Obituary: J. E. Caerwyn Williams
His preferred bedtime reading was said to be German commentaries on the Old Testament, which he read in its original languages
Monday 14 June 1999
For more than 60 years he wrote prolifically on the civilisation of the Celts, both ancient and modern, those of the Goidelic branch as well as those of the Brittonic, and particularly on the native literatures of Ireland and Wales. His learning was wide, profound and grounded in meticulous research and a close acquaintance with the notoriously difficult texts written in early medieval times in the Celtic languages.
As a former pupil of Sir Ifor Williams, he wrote on the Cynfeirdd - mainly Aneirin and Taliesin - poets of "the Old North" of Britain (now southern Scotland, and much of Cumbria, Lancashire and Yorkshire), where in the sixth century a form of Old Welsh was spoken before those regions were overrun by Germanic invaders still known in Welsh tradition as "the children of Horsa and Hengist".
In another area of his academic research, namely the Gogynfeirdd, or Poets of the Princes, he wrote so extensively and brilliantly that all subsequent scholarship has been indebted to him. These court poets, who flourished in Wales between the first half of the 12th century and the latter half of the 14th were professional craftsmen who expressed their erudition in archaic diction and extremely intricate metrical forms. Their function was to celebrate the military prowess of their lord and, in times of peace, his generosity as a patron of the bardic order; at the end, they sang his elegy.
Caerwyn Williams wrote two major studies of these poets: Beirdd y Tywysogion (1973) and The Poets of the Welsh Princes (1978). Their complete works have now been published in seven volumes under the editorship of Dr R. Geraint Gruffydd, who succeeded Caerwyn Williams as Director of the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies in 1985.
John Ellis Caerwyn Williams was born in 1912 in Gwauncaegurwen, a Welsh- speaking mining village in the Upper Amman Valley on the boundary between industrial Glamorgan and rural Carmarthenshire, although his father's people had their roots in the slate-quarrying districts of north-west Wales. He adopted the name Caerwyn, it seems, on entering the University College of North Wales, Bangor, to avoid confusion with another student or two named John Ellis Williams among his contemporaries.
He took a degree in Latin in 1933 and in Welsh in 1934, both in the first division. From Bangor he went to University College and Trinity College, Dublin, and then to the United Theological College at Aberystwyth, where he read Greek and Church History, graduating BD in 1944. By this time his interest in Welsh and Irish literature as well as in theology and philosophy, was well developed and it was to become the focus of his life's work.
He joined the staff of the Welsh Department at Bangor in 1945; eight years later he was appointed Professor, remaining in that post until 1965, when he moved to Aberystwyth as the first Professor of Irish in the University of Wales.
In 1947 he published a volume of the stories and essays of Pdraic O Conaire (1882-1928) in Welsh translation and a selection of stories translated from the Irish, Yr Ebol Glas ("The green foal"), in 1954. Both are mere apprentice work in comparison with his later achievement in writing three studies of Irish literature: Traddodiad Llenyddol Iwerddon ("The literary tradition of Ireland", 1958), Y Storiwr Gwyddelig a'i Chwedlau ("The Irish story-teller and his tales", 1972) and The Court Poet in Medieval Ireland (1972); and in co-editing with Patrick Ford the symposium The Irish Literary Tradition (1992). For his contribution to Irish and Celtic scholarship he was awarded the honorary degree of DLittCelt by the National University of Ireland in 1967 and in 1978 he was elected Fellow of the British Academy.
Caerwyn Williams did not confine his interests to medieval literature, however. He wrote a great deal on the early modern period and on the work of major 20th-century poets such as T.H. Parry-Williams and Waldo Williams and the playwrights Saunders Lewis and John Gwilym Jones. In his many essays, articles and reviews he displayed a thorough knowledge of literary criticism and theory, keeping abreast of modern trends and drawing on his wide reading in several languages.
His interest in Celtic philology extended to Breton: he published two volumes of stories translated from it into Welsh, its sister-language. A full list of his myriad publications on philological and literary subjects is found in Bardos, a Festschrift presented to him shortly after his retirement from the Chair of Irish at Aberystwyth.
In addition, he was a meticulous and sensitive editor, perhaps one of the most tireless and prodigious ever to serve the Celtic languages and their periodical literatures. He edited the series Ysgrifau Beirniadol ("Critical essays"), of which 25 substantial volumes have appeared since it was launched in 1965, and to which almost every Welsh scholar of note has contributed.
In the same year he was appointed editor of Y Traethodydd ("The essayist"), the most venerable of all Welsh literary journals, for it has been published by the Presbyterian Church of Wales since 1845. In 1966 he became the first editor of Studia Celtica, the prestigious journal of the Board of Celtic Studies, and in 1970 the Consultative Editor of Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru: a dictionary of the Welsh language, a work on historical principles which is indispensable to all students of the language's long and rich history.
J. E. Caerwyn Williams was widely regarded as the greatest Celtic scholar of modern times. Even after retirement he astonished former colleagues by the range and volume of his selfless commitment to the world of Celtic scholarship. Anecdotes about his immense industry and erudition - his preferred bedtime reading was said to be German commentaries on the Old Testament, which he read in its original languages - only added to the great affection and esteem in which this modest but genial man was held by colleagues and students alike. Nor were his talents confined to the study: he lectured frequently in Wales, Ireland. England and America, sat on many committees, notably the Council for Name Studies in Great Britain and Ireland, and from 1966 to 1975 enjoyed a stint as President of Yr Academi Gymreig, the national association of writers in Wales.
Many will recall the sheer delight with which, at the Academy's Taliesin Congress in 1969, he welcomed delegates from the other Celtic countries to Wales. They included not only his friend Mirtin O Cadhain but also Hugh MacDiarmid, Sorley MacLean and the Breton poet Maodez Glanndour. The occasion lent credence to his cherished view that the Celts, though geographically dispersed and disparate in their political circumstances, still belonged to the same family of peoples and might yet make something of their common culture - an ideal of which he was the living embodiment.
John Ellis Caerwyn William, Celtic scholar: born Gwauncaegurwen, Glamorgan 17 January 1912; Professor of Welsh, University College of North Wales, Bangor 1953-65; Professor of Irish, University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, 1965-79; FBA 1978; Director, University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies 1979-85; married 1946 Gwen Watkins; died Aberystwyth 10 June 1999.
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