Celtic Scholars Find Home at Harvard

Harvard faced a Celtic invasion last weekend as scholars from across the country and Europe attended the 23rd annual Celtic Colloquium hosted by the Department of Celtic Languages and Literatures.

Harvard is home to the only graduate program in Celtic studies in the nation, and its reputation is excellent even across the Atlantic in the Celtic countries of Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

“Tomás Ó Cathasaigh is a world figure in his field,” says Colloquium presenter Marion Deane of the University of Ulster, in reference to Harvard’s Shattuck professor of Irish studies. “The fact that he is here stimulated me to come here.”

Harvard has had a separate Department of Celtic Languages and Literatures since 1940, and courses in the Celtic field have been offered since 1896.


According to Department Chair Patrick K. Ford, who is also the Robinson professor of Celtic languages and literatures, Harvard’s department is “tremendously strong,” due in large part to the University’s collections.

Harvard boasts vast Celtic resources, including over 10,000 books and many original manuscripts, making it a necessary destination for those interested in Celtic studies.


“Our Celtic collection is one of the best in the world,” Ford says. “Scholars come from Dublin, Edinburgh or universities in Wales, and they just drool. It’s an astonishing collection.”

Celtic studies is an interdisciplinary field which includes the study of the six existing Celtic languages—Cornish, Manx, Breton, Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Welsh—along with the traditional and modern literature, mythology, history, law, folklore and religious tradition of the Celtic countries.

As Harvard’s unique graduate program indicates, scholars solely dedicated to Celtic studies are often hard to come across in the United States.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, only about 175 academics and graduate students belong to the Celtic Studies Association of North America, and of those only 40 focus primarily on the field. Many others are first and foremost scholars of history, English literature, linguistics, anthropology or archaeology.

While student interest in Celtic courses at Harvard and elsewhere appears to be healthy and even growing, the department and budding programs at other American universities face great difficulty expanding due to this limited number of scholars and restricted resources.

Celtic Tide

Celtic programs are springing up at places like the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Wisconsin at Madison, says Dorothy Africa, one of the Celtic Colloquium organizers.

“Celtic studies are experiencing a resurgence,” Africa says.

Students “flock” to Celtic courses at schools such as Berkeley and the University of Washington at Seattle, according to the Chronicle, lured at first by the prevalence of Celtic references in popular culture and the entertaining tales of violence, romance and adventure found in the Celtic tradition.

According to Ford, the University of Notre Dame just received “an enormous grant” to start an Irish language-based program, while schools such as UCLA and the Catholic University of America have resident Celticists but no official programs.