Per Denez: Writer and scholar who sought recognition for the Breton language and culture

When the Breton writer and scholar Per Denez was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Wales in 1985, he was astonished to hear its chancellor, Prince Charles, say how sorry he was not to be able to address him in his own language. He had never received such courtesy in France and was more used to the insults which the French state habitually flings at those who work on behalf of the Breton language and its culture. The remark remained with him as a sign of the comparatively kinder treatment received by the Welsh, especially from their national university, where the language and literature of Wales have been taught for a hundred years or more.

Denez had long experience of fighting for the Breton language and, during the post-war years when the Breton movement was slowly recovering from the charge of collaboration with the German invaders, was in the vanguard of all attempts to restore the Breton language in schools and the life of the people. At first he put his energies into the publication of several small magazines which argued for a measure of recognition for Breton by the French state and the departmental authorities. In this he was associated with Ronan Huon, who since 1948 had published an excellent literary review entitled Al Liamm ("The bond"), but in 1958 he started his own magazine, Ar Vro ("The country"), which carried, besides articles about Breton culture, news from the other Celtic countries, whose example was not lost on those who were working for all things Breton. Another of his magazines, Hor Yezh ("Our language"), still exists and is the name of one of the leading publishing imprints in Breton.

But his most important contribution to Breton life was as a teacher. He had read English at the University of Rennes and stayed on to do a post-graduate diploma in Celtic Studies. A year in Aberdeen as a French-language assistant confirmed his interest in the Celtic lands and shortly afterwards he learnt Irish and Welsh, speaking them with great fluency and a charming accent, as well as Esperanto.

His first teaching post was at Quimper in Finistère but his proselytising on behalf of Breton soon came to the attention of the authorities and he was moved to Périgueux, where he promptly learned Catalan. After two years he was allowed to return to Brittany, taking a post as English teacher at Douarnenez in Finistère, where he lived for the rest of his life. Soon he was organising Breton classes for pupils and townspeople who wished to regain a grasp of their language.

Per Denez, or Pierre Denis as he was known to the French civil state, had a particular insight into the mindset of those who were anxious to learn Breton, the language of which they had been deprived by a centralist government virulently intolerant of "regional dialects". He had been born in Rennes, where no provision was made for Breton in the schools, and into a home which, although his mother was a Bretonne, was francophone. His interest in Brittany was awakened by a chance remark by one of his schoolmates at the Lycée St Martin that he was proud to be Breton. At the age of 13, he enrolled in Skol Ober, a correspondence course run for many years by the indefatigable Marc'harid Gourlaouen, and was soon at home in the language.

In 1969 he was appointed to the chair of Celtic at the university of Upper Brittany in Rennes, and was to remain there for 21 years, teaching the grammar and literature of Breton and specialising in research into the dialectology of Douarnenez. Among his most startling achievements was to persuade Presidents Giscard d'Estaing and Mitterand of the case for introducing the licence, maîtrise, CAPES and DEUG through the medium of Breton. His department was responsible for turning out thousands of graduates who became the Young Turks of the revived Breton movement. Some, including one of his sons, Gwendal, who succeeded him to the chair at Rennes, have made major contributions to Breton scholarship and literature. Many became teachers in the Diwann primary-schools movement which, after 30 years of struggle, won a modicum of recognition from the French state in 2001.

Per Denez eschewed all party affiliations and was respected by most politicos in Brittany for his independent views. He served on myriad committees, including the Conseil Culturel de Bretagne and the Institut Culturel de Bretagne – though he was never tempted to stand for the regional council, which represents the furthest point to which the French government is prepared to take the process of administrative devolution. He also served as president of the Celtic Congress and the Kuzul ar Brezhoneg (Federation of Breton cultural organisations) and as a member of the Maison de la Culture at Rennes and the European Council of the Regions.

He saw this committee work as necessary if the cultural life of Brittany was to thrive, but preferred to apply his enormous energies to encouraging study of the language at the highest academic level, in particular the publication of texts and grammars, and in the training of teachers. For him, Breton was a living language which had to take its place in all sectors of public life.

His own list of books was held in great esteem. They include Brezhoneg Buan hag Haes ("Breton the quick and easy way", 1972), a textbook which went into Welsh, Irish, English, German and Catalan editions. He also wrote verse and prose in Breton, regularly contributing to a plethora of magazines and newspapers. Among his collections of stories are Diougan Gwenc'hlan ("The prophecy of Gwenc'hlan", 1979), Glas evel daoulagad c'hlas ("Blue like blue eyes", 1979) and Evit an eil gwec'h ("For the second time", 1982).

Many honours came his way: he was awarded Doctor in Litteris honoris causa by both the University of Wales and the National University of Ireland, and in 1990 he received the Ramon Llull prize from the Institute of Catalan Studies, the first time it had ever gone to a scholar the bulk of whose work had not been done in Catalan. In 1993 he received the Cross of Saint-Jordi, followed by the Prix Imram for Poetry and the Prix des Ecrivains Bretons. A Festschrift was published on the occasion of his retirement under the title Breizh ha Pobloù Europa/Brittany and the Peoples of Europe, to which 54 writers from a dozen countries, including Japan, Poland, Germany and Corsica contributed articles.

The last time I saw Per Denez was during the Interceltic Festival at Lorient in 2000. He was not much interested in the folkloric aspect of things and we talked in Welsh mainly about the gains made by the Breton movement and, the subject always nearest his heart, the fortunes of the language. I had known him for 40 years and he seemed to be in his prime, buoyant with hope for Breton, cautious about the political situation in his country and anxious to learn about the latest developments in Wales. He was a gentle, modest, kind-hearted man, with an iron will and a beatific smile which faded only when he mentioned his wife, then suffering the last stages of Alzheimer's disease, whom he visited every day. Among the other topics we touched upon during that long sunny afternoon was what to do with his vast and valuable collection of papers and books. He had no confidence that they would be properly conserved in Brittany and liked the suggestion that he should give them to the National Library of Wales, where he knew they would be safe and available to researchers.

Meic Stephens

Per Denez (Pierre Denis), Breton writer and scholar: born Rennes, Brittany 3 February 1921; Professor of Celtic, Université de Haute-Bretagne, Rennes 1969-90; married 1949 Morwena Steven (died 2001; two sons, one daughter), 2003 Monique Macé (one son); died Romillé, Ille-et-Vilaine, Brittany 30 July 2011.

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