Celebrating Wales - in America
Dr Megan Williams is the executive secretary of the North American Festival of Wales. Her ancestors come from New Tredegar in the Rhymney Valley. Organised by volunteers from the Welsh North American Association, the weekend celebration has helped to raise the profile of Wales in the United States in recent years and is helping to dispel the myth that England and Wales are the same country. In 2017, the festival was held in Rochester New York.
But how did this festival come about - and what’s in store for this year’s festival?
From the Welsh North American Association International Headquarters in Trumansburg, New York - the association represents hundreds of ancestors, friends of Wales and Welsh expats living within the United States. Formerly known as ‘The Welsh National Gymanfa Ganu Association’, the group changed their name in 2011 to better represent the modern group it has become.
The weekend festival offers attendees a varied program all about Wales. It’s an annual event which moves to various host cities within the United States and Canada, attracting attendees from over 30 states and provinces as well as visitors from Wales.
The tradition began in 1929 when Welsh from across North America gathered in Goat Island, Niagara Falls and held the first annual national gymanfa ganu. The weekend grew in popularity and began to incorporate additional events, all with the purpose of preserving and promoting Welsh culture. The festival is now an opportunity to meet with old friends and find new ones - all while learning about Wales.
Festival attendees don’t just enjoy the opportunity to enjoy concerts and shopping for Welsh goods from the many stallholders though, the programme includes various seminars on a broad spectrum of Welsh related topics covering historical aspects of Welsh culture and contemporary Wales.
Seminars at last summer’s festival included a workshop on the People’s Collection Wales, presented by the National Library; Dragon’s Fire, looking at Wales’s success in the Olympic and Paralympic games as well as a seminar by author Angela John, Before stardom, looking at Burton, Hopkins and Sheen.
The festival is also an opportunity for an introduction to the Welsh language, a place to enjoy new Welsh film releases (and classics like Hedd Wyn), attend a ‘mini Eisteddfod, a Welsh tearoom and a Marketplace to stock up on the all-important Welsh cakes (among other things!).
The evening entertainment at the festival represents a variety of Welsh music, past and present with concerts from some of Wales’ performers such as Sera, Steffan Lloyd Owen and the and Welsh Broadway Star John Owen Jones.
There’s also an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of Welsh people who contribute to raising Wales’ profile on the international stage, with awards and special recognition awarded to outstanding contenders at the festival’s banquet celebration.
Last summer’s festival featured the 86th National gymanfa ganu - and the gymanfa tradition remains strong in the North American community. For the uninitiated, a gymanfa ganu is a festival of sacred hymns - usually sung in a four part harmony in churches and village halls all over Wales. Megan Williams outlines why these melodic hymns are still a core part of the festival’s celebrations.
“Singing hymns is what reminds people of their ancestors and how they kept the Welsh language and traditions alive after emigrating in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Evenings at the festival are lively as after events end, attendees gather in the bar for late night singing and a drink or two…”
And what about this year’s festival? Will the festival be able to top last year’s offering in New York? Megan certainly thinks so!
"Plans are already well underway for this year’s festival which will move to the Washington, D.C. area. The focus will be on modern day Wales and we will hold seminars that look at issues like Brexit and the impact it will have on Wales, Welsh food and beverage, tourism and more! The evening events will welcome TRIO Cymru, National Eisteddfod winner John Ieuan Jones and the London based Welsh male chorus Eschoir. We also welcome the return of Eilir Owen Griffiths who will conduct the 87th National gymanfa ganu…"
"Washington is an excellent location to highlight ties between North America and Wales and we’re expecting a very large turnout.”
We’ll see you there!"
The North American Festival of Wales 2018 will be held between August 30th-September 2nd at the Hilton Alexandria Mark Centre, 5000 Seminary Road, Alexendria, VA, 223311.
Accommodation bookings for the festival are available at the Hilton Alexandria Mark Center; rooms are $102 a night plus tax. To join the North American Festival of Wales’ email list or for additional information on Welsh activities in North America, email: IHQ@thewnaa.org