Two Women of Celtic Studies

In this first post about historical Celtic scholars and in celebration of International Women’s Day I want to highlight two women who made important contributions to Irish studies and say a little about their lives – Eleanor Knott and Cecile O’Rahilly.


Eleanor Knott (1886-1975) is perhaps the better studied of the pair. Her archives are held by The Royal Irish Academy and Trinity College Dublin, who also hosted a conference about her and her work in 2016.


Eleanor did not attend university but took courses at the School of Irish Learning where she became part of a network of scholars based in Dublin in the early 20th century. Her archives are mainly made up of private letters and postcards that range from requests for lexical information to notes about events in the senders’ personal lives. There is also information about publishing – both her own works as well as in her role as the co-editor of Ériu.


In the 1920s she published her two-volume edition and translation of The Bardic Poerty of Tadhg Dall Ó hUiginn with the Irish Texts Society and it is this along with An Introduction to Syllabic Poetry of the Period: 1200-1600 that she is perhaps best known for. Her role as editor of Ériu from 1938-1966 demonstrates her skill as an editor (as well as gaining her a reputation for exacting standards when it came to submissions).


She was also involved in the production of The Dictionary of Irish Language (now eDIL) where she worked on “e” and “f” along with other scholars and research assistants.


Eleanor Knott was not just a researcher: in 1928 she became a lecturer at Trinity College Dublin and in 1939 a chair of Early Irish was created for her. She was also one of the first women to be elected to the Royal Irish Academy in 1949.


Dr Chantal Kobel has recorded a podcast where she goes into more detail about Eleanor and her life as part of a RIA lunchtime lecture series about Intellectual Life in Ireland, 1910-1920. 



Like most Celtic students I first read Táin Bó Cúailnge in Thomas Kinsella’s translation, but one name comes up more frequently once you begin to read around the text and that is Cecile O’Rahilly (1894-1980).


Cecile is best known for her three editions and translations of Táin Bó Cúailnge which she worked on in the 1960s and 1970s during her time at the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies and after she retired. These three editions not only provide those working on Táin Bó Cúailnge with a reliable text, but the ideas put forward by Cecile in her introductions and notes are also an important contribution to Celtic scholarship from the 20th century. 


However, her scholarly efforts gained recognition much earlier in 1924 when she published two books, an edition of Tóruigheacht Gruaidhe Griansholus and a book on the literary and historical relationship between Ireland and Wales.


She received a BA from University College Dublin in 1915 and a MA from the University College of North Wales in 1919 after which she taught French in multiple Welsh schools before returning to Dublin in 1946 to take up an assistant professorship at the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies under the direction of her brother T.F O’Rahilly. In 1956 she became the first woman to hold a professorship in the School of Celtic Studies at DIAS


I was unable to find an archive for Cecile, however her obituaries in multiple Celtic journals give glimpses into her personal life such as her lifelong issues with ill-health and her companionship with Myfanway Willaims who moved to Dublin in 1951 and lived with Cecile O’Rahilly until her death in 1980. 


We wanted to start this series to find out more about the scholars whose work we spend most of our time engaging with. If you have a favourite scholar whom you know about, or want to know about, please share this in the comments! And of course, get in touch if you would like to write a post about a Celtic scholar of the past.


If you are interested in finding out more about women in Celtic studies, Dr Chantal Kobel and Dr Nike Stam have two short videos talking about women in Celtic studies who inspire them, Nessa Ní Shéaghdha and Maartje Draak.


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