The earliest vernacular literatures of Western Europe were written in Celtic languages and speakers of these languages have continued to express themselves in poetry and prose in their native languages to the present day. These texts provide unique insight into the perspectives, experiences and ideals of poets and their communities, as well as their efforts to maintain and develop literary traditions with long lineages in new contexts. Being subordinate within the British Empire that has valorized the identity and cultural expressions of the English to the exclusion of others has, however, caused the “alternative” literary traditions of the British Isles to be largely neglected and marginalized.

These ethnocentricities have been largely inherited by the successors of British imperial endeavors in North America, that is, the United States and Canada. The North American academy has paid hardly any attention to the significant literary production of Celtic-language immigrant communities that have existed over many generations. As Marc Shell argues in American Babel (2002), this oversight appears to be symptomatic of an endemic blind spot:

The American academy’s passing over most non-anglophone American languages and literatures is, of course, partly explicable by the fact that it is easier to talk about other peoples’ cultures in English than to learn their languages. But the main explanation is that literary America, despite its horror of race slavery and its ideal of racial blindness, has always liked to emphasize racial difference instead of language difference. This preference arises from the traditional American pretense than culture is not largely linguistic or, rather, that culture ought to be English. … Even as the American university claims to foster a tolerant heterogeneity of cultures, then, it perseveres in the traditional American homogenization of the world as English. … Few American literary critics work on the vast multilingual literature of the United States. Most simply raise up English-language works written by members of America’s various ethnic and racial groups – often in the name of multicultural diversity – even as they dismiss American literary works written in languages other than English.

The lack of scholarly attention to Celtic languages in particular in both their home countries and in the immigrant context has conspired to keep these literatures invisible, uncelebrated, and under-studied.

This digital exhibit aims to bring attention to the poetry composed in North America in Celtic languages – Breton, Cornish, Irish, Manx, (Scottish) Gaelic and Welsh – by making (a selection of) poets and their work visible and accessible in digital form. You will find graphic representations of basic information about poets (where and where they lived, etc.), short biographies, and essays about aspects of these literary traditions.

The visualizations in this project are produced by a data visualization collaboratory called Prospect, a WordPress plug-in, produced by the Digital Innovation Lab of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

By Michael Newton (2015)