J.E. CAERWYN Williams, formerly Professor of Irish at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, and after his retirement in 1979 the first Director of the University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies, was one of the most distinguished luminaries in the world of Celtic scholarship.
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). …