Although the formal teaching of Celtic languages in North American universities almost certainly began in 1896 when Fred Norris Robinson was given permission by President Eliot to teach them within the English department at Harvard, the first degree-granting program in Celtic languages and literatures in North America began in the academic year 1911-12 at the University of California, Berkeley.
The idea for this Celtic program appears originally to have been Charles Mills Gayley’s. A Dubliner by birth, who had known Celticists such as Sir John Rhys at Oxford, Gayley was keenly interested in native Irish literature and helped to bring Yeats and other figures of the Irish literary renaissance to California to lecture and read. In 1905 he met and encouraged a young undergraduate named William Whittingham (“Jack”) Lyman, a native Californian, to major in English. He later introduced Lyman to Yeats and other Irish writers and scholars. When Lyman had taken his M.A. in English, Gayley arranged for him to receive a university fellowship to travel to Oxford to study Celtic with Rhys. After a year at Oxford, Lyman spent two years at Harvard studying Irish with Fred Norris Robinson. In the meantime, the University of California English department had appointed a “Reader in Irish” named Joseph O’Hegarty in 1909-1910. O’Hegarty apparently had no university degrees and disappears from the University catalogue when Lyman returns to take up a post as Instructor in Celtic (then a tenure-track position) within the English department in 1911-12. In the same year, Celtic appears on the list of approved majors in the College of Letters and Science and in the following year Lyman is named also as “Graduate Advisor” in Celtic.
The teaching of Celtic languages and culture has been more or less continuous on the Berkeley campus since 1909. After Lyman’s departure in 1922 there was a two-year hiatus, but in 1924, Ella Young, then a highly regarded Irish poet, was hired by the English department as the “James D. Phelan Lecturer in Irish Myth and Lore,” a position she filled for ten years. By the time she left, the English department had appointed Arthur Hutson, a student of Robinson’s, and he continued throughout his long service to the department and the campus to offer courses in Old Irish and other Celtic subjects, and is largely responsible for the excellent library holdings in Celtic areas.
Activity has been sustained at Berkeley by several generations of faculty and students, originally chosen for or attracted by other disciplines, with a vital interest in the subject matter. The 1970s in particular saw a flourishing of scholars in Celtic Studies at UC Berkeley, with a notable increase in students with serious research interests in Celtic. This period ultimately led to a transformation of the Celtic Studies Program into what it is today, with Brendan O Hehir becoming its first chair in 1989. Other key figures in this period were Kathryn Klar, Daniel Melia, Annalee Rejhon, and, a bit later, Eve Sweetser. The influence of this group was felt beyond the Berkeley campus, as they participated in the foundation of the Celtic Studies Association of North America, and founded the California Celtic Studies Conference. The first meeting of the conference was organized by the Celtic Colloquium, a student organization born out of Rejhon’s Middle Welsh class in 1979. At that meeting it was suggested by speaker Patrick Ford, then of UCLA and since Margaret Brooks Robinson Professor Emeritus of Celtic at Harvard, that the conference continue annually and be held alternately at UC Berkeley and UCLA. So it was until disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic; the 42nd Annual Meeting was held in 2020 at UCLA, concluding as the world came to a standstill.
The Celtic Studies Program thrived over the decades under the stewardship of O Hehir, Klar, Melia, Rejhon, and particularly of Eve Sweetser, who was Director of the Program from 1996-97, 2006-09, and 2011-23. Together, they cultivated the Program and supported generations of students, including current lecturer Myriah Williams. In recent years the Celtic Studies Program has seen both reinvigoration and loss. Thomas Walsh and Eddie Stack joined the Program in 2010 and 2011, respectively, though both have sadly now passed. They each brought passion, dedication, and knowledge that will long be remembered by their students, colleagues, and the Celtic Studies Program. Friends of Celtic Studies, Gary Holland and Robert Tracy, passed in 2019 and 2020, respectively. Retirements, too, have led to substantial changes in the Celtic Studies Program. Though they both continued teaching on recall for a number of years, Kathryn Klar became emerita in 2012 and Daniel Melia became emeritus in 2013. More recently Annalee Rejhon became emerita in 2021, and Eve Sweetser stepped down as Program Director at her retirement in 2023. Professor Eric Falci, of the Department of English, has joined the Celtic Studies Program as its new Director as of 2023. He, together with lecturers Matthew Shelton, hired in 2022, and Myriah Williams, with the Program since 2018, serve as a new generation of scholars in the Celtic Studies Program. It is their hope to continue to foster students and welcome new voices to the field of Celtic Studies for decades to come.