Hope for Celtic Studies in N America

Is there hope for Celtic Studies in North America? In its current formulation, I think not. This blog entry is a summary of this topic as explained in the Introduction to the volume Celts in the Americas, which offers an alternative course of development to the North American academy’s current approach.

Fellow academics are likely assume that Celtic Studies is merely another bastion of white, Eurocentric privilege relishing its place in the “Western” canon. The irony – obvious to anyone who’s been trained in the field – is that the very marginal status of Celtic Studies and its sad under-development is exactly due to its long exclusion from these categories. Most of what little activity in Celtic Studies exists in North America is focused on medieval Europe. It rarely gets around to exploring the themes dominant in the academy on this continent – critiques of power, privilege and exclusion – nor does it invest much effort in the stories specific to this continent, stories which no one else will tell if we don’t.

Celtic Studies is too broad a field. In its full scope, it covers some 3,000 years and much of Europe, including the languages, cultures and histories of people who had centuries and centuries of independent development (in the medieval and modern period, these are the Bretons, Cornish, Irish, Manx, Scots Gaels, and Welsh). An analogy would be replacing English Departments with Germanic Departments which would cover all branches of the Germanic languages over a 3,000 year span (Proto-Germanic, Frankish, Saxon, Norse, Gothic, Dutch, etc.), the histories of all of the people who spoke those languages, and all of their cultural expressions. It would be far too unwieldy and complex of a set of subjects, yet this is the situation in which Celtic Studies finds itself.

This dizzying array of material is simplified in the European Celtic homelands by covering common and prominent subjects but specializing in depth in the language and culture of the area itself: so, Celtic Studies in Brittany concentrates on the Breton language and culture, for example, but students who might want to learn Welsh in detail would go to a Welsh university to study it.

Whether one loves or loathes the nation-state, we cannot avoid the fact that aspects of history and culture which relate directly to the narrative of the nation get special attention and priority. Some privileged group is represented as the core of the nation and their identity, their culture and their (presumed) values are enshrined as national touchstones. Because political and economic power in the British Isles was monopolized by aggressively expansionist and self-triumphant anglophones, “Anglo-Saxonist” myths prevailed over those of the indigenous Celts, who were dismissed as primitive barbarians of a bygone age.

Despite racialized inferiority (which was quite strong in the 19th and early 20th centuries), Celts had the ability to access power and privilege in the growing empire – so long as they did so as honorary Anglo-Saxons, speaking its language, assimilating to its culture, and complying with its agenda of domination and exploitation. However, the subjugation of Celtic cultures and identities is exactly why the Celtic language family has been driven to the verge of extinction – the only Indo-European language family to find itself poised above the abyss of annihilation since the early medieval period.

The strategies and institutions created to conquer and dominate Celtic regions informed the precedents and paradigms that were instrumental in conquering and dominating other indigenous people in the formation of the British Empire. These historical experiences have important implications for understanding the history of the United States and Canada. Taking these facts into consideration will be equally important if Celtic Studies is going to have something to contribute to the reinvigoration and decolonization of the living Celtic communities that remain.

The exclusion of the roles of Celtic peoples in the deep history of Europe allows the false impression that Europe was far more homogenous than it really was, and more reliant upon the ingenuity of the Roman Empire and Germanic peoples than it really was. This problem of exclusion is even more vexed when looking at the history of the British Isles, usually assumed to be the main source of “modernity” in those survey courses about “Western” Civilization, “British” literature, etc.

All too often, “British” simply means “English,” and Celtic peoples, their literatures, languages, law systems, and other cultural expressions – ones that were substantial and influential in their times – are simply ignored. Although the North American academy has taken a decidedly critical stance when it comes to the exclusion of women and people of colour from historical consideration, Celts are rarely granted the benefits of such intellectual allies.

A new agenda needs to be set for Celtic Studies in the North American academy, one that will actually give it traction on this continent, rather than allowing it to remain an esoteric and irrelevant footnote that will dissipate as the last generation of tenured professors retires.

I would suggest that this new agenda incorporate the following issues:

  • Rather than remaining framed solely in medieval Europe, Celtic Studies as practiced in the North American academy needs to prioritize those cultural remains and expressions that are unique to this continent. Just as each Celtic homeland highlights what is unique to it and should be nurtured by its institutions, so does the United States and Canada have distinctive resources and narratives that are worthy of scrutinity.
  • North American Celtic Studies needs to push at the weak points of the imperial facades that are relied upon for the post-colonial counter-narrative. In many other fields, terms like “British,” “white,” “Eurocentric,” and “Western” are monolithic reference points that scholars of Celtic Studies are uniquely positioned to challenge, critique, disentangle and nuance.
  • North American Celtic Studies scholars need to pool their research and resources to provide coursebooks and readers that can be used by the non-specialist in survey courses that clearly articulate the accomplishments and experiences of Celtic peoples in ways that address the common concerns of the North American academy (power, privilege, exclusion, imperialism, colonialism, identity politics, etc.).

The humanities in general are under siege in the academy, and Celtic Studies occupies a rather vulnerable and marginal position in that contested ground. Unless scholars of Celtic Studies think more strategically about the formulation and emphases of the field in relation to the rest of the North American academy, it is likely to fall to more aggressive and strategic competitors, despite the legitimacy of fields developing knowledge about other subordinated peoples.

PS. [17 Nov 2013] To put it in the simplest and starkest terms, there is no recognizable community in the US which is Celtic in any meaningful way, let alone been effective in maintaining its Celticity through socio-political mechanisms (policies and institutions which would protect its language and culture) and education (institutions and practices that would ensure that its language, culture and history were taught, researched and developed). Even in Canada, the only community that would come close to qualifying is eastern Nova Scotia, and even that case is a very limited and restricted one. The marginalization of Celtic communities in their European homelands has further stymied favorable developments of this nature. Without a social and political context, it is hard to see how patronage for Celtic Studies could be stable and sufficient to thrive in North America.

Selected Bibliography

Michael Newton. “ ‘Western Civilization’ as seen by the Celtic West.” 2011.

Michael Newton, Robert Dunbar, Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin and Daniel Williams. “Introduction: The Past and Future Celt.” In Celts in the Americas, edited by Michael Newton, 5-17. Cape Breton University Press, 2013.

Celtic Poets in North America – 1st Prototype

I’m happy to say that most of the basic functionality of the first version of the system is now running. I’m currently hosting it on CloudBees at this link.

(Please note that, due to the low priority of free web-hosting, it sometimes takes a long time for dormant websites to be reactivated, and you it may timeout the first time you try the link on your browser — just try again.)

Here’s the home screen (of a previous draft):

Home

The “banner” I’ve created for the project contains two images: the image on the left is a section of a manuscript known traditionally as the Cathach of St. Columba and is dated from the late 6th century; the image on the right is the masthead of the all-Gaelic newspaper Mac-Talla, printed in Sydney, Cape Breton, from 1892 to 1904. This represents the continuity of literary tradition that the Celtic Poets in North America project is meant to represent and promote.

The user can search through the database and visualize its contents in various ways, and particularly by looking through poets and poems.

PoetsFilter

Most of the poets currently in the database are taken from my editions of Scottish Gaelic poetry from North America (including an anthology of Canadian material on which I’m currently working), although it also contains some Welsh contributions from Robert Humphries and a few Irish items I’ve gleaned from a few articles.

The screen above allows the user to look at the entries for Poets in the database, narrowing down the entries displayed by particular criteria. As you’ll see, I’ve selected three criteria: the poet must have “Iain” in his name, must be born in Scotland between the years 1750 and 1810. Note also I’ve left the default display list “As List.” So, when I push the Run filter button, I get the following list:

PoetsList

Four poets result from these criteria and we get their biographical details. If we wish to see the details about the places they were born or died, we can select the hotlinks. We can also select the associated See poems link to see the list of poems they composed.

Rather than see biographical details about the poets in textual form, we can also produce a map based on the places poets were born or died:

PoetsMap

Rather than look at individual items, we can also produce charts that summarize certain patterns in the database. This screen allows you to select the criteria for such charts:

PoetsSetChart

In this case, we’ve just specifying that we’d like to see a summary of the data regarding the state, province or county where the poets were born. Here’s the resulting chart (of the current database):

Poets1DChart

You can deal with the poems in a very similar way. Here’s the filter screen for poems.

PoemsFilter

In this case, I’ve specified that I only want to see the poems that were composed in Ontario in Scottish Gaelic that have been tagged with IDENTITY (as a major topic). Here’s the results as a list:

PoemsList

Note that for each entry (for each poem), you can select a hot link to see the details about the place where it was composed or the details about the composer. But rather than seeing lists of poems, you can also place them on maps. Here’s a map of the current poems in the database:

PoemsMap

So, as you can see, most of the functionality is in place. In the near future, I will add timelines (so that you can see poets and poems in their chronological order), and other visualization techniques.

But for now, I’d like to reiterate my call for data contributions from those of you who have details about poets who composed in Celtic languages in North America and their compositions! All contributions will be acknowledged on the home page. (Details on data formats can be seen in this previous blog.)

Celtic Poets in North America – 3

In this, my third post about the Celtic Poets in North America Digital Humanities project, I’ll describe some of the functionality I’ve designed for the system, and speculate on how it might be extended. Any comments or suggestions would be welcome.

Search Filters

In my last post, I described the characteristics of the three kinds of data. One of the most basic kinds of functions that users will do will be to browse through data after they have set search filters that narrow the data set down to what they are interested in.

For example, show me just:

  • Defined locations in Wales
  • Male poets who were born before 1800
  • Female poets who died after 1900 in Canada
  • Poems in any language dealing with war composed by men
  • Poems in Irish composed before 1800 in Canada dealing with religion

So, you can see how helpful this kind of system would be, not only for finding information but for analyzing patterns and asking research questions. For example, are there clusters of poems about death that form around well-known war events? How much discussion of war are there in inter-war periods? Leading up to major wars? How does gender and language correlate with the topic of war?

Visualization

The most basic form of browsing through the results of these search filters will be via textual lists. But lists are always not the most useful form of results, so I’m providing support for Google Maps and Simile Timelines. I’m also hoping to support graphs.

So, to return to the kind of examples given above, imagine being able to ask the system:

  • List all of the poems in Breton composed between 1939 and 1944
  • Show me a timeline of all of the female poets born in Canada
  • Show me a map of all of the poems in Welsh about morality
  • Show me a graph which compares the number of poems written in each Celtic language that deal with nature

Future Extensions

Only the bare-bones of the system are working at the moment, and I’m not even ready to publish screen shots, but I’d like to anticipate how it might be extended in the future. Such future functionality sometimes must be allowed for in data and software design.

The most obvious extension would be to allow for prose material as well as poetry: expository prose, memorates, historical narratives, folktales, etc. This would necessitate adding some kind of genre tag to items and extending the topic tags, but it probably wouldn’t have too much of a design impact. As there are a great many prose items, though, it would be a much larger commitment of data entry.

Another kind of extension would be dealing with the primary sources themselves. This project only handles the metadata: information which describes the primary texts. To date software support for Celtic language primary texts in the form of parsers, tagged texts, and natural language processing in general seems almost non-existent, and such features of Celtic languages as mutation and noun case make primary texts much more complex than those in English. Until supporting technologies appear in all of the Celtic languages so it would be beyond the capacity of this system to extend into the primary texts themselves.

It has occurred to me that it might be useful to represent and incorporate social organizations which supported literary activity and their events. For example, there have been many Scottish Gaelic organizations around North America, some of which have organized Mòds (annual musical and literary competitions) since 1893. Although the Mòd was essentially imported from Scotland, it was largely modelled on the Welsh Eisteddfod, and these Welsh events were plentiful in the United States and certainly impressed Scottish Gaels in North America (as I’ve explained in an article in eKeltoi). The main complication with this idea is the primary research on these activities is still largely undone and unwritten.

Another important aspect of literary activity that could be modelled and incorporated into the system would be books and journals printed in North America – media that contained and facilitated literary activity… Perhaps this would be the best candidate for extending the system. Just having a list and database of such items would be useful.

Are there other ways in which the system should and/or could be extended?

Celtic Poets in North America – 1

This is the first of a three part blog about a Digital Humanities project (applied to Celtic Studies) on which I’m currently working, under the working title Celtic Poets in North America. In this part I’ll discuss the rationale; in part two I’ll discuss the details of the design; in part three I’ll discuss its functionality.

Goals

Most people, inside and outside of academia, are profoundly unaware of the history  of Celtic-speaking peoples in North America, of the literary expressions that they have created (and continue to create) in Celtic languages on this continent, and how important these sources are in understanding these peoples, their cultures and their experiences. Most of this lack of consciousness is simply due to the fact that these sources themselves are very largely neglected, silent, invisible, and unexplored. As I’ve explained in the Introduction to the volume Celts in the Americas, this neglect has created a self-perpetuating obstacle to the development of the study of Celtic peoples in North America.

There are many Digital Humanities projects on the go now that enrich our understanding of peoples in the Americas, some of them attempting to make accessible rare sources or representing the voices of marginalized or under-represented communities and putting them back where they belong in the larger historical narrative. To date, so far as I am aware, Celtic peoples have not benefited from such efforts. (There are a few excellent printed books of this nature, but they are not well known outside of Celtic Studies circles and have had limited impact.) I am hopeful that an online resource, freely and publicly accessible, containing data about the poetry composed in Celtic languages in North America and the poets who composed it (wherever they were born) can help to change this sad state of affairs.

The database will be inclusive of all poets composing in Breton, Cornish, Irish, Manx, Scottish Gaelic or Welsh, including those still alive – so long as their texts were composed on this continent. At this stage of design and implementation, however, I only plan on storing the metadata about these texts and people, including where the original sources can be found. That will at least be enough to bring them to peoples’ attention.

Users will be able to browse through the data, filtering items based on various criteria and viewing the results as lists, timelines or Google Maps. This will provide very powerful tools for finding texts and authors, researching and analyzing patterns, and visualizing them.

Finding the Celtic

I was awarded a Digital Initiatives grant by the NEH in the 2007-8 funding cycle to create a Digital Humanities project that I called Finding the Celtic. It was an online digital collaboratory that stored metadata about digital resources stored elsewhere (a strategy often called federated database services).

Image

I did not have to build Finding the Celtic from scratch: instead, I customized the ARC/Collex system that was then under construction at the ARP Lab at the University of Virginia.

Still, creating Finding the Celtic was a complex challenge for a number of reasons. The code base for the ARC/Collex system was still changing and hence I had to modify a moving target. Furthermore, I naively believed in the film motto, that ”If I build it, they will come.” Surely other Celtic Studies scholars or institutions would want to contribute meta-data that would highlight their resources in a central repository – a “virtual museum” – where everyone could admire the ingenuity of Celtic cultural expression over a long period of time.

However, it was not to be. I entered metadata about 250 items by myself but received little other input. Many digital repositories for European cultural heritage have been built in the last 6 years, however, using a fairly standard metadata tagging system, so it might be much easier to collect such materials now.

This project is of a different nature than Finding the Celtic, which was meant to deal with all manner of artifacts from Celtic Europe. This project will be specific to North America and only deal with poets and poetry – at least in its present conception.

Like the previous project, however, Celtic Poets in North America will be greatly enhanced and strengthened if other scholars can contribute the information that they have to this system. While I plan on entering a few hundred entries about Scottish Gaelic poets and poems, I know very little about Breton, Cornish, Irish, Manx and Welsh equivalents.

In my next blog I’ll describe the data design. If you can contribute your specialized knowledge to this collective Celtic collaborative, we’ll all be the wiser for it.

Launching the blog

As part of re-entering the Digital Humanities world, I’m launching this blog, which I’m calling The Virtual Gael, playing on various associations of the term “virtual.”

  • I was not born into a Gaelic-speaking family or community, but have learnt to speak, read and write Gaelic fairly well. Am I virtually a Gael? (Let’s leave those worms in the can. I only refer to myself as a Gaelic speaker.)
  • I see my work as contributing to Gaelic communities’ cultural reclamation efforts – although the members of these communities and the resources involved are widely dispersed. Nowadays, social media enables global communication and collaboration so that users can form “virtual communities.”
  • I exploit digital tools and technology – “virtual technologies” – to create content and carry out my research.

So, I’ll be using this blog to weave several different strands of my work and thought processes together. It will allow me:

  • To share my work on digital tools and content and solicit your responses. My next blog post will be about my new digital humanities project, which I’m currently calling Celtic Poets in North America.
  • To share odd bits of Scottish Gaelic research and ideas that don’t necessarily fit into scholarly journals. For example, in another post coming up soon I’ll reveal a Gaelic poem composed by a native of the Isle of Bute that I came across lately: tobar ainneamh is annasach!
  • To express my opinions about Gaelic revitalization, the neglect of Celtic sources in academia (especially in North America), the misrepresentation of Celtic peoples (especially Scottish Gaels) in popular culture, and the need to apply modern critical methods (especially post-colonialism) to modern Celtic Studies in North America.
  • To review and discussion new publications (my own and those of others).
  • To discuss anything else that yanks my chain, rocks my boat, or chaps my hide. Fire faire!

And, by the way, I can’t write polished text at one go — I find myself rewriting and editing blogs for at least another day after my initial draft!