Research in Celtic Studies

a medieval manuscript folio with text in IrishWhat is Celtic Studies?

Celtic Studies is the study of a group of closely related Indo-European languages, and the material culture created by speakers of these languages. The discipline studies the Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Manx Gaelic, Welsh, Breton, and Cornish languages, and the literature, history, music, folklore, art, and archaeology of those who speak them. The field of Celtic Studies is interdisciplinary, and uses theories and research methods from the fields of linguistics, anthropology, archaeology, history, literature, sociology, and art history.

Why study Celtic Studies?

At one time Celtic languages were spoken across much of Europe and Anatolia. The cultures of these ancient Celtic language speakers have influenced many parts of Western culture. Today Celtic languages are mostly spoken in northwestern Europe, but modern speakers of these languages have moved all around the world, and have taken their language and their culture with them. Celtic Studies helps us understand, not only the languages and cultures of one region of the world, but also some of the influences which have shaped parts of many cultures around the world. 

A degree in Celtic Studies teaches a range of transferable skills which can be used in any career. Learning Celtic languages builds language skills. Studying the history, literature, practices and art of Celtic language speakers develops analytical skills. Most importantly, interdisciplinary studies of cultures helps us to better understand ourselves, others, and the world.

Image: Harvard University, Houghton Library, MS Ir 6, iii v (seq. 8).  
Image Source: digital scan of Leabhar Branach (The book of the O’Byrnes)

Celtic Languages and Literatures at Harvard

Harvard Celtic Colloquium publication cover

The Department of Celtic Languages and Literatures at Harvard University offers programs for both undergraduate and graduate students, and is the only graduate degree-granting Celtic Studies department in the United States. At Harvard, students can study Irish, Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, and, to an extent, Breton. 

The beginnings of Celtic Studies at Harvard

Celtic languages and literatures have been studied at Harvard since 1896 when Fred Norris Robinson became a professor at the university. Robinson had graduated from Harvard with degrees in English Philosophy, before going on to study Celtic philology in Freiburg, Germany under the famous scholar, Rudolf Thurneysen. Upon returning to Harvard as an instructor, Robinson offered courses in Irish language and literature, in addition to courses in medieval English language and literature, his principal field.

Fred Norris Robinson Celtic Seminar Library

In 1966, Fred Norris Robinson bequeathed his substantial collection of books related to all different aspects of Celtic Studies to Harvard. This collection became the Fred Norris Robinson Celtic Seminar Library. The library is located inside Harvard's Widener Memorial Library, in Widener Study K, and is open to current undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and staff in the Department of Celtic Languages and Literatures. Other scholars who wish to access the materials in the collection can request permission to do so.

The department is established

The Department of Celtic Languages and Literatures was established in 1940 through a gift from the Charitable Irish Society in Boston by one Henry Lee Shattuck. Shattuck believed that Harvard, as an institution, had a role in promoting the importance of Gaelic language, literature, and art in American culture, as both a historical influence on it and an integrated part of it.  

Harvard and Celtic Studies research

The Department of Celtic Languages and Literatures is a leader in Celtic Studies research in North America. A member of the department was one of the founders of the Celtic Studies Association of North America and the department is active both nationally and internationally in the field. Harvard holds significant collections of scholarship related to Celtic Studies, as well as collections of research, including collections of manuscripts and fieldwork recordings of folklore. It also supports research through collaboration with other Celtic Studies programs, hosting lectures and seminars, as well as the Harvard Celtic Colloquium. The department has been home to a number of prominent scholars in the field, including John, V. Kelleher, Kenneth H. Jackson, Vernam Hull, and Patrick K. Ford. Among the Visiting Professors have been Angela Bourke, William Gillies, Máire Herbert, Jerry Hunter, Proinsias MacCana, Brian Ó Cuív, and J.E. Caerwyn Williams.

Image: Harvard University Department of Celtic Languages and Literatures, Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium 38 (2018): publication cover.
Image Source: Harvard University Press publication cover