Friday 5 April 2013

Conference report: 35th California Celtic Conference 2013

Myriah Williams, a doctoral student in ASNC, writes:

As we gathered on the patio of Stephens Hall at the University of California, Berkeley, flying champagne corks and a cake aptly decorated with the Welsh draig goch reminded attendees of the California Celtic Conference (March 15–17, 2013) that this year marked the event’s thirty-fifth birthday.  Giving a small speech, organizer Dr Eve Sweetser remarked that as a student assisting at the first annual meeting of the conference back in 1979, she never expected to be running the show thirty-five years later.  Yet she was, and this is a testament to the passion for Celtic Studies felt by the staff and students of UC Berkeley, and equally of UCLA, where the conference is held on alternate years.  It is also a testament to the success of the conference itself, which this year hosted speakers not only from California but from Massachusetts, Canada, England, Wales and Ireland; no small feat for a program so far removed from the native homelands of its subject.

Festivities began earlier in the morning not with champagne, however, but with tea, coffee and an engaging paper by Dr Brynley Roberts, Emeritus National Librarian of Wales.  In ‘A Web of Welsh Bruts’, he illustrated his attempts at untangling the transmission of Brut y Brenhinedd, and reminded us all of the difficulty of such a task.  Transmission of a different sort was also highlighted by Roberts’ presence at the conference, for he had been a mentor to Berkeley’s own Dr Annalee Rejhon during her time in Aberystwyth, and it was his method of teaching Medieval Welsh that she passed on to her own students.  Among these students was Georgia Henley, currently a PhD student at Harvard University and a former ASNC, whose paper ‘The Origin of the Welsh Chronicle Brut y Tywysogion: Questions of Translation, Transmission and Adaptation’ arose from a conversation that she once had with Roberts.  In her paper Henley presented us with a comparison of several Welsh versions of the Brut, as well as a Latin chronicle, and inspired a lively question session regarding issues of variant textual traditions as opposed to editing at the scribal level.

Following the Bruts, a wide and varied array of topics was presented over the course of the long weekend.  We heard about issues of narrative, from the nature of description and characterization in medieval Celtic tales, to considering the origins of the Arthurian legend, to the waning tradition and preservation of storytelling in Doolin, County Clare, Ireland.  ASNC Dr Máire Ní Mhaonaigh explained ‘How Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill was Formed’, and, despite using terms seemingly borrowed from particle physics, Jim McCloskey of UC Santa Cruz told us ‘How to Make an Inflected Verb’ in a way clear enough to be understood by the non-linguist (or non-particle physicist).  Dr Roberts was invoked again on Saturday in ASNC PhD candidate Myriah Williams’ discussion of the Medieval Welsh poem Ymddiddan Myrddin a Thaliesin, this time for his views on the classification of Welsh dialogue poetry.  This same poem was also analysed by Stephanie Ranks, an undergraduate in the Celtic Studies Program at Berkeley who adopted a metrical approach and concluded that it is possible that the second half of the poem was composed according to the older stress-based metre and not the later rules of syllable count.

Dr Joseph Nagy of UCLA began the day Sunday by exploring the role of seditious figures in medieval Irish literature, and then brought them to life with a Bollywood-style dance number (not performed live).  Inter-cultural connections of a different sort were made by Dr Thomas Walsh of UC Berkeley, who drew attention to parallels between the laments of the female narrators of the Irish poem ‘The Old Woman of Beare’ and a Greek poem attributed to Sappho (No. 58).  Swansea University’s Dr Jasmine Donahaye, on the other hand, considered the nature of the relationship between Wales and Palestine and nineteenth-century Welsh views on colonialism and conversion in ‘A Welsh Colony in Palestine?’.  We also learned from Leslie Jacoby of San Jose State University that the art of falconry has been little changed since the days of Hywel Dda, despite the much altered state of the world.  Indeed, it was the current state of the earth in comparison to its situation during the time of the events of the Mabiniogion that formed the topic of a paper given by Dr Kathryn Klar and Elizabeth Tolero, graduate of the Celtic Studies Program in Berkeley.  The pair’s argument that, due to climate change, the coast lines and weather patterns of Britain and Ireland would have been very different at that time than what they are today was convincing, as was their assertion that scholarly analysis and mapping of medieval texts should reflect these differences.

The conference concluded fittingly with a series of presentations from current Berkeley undergraduates working on a project initiated and run by Dr Klar to edit an unpublished book of twenty-four Old Irish tales translated by Dr Brendan O’Hehir, a founding member of the Celtic Studies Association of North America and the first chair of the Celtic Studies Program at Berkeley.  The project, which has been in the pipeline for several years, is providing the students with valuable research skills as well as editorial experience that they might not normally receive at the undergraduate level.  Once finished, the work will be a suitable tribute to the late Dr O’Hehir, whose influence continues to be felt by many in the Celtic Studies Program and who is still so fondly remembered by many of its faculty.

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