Fall 2020

Visit Celtic courses at the Harvard Course Catalog


Breton 122. Introduction to Modern Breton. Joseph Nagy (with Myrzinn Boucher-Durand). Time TBD. Meets four times a week. An introduction to the basic grammar of the standard spoken language of Brittany, a region of coastal western Europe deeply rooted in the Celtic tradition. Emphasis will be on pronunciation and conversational skills, but attention will also be paid to the cultural, historical, and folkloric background to this Celtic language. Included among the readings will be simple folk texts.


Celtic 110. The Celtic Arthur. Joseph Nagy. MW 10:30-11:45. We will be reading, in translation, the earliest surviving British Celtic texts featuring the figure of Arthur as well as the prototypes of the legendary figures (such as Merlin, Tristan, Isolde, and Guinevere) popularly associated with him. We will also study the historical context behind the evolution of Arthur from Roman Britain to the era of the Norman Conquest and its aftermath; possible analogs to "Celtic Arthur" and Arthurian tales in Irish tradition; reflections of Arthur in Celtic folklore; and Celtic elements in the treatment of Arthurian story in more recent cultures, including operas and films.


Celtic 209. Ireland 1600-1800: Upheaval and Adaptation. Natasha Sumner. F 1:30-4:15. The two centuries considered in this course witnessed some of the most dramatic and fateful changes in Irish history and, indeed, of the British Empire. The period opens in the midst of armed rebellion linking Gaelic Ireland with Catholic allies from continental Europe which threatened to throw off English monarchical control of the island; it closes on the eve of the Act of Union which would see Ireland legislatively linked to England, Scotland, and Wales. In spite of the political dominance of English crown and Parliament, and the cultural destruction wrought by settler colonialism, Ireland’s majority across those 200 years remained Irish-speaking. What do the voices of those witnesses to upheaval tell us about history, culture, colonialism and the character of “modernity” more broadly?

This cross-disciplinary graduate seminar, co-taught by Natasha Sumner (Harvard) and Brendan Kane (University of Connecticut), pairs a consideration of the major historiographical questions associated with early modern Ireland with close study of Irish-language poetry and prose of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In a time of regular conflict and drastic sociopolitical change for the island’s Irish-speaking majority, we will consider authors’ preoccupations in relation to historical events, and explore their changing creative impulses. Broad historical themes such as the emergence of modern imperialism and state formation will be investigated, and macro-historical themes will be tested through localized case studies. From a literary perspective, critical issues to be deliberated include, but are not limited to, the role(s) of the poet in society, tradition and innovation, orality, and intertextuality. Weekly readings will be drawn from primary sources and historical and literary scholarship, and translations of primary sources will be available. Engagement with the secondary historical literature is intended both to set the literary texts in context and to explore questions of methodology, theory, and argument in working with Irish sources.

The seminar is designed to be accessible to graduate students specializing in either history or literature (in Irish or English). Students from other disciplines are also welcome, and are encouraged to contact the instructors with questions: nsumner@g.harvard.edu; brendan.kane@uconn.edu.

N.B.: This course will be taught concurrently at the University of Connecticut and in the event that in-person instruction is permitted, some of our meetings may take place at UConn.

There are no prerequisites. Competence in Irish would be helpful, but is not required.


Celtic 231. Uncertainly Wonderful: Welsh and Irish Literature Read Again. Aled Llion Jones. Th 12-2. A chance to read (and to reread) some of the central texts of the medieval ‘canon’, both prose and poetry, alongside more ‘marginal’ medieval works. These will be mainly Welsh, but also Irish: e.g., prose legends; political prophecy; poetry of love, praise, mockery and insult. By considering a range of critical studies of these texts, as well as comparative theory and relevant modern rethinkings, our aim will be to develop and focus our own approaches. We ask ourselves which contexts we find relevant, what genres we see being created, and what ways of reading we consider most useful. We know these texts to be wonderful: why exactly is that?

The course is intended to be broadly interdisciplinary and conversation is encouraged between readers and rereaders: students with new perspectives and fresh eyes are welcomed from all areas of study. Relevant Welsh and Irish texts will be provided in translation, though students with relevant linguistic knowledge will be encouraged to engage with the original languages, and with a wider range of texts. Additional close-reading sessions may be arranged.


Irish 132. Introduction to Modern Irish. Natasha Sumner (with Nicholas Thyr). Time TBD. Meets four times a week. Irish is the first official language of Ireland, and it has been officially recognized in Northern Ireland since 1998. Today Irish is spoken not only in the western ‘Gaeltachtaí’ (Irish-speaking regions), but also in cities like Dublin and Belfast. There is Irish-language television, film, radio, and print journalism, and many wonderful poets and fiction writers continue into the present a literary tradition that dates back to the sixth century.

The course introduces students to Irish as it is spoken and written today. Class work is participatory, and includes conversational role play and games as well as grammar study and drills. Audio and audiovisual resources reinforce pronunciation and aural comprehension. Songs, proverbs, and poems are an integral part of the course, introducing students to the vibrant oral and literary tradition of Gaelic Ireland.


Irish 205r. Readings in Early Medieval Irish Prose. Joseph Nagy. MW 3-4:15. Readings in selected texts. Some knowledge of Old/Middle Irish required.


Scottish Gaelic 130. Introduction to Scottish Gaelic. Natasha Sumner (with Shannon Parker). Times TBD. Meets four times a week. Scottish Gaelic is spoken primarily in communities of the West Highlands and the Hebrides—a group of islands off the west coast of Scotland. There is also a Gaelic community on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. Gaelic language and culture thrive in poetry, fiction, traditional and contemporary music, oral tradition, and a very lively blogosphere.

The course introduces students to Scottish Gaelic as it is spoken and written today. It surveys the grammar while also emphasizing practice in speaking the language. Class work is highly participatory; students are encouraged to take part in a range of communicative activities which enhance oral/aural ability. Translation exercises develop skills in the written language. A range of audio/audiovisual materials and online resources is used to support student learning.


Welsh 225a. Medieval Welsh Language and Literature. Aled Llion Jones. TuTh 3-4:15. Introduction to the language and culture of medieval Wales, with particular attention to narrative prose literature and its Celtic, Welsh and Norman contexts. By the end of the term we will have read in the original one of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi and selections from other texts.