran Fawddwy, and of Harlech castle, was for much of the 20th century, the most Welsh-speaking and least anglicised area of Wales.

Today however, much has changed and primary school children who speak Welsh at home are now in the minority, where in the rest of Gwynedd, a majority of children do still speak Welsh at home.

The following table shows how the percentage of primary school children speaking Welsh at Home in Meirionydd has fallen since the 1950s:

Table 1.

The situation in Meirionydd is, however, by no means uniform and the district is sharply divided geographically - schools in the north and east are very much majority Welsh-at-Home while those in southern and coastal Meirionydd on the whole are not.  This is generally true of both of urban and rural areas; here is how the percentage of primary school children speaking Welsh at home varies among the different towns in Meirionydd:

Table 2.

So why, how and when did so much of Meirionydd become Anglicised?

Some History
 As you can see, Meirionydd still had a majority of its Primary School children speaking Welsh at home in the mid 1970s, and possible much more recently than that given that the figure is still in the high 40s.  However, the beginnings of Anglicization go back much further than that.

Here are the percentages of children aged 3-4 years old in Meirionydd's urban districts who could speak Welsh in 1921
Table 3.
As you can see, even 96 years ago, Barmouth was already an anglicised town.  I happen to know that the percentage in 1911 was above 50%, but unfortunately the figures from 1911 are not available on the website HISTPOP.ORG and so I don't have the exact figure on me right now.  

Either way, the seaside resort of Barmouth was the first to be anglicised, with the other seaside resort, Tywyn being so later on, most likely during the interwar period.  Thus, during the Second World War, Merionydd was still a strongly Welsh-speaking county, but with its two resort towns being anglicised enclaves, perhaps a bit like the Costal Del Sol.  

As for the rural parishes on the Meirionydd coastline, in 1931, they were solidly Welsh-speaking, with a considerable number of them having more than 90% of their respective populations speaking Welsh.  However, their Anglicization would follow that of the resort towns, and by 1961, an obvious coast-hinterland divide had clearly emerged:  
The Percentage of the Population speaking Welsh
by parish in 1961.                                                  
Nevertheless, the hinterland of even Southern Meirionydd was still strongly Welsh-speaking at this time, and the town of Dolgellau had more than 80% of its inhabitants speaking Welsh in 1961, although this would drop to 73% by 1971.  

By the mid-1970s, however, the overall situation looked much like it does today.  By 1974, of the five secondary school catchment areas, only two had a majority of their primary school children speaking Welsh at home; Y Moelwyn (Ffestiniog area): 77%, Y Berwyn (Bala area): 78%, while the primary schools in the Dolgellau, Tywyn and Harlech areas were at 49%, 36% and 44%, respectively.  

The Town of Dolgellau
The 1974 figures also provide a breakdown of the number of schools in each area by Welsh-at-home levels.  The fact that six out of the ten primary schools in and around Dolgellau had Welsh-at-home majorities but that only 49% of pupil population of those ten schools put together spoke Welsh at home suggests that the largest of those ten schools, that Dolgellau town itself, was majority non-Welsh-at-home and that therefore the Anglicization of Dolgellau town happened rapidly between 1961 and 1974.

I've always been puzzled by the situation of Welsh in the town of Dolgellau.  On the one hand, in 2011, 64% of the town's population said that they could speak Welsh, suggesting that the town was majority Welsh-speaking, yet school figures clearly show otherwise.  Whenever I have asked people from Meirionydd about the situation there, they have said that it is indeed, 'not very Welsh.'

Accent Change
Indeed, recently, I encountered someone who remarked that in Dolgellau, they now speak with a 'strong Cockney/Manchester accent' but that in Barmouth it sounded more 'Brummie.'  Indeed, most of my friends at University who were from the anglicised areas of Gwynedd, such as Dolgellau, Barmouth and Harlech, had English-sounding accents, and one remarked that few/none of his school friends had had 'Welsh accents'.

It seems therefore, that not only is Meirionydd divided when it comes to language, it is also divided when it comes to accent - particularly among the younger generation.  Whereas people from Welsh-speaking areas will have 'strong Welsh accents' when they speak English, those from the Anglicised areas will often be mistaken for being English.

This situation is very different to South Wales, where most people's accents are distinctively 'Welsh-sounding' even though most people there are, of course, non-Welsh-speaking. 

The Future
Will Meirionydd's remaining Welsh-speaking communities stay Welsh-speaking or will they become like Dolgellau or Barmouth in the future?

The good news is that the percentage of primary school children in Blaenau Ffestiniog speaking Welsh at Home actually increased between 2013 and 2017, from 73.3% to 77.0%, suggesting that the regeneration of the town and the opening of the zip-world tourist attraction has not hurt the Welsh language there.

The bad news is what has happened elsewhere in northern Meirionydd.  Of the fourteen primary schools in this half of Meirionydd, ten saw a decrease during those four years, and in six schools it was a drop of more than 5%. 

In Hedd Wyn's home parish, the percentage of children speaking Welsh at home in the two primary schools (Ysgol Bro Hedd Wyn and Ysgol Edmwnd Prys) fell from 83.9% in 2013 to 72.6% in 2017, while in the town of Bala, the percentage of children speaking Welsh at Home from 60.3% to 49.6% just in those four years alone.  (!!)

That alone, is deeply worrying.  

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