Ronan Huon

Defender of Breton language and literature
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The Independent Online

René Huon (Ronan Huon), writer, editor and publisher: born Saint-Omer, France 3 August 1922; married Elin Ar Meliner (four sons); died Brest, France 17 October 2003.

The fortunes of the Breton language and its contemporary literature depend largely on individuals devoted to its cause, there being few public bodies to lend their support, and what is achieved by these animateurs is often done in the face of stiff opposition from the French government and its local representatives.

Ronan Huon was one such, a man who from childhood into old age was in love with Brezhoneg, the Breton language, and who served it in practical ways with a passion and tenacity which seemed to negate the very idea that it might be in danger of dying out. He wrote in it, published books in it, spoke it to his children and fought on its behalf, quietly but effectively, without bitterness but with a resolute application to solving the problems that beset it on every side. His death is a severe blow to the Breton movement but the many initiatives he put in hand are sure to bear fruit as other individuals come to take his place.

Born in Saint-Omer in the Pas-de-Calais in 1922, to parents who were both fluent speakers of Breton, Huon returned to their native town of Lannion when he was two years old, and it was there he was brought up. He was educated at the University of Rennes, where he took a licence in English and a diploma in Celtic Studies, a course which included a year in Swansea. On his return to Brittany in 1949 he was appointed English teacher at the lycée in Brest and spent the rest of his career there. His time in Wales was put to good use: he had learnt the rudiments of Welsh and found much to admire in the education system which, unlike that of France, made provision for the teaching of Welsh, and in the field of broadcasting, already well developed by the late 1940s.

It was a difficult time to be an activist in the Breton movement. Those who worked for the Breton language were tarred with the brush of collaboration with the Germans and progress was slow in restoring to Breton the conditions that were needed if it was to flourish as it had in the years between the wars. Like his great friend Per Denez, Huon managed to steer a course between the warring factions and never wore his political colours on his sleeve, preferring to make his mark in the cultural sector alone.

The struggle continues to the present in a constant and often heated argument over whether Breton-language schools are entitled to financial support.

Huon was much given to launching literary magazines, beginning as a student in Rennes with Tir-na-nog ("Land of the Young"), which merged with two others in 1949 to form Al Liamm ("The Link"), a review which he edited and published for more than 50 years. This bimonthly magazine became the principal platform for just about every Breton writer of note to emerge during the post-war period. With a wide purview and familiar with the latest critical theories, it had sophistication and driving energy, and a circulation that was the envy of many periodicals in the other Celtic lands. Today, having run to 339 numbers, it is managed by the founder's son Tudual who, like his father, teaches English in a secondary school and is the author of several books in Breton.

The magazine's immediate success prompted Huon and his wife Elen to found a publishing imprint of the same name and together they published some 200 titles, without subsidy from any public source and with no distribution network other than what they and their friends were able to set up. The importance of this venture for the Breton cultural movement cannot be overestimated: without Al Liamm the writing and reading of Breton would have gone into terminal decline among the small literate community and the future of the language as the medium for creative writing and intellectual debate would have been put in jeopardy.

Above all, the magazine saved Breton from degenerating into the patois of a folk culture fit only for tourist consumption. There is nothing folksy about the contents of Al Liamm: its standards might be compared with those of the London Review of Books. The Huons produced books of poetry, plays, essays, short stories, novels, memoirs and documentaries, but it was a series of dictionaries that sold best, in particular those compiled by Roparz Hemon, the great man of Breton letters, which sold more than 100,000 copies. The Al Liamm imprint was taken over by another publisher, An Here, in 2000 and is now run from Plougastel-Daoulas.

Huon would have written much more of his own poetry and prose if he had not been so selfless in publishing the work of others and taking up the cudgels on behalf of Breton publishers: from 1985 to 1997 he was President of the Association des Editeurs de Bretagne, in which capacity he worked indefatigably for the wider distribution of Breton books and the commissioning of new authors. I recall how, in 1969, on the occasion of the Taliesin Congress held in Cardiff, he expressed wonder and admiration for the work of the Welsh Books Council and the Welsh Arts Council, the two bodies charged with promoting the books of Wales in those days, and the Welsh experience continued to inspire him.

He was an important poet and writer of short stories, notably "An Irin Glas" ("The Plums", 1966) and "Ur Vouezh er Vorenn" ("A Voice in the Mist", 1980), and his translations from Welsh and English have been much admired. In 1992, in recognition of his achievement as editor, publisher and writer, Huon was presented with the Collier de l'Hermine by Pierre LeTreut, Vice-President of the Regional Council of Brittany and President of the Institut Culturel de Bretagne, the only award he ever received for a lifetime's labours.

Ronan Huon would not have sought any honour outside Brittany, for the deep satisfaction he found in serving the language and literature of his native land was reward enough for this modest, genial and unremittingly generous man.

Meic Stephens