History of Celtic Studies at UC Berkeley

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 (1909-10) a “Reader in Irish” named Joseph O’Hegarty, who apparently had no university degrees and who 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 Adviser” 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.

The largest collection of Celtic scholars, students, and research materials (outside of Harvard’s Widener Library) is in the University of California system. U.C.L.A. has the Celtic specialist, Joseph F. Nagy, in its English department and offers Celtic as an option in its graduate Indo-European Studies program. At Berkeley, Professors Daniel F. Melia, Eve Sweetser, and Gary Holland, have primary research interests in Celtic languages and literature, as do Drs. Kathryn Klar and Annalee Rejhon; Professors Robert Tracy and David Lloyd (English), David Cohen (Rhetoric), and Thomas Brady (History) have partial or collateral interests.

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. Such was the case in 1976 when Kathryn Klar, then a graduate student in Linguistics, approached the Comparative Literature department to teach a Middle Welsh course. This was a period when Celtic courses were taught only sporadically by those faculty whose departments would allow them to staff the occasional offering. Those who kept the Celtic flame alight in this period were: the late Brendan O Hehir of the Department of English, who came to be the first chair of the present Celtic Studies Program, and whose presence is sorely missed; Daniel Melia, subsequent chair of the Program; and Blake Lee Spahr, now Professor Emeritus in the Department of German. In 1978 Spahr offered a modern Welsh course and asked another graduate student (in French) at the time, Annalee Rejhon, to take over the second quarter of his course. Both Klar and Rejhon had studied with Melia, and Rejhon had also studied with Spahr before conducting dissertation research in Wales; they went on to teach Welsh courses in Comparative Literature for ten years until these became part of the Celtic Studies Program.

Celtic material has formed a part of several doctoral dissertations and master’s theses at Berkeley, with a notable increase in students with serious research interests in Celtic dating from the early 1970’s. The present Celtic Colloquium, a student organization, was formed in Rejhon’s Spring 1979 Middle Welsh course and was founded primarily to organize the First California Celtic Studies Conference. At this day-long symposium one of the invited speakers was Patrick Ford of U.C.L.A., now Margaret Brooks Robinson Professor of Celtic at Harvard, who suggested the conference be continued each year, and that it be held alternately at U.C.L.A. and Berkeley. Such has been the case since then and as the stature of the conference has grown so has its length–now four days. The conference has become increasingly important in the international world of Celtic scholarship. Several of the meetings have been held in conjunction with the annual national meeting of the Celtic Studies Association of North America (CSANA). As for the Celtic Colloquium, it continues to organize the biennial conferences as well as individual talks during the academic year.