Things To Do in Cornwall | Esedhvos Festival of Cornish Culture
I had the privilege to attend the Esedhvos Festival in St. Just, where I had a warm welcome and learned a lot! This gathering is held every year at a different location in Cornwall to celebrate Cornwall’s distinctive identity and Celtic heritage, recognized under the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.
The Festival is conducted by Gorsedh Kernow, an organization that exists to maintain the national Celtic spirit of Cornwall. Their members preserve Celtic history and culture through the traditions of poetry, song, dance, music, art and spoken word.
The bards of Gorsedh Kernow, who have each sworn allegiance to Cornwall as a Celtic nation, help maintain the national Celtic spirit of Cornwall by studying their own Cornish history and the Cornish language and literature, art, music, dance and sport. They actively promote strong links between Cornwall, other Celtic countries and the wider diaspora, and help promote a spirit of peace and co-operation among those who love Cornwall.
I was excited to attend the festival and witness a community coming together to celebrate their heritage. As someone of Irish ancestry, I felt a kinship with the Cornish appreciation for storytelling and maintaining traditions. After arriving in St. Just’s Market Square, I asked at the King’s Arms, a 14th century inn, where I would find the Gorsedh Kernow festival. I was directed to Cape Cornwall Street a couple of blocks away. Asking yet again, I was told that the bards would be gathering for a procession in about an hour’s time and to keep an eye out, that I wouldn’t be able to miss them. I wasn’t sure how or why I would necessarily know who they were or where they were converging, but I was hungry and had spotted the Cook Book Cafe, which looked promising. I wasn’t disappointed and had a fabulous bowl of soup with some brown bread while I awaited the start of the festivities. My stomach full, I stepped outside to find a a stream of people garned in sky blue robes flowing past me and I set off after them.
The bards were falling into what was a very long line and were clearly enjoying themselves, with smiles all around and a lot of laughter. A number of people carried banners proclaiming where they hailed from, with a contingent from as far away as Australia. The procession then began to move and I followed as they made their way to the The Plen-an-Gwari, which is Cornish for ‘Playing Place’ or ‘Place of the Play’. This grassy public area is one of only two surviving original medieval amphitheaters of scores believed to have been constructed across Cornwall to perform religious community miracle plays in the Cornish language. On high days and holidays, the Plen was used for tin miners rock drilling competitions and by the Methodists Sunday School tea-treats. More recently the site has been host to the Cornish Gorsedh, and many fairs, barn dances, music and theatre performances.
Since the inception of Gorsedh Kernow, well over a thousand bards have been created, of which more than half are still alive. Not all are Cornish, and not all are resident in Cornwall. There are bards in Australia and North America, invited to become bards because of their work promoting Cornwall to the emigrant families in those countries, and many of these make the long trip to Cornwall to be initiated into the Gorsedh and attend the Gorsedh ceremonies.
A person who is considered worthy of bardship must be proposed by an existing bard, who is required to submit a citation to the Gorsedh in support of his or her candidate. Citations must be presented without the knowledge of the person being nominated. Each nominee is in turn considered by the Gorsedh Council and, if found satisfactory, she or he is duly invited to become a bard. Bards choose a Bardic name in Cornish, which is generally relevant to their place of birth, their particular vocation or the work which has led them to be invited into the Gorsedh. The names of these new bards are not made public until shortly before their official acceptance into the Gorsedh, now always held on the first Saturday in September.
Gorsedh means ‘a Bardic assembly’. It comes from the ancient Celtic word meaning ‘high seat’ or ‘throne’. Bard derives from the name given by Greek writers to the poets and musicians associated with priests and Druids. Originally the term bard was generally conferred upon all professional poets. Bards were very prestigious people and often the closest personal ties existed between them and their patrons. Head of all the bards in the Gorsedh was, and still is, the Grand Bard whose symbol of authority is the great chair in which he or she sits.
Bards of Gorsedh Kernow are involved in many projects, such as teaching the Cornish language at evening classes and in school and liaising with other Cornish cultural organisations, historical and modern, to foster renewed interest in Cornwall.
The revival of Gorsedh Kernow began in 1928 with the initiation of 12 Bards together with Cornwall’s first Grand Bard, Henry Jenner. Strong links are maintained with other Celtic countries like Wales and Brittany and with Cornish Australians and citizens from other parts of the Diaspora, where some of the current 496 Bards reside. Through groups, societies, events, competitions and ceremonies Gorsedh Kernow offers non-profit making support and education that upholds Cornish Celtic culture and history.
The efforts of Gorsedh Kernow appear to be resonating. The event was well attended by a large crowd who were attentively engaged in the program, which was conducted in Cornish. Despite having no ability to comprehend the language, I, too, felt moved by the speech of the Grand Bard, which was clearly impassioned, whatever your language.