Scéla Arin Túathaib: The Present and Future of Public Outreach in Medieval Celtic Studies

Emmet, using one of John Derrick's 16th century woodcuts as they panic and grasp at straws for images of public history in the field.

In every field, students serve as often unsung intermediaries between the public and academia, disseminating what they learn in the classrooms to family dinner tables, to pub nights with friends, and to interested online communities. They transform what might have originally required a high level of baseline knowledge to understand into something that will be enjoyed and appreciated by their audiences, widely disseminating scholarship to reach greater audiences than almost any journal article or conference proceeding could dream of.

This 'front line' of students in conversation with the public is augmented by public-facing scholarly works. Books such as The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking) by Katie Mack or the upcoming If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal by Justin Gregg bring the public into academic conversations, fostering curiosity and sharing our love of knowledge with others. Digital resources such as the Theoi Project by Aaron J. Atsma, or ORBIS by Walter Scheidel and Elijah Meeks allow the public to learn about scholarly topics with academic rigor, or quickly answer simple questions they might have. Projects such as Saga Thing merge these approaches, creating digital spaces for public facing scholarly discussion.

Fostering and facilitating the public's interest in scholarship in these ways is important. From the horrific perspective of contemporary academia where many Humanities departments are increasingly forced to justify their existence to administration by 'proving' 'profitability', successful public-facing scholarship proves interest (and, even better, possibly captures the interest of the administration personally). Or, from the altogether more positive perspective, allows scholars to share their love and passion with the public, to foster scholarly values and critical thinking in society, and to help rectify poisonous ideas lingering in public consciousness.

For medieval Celtic Studies, though we are currently dwarfed by the cultural dominance of Norse studies in popular culture, there has been a persistent and pervasive interest in the field for decades. To refer back to a previous blog post, the world's most popular TTRPG, Dungeons and Dragons, draws heavily on early Celtic cultures. Popular video games such as SMITE or Assassin's Creed: Valhalla draw on medieval Irish literature. The television show, American Gods, expanded the role of its Irish character from the original novel to incorporate Buile Shuibhne, and Cath Maige Tuired, with a character speaking a line in (what sounds like) Middle Irish. Online storefronts such as Etsy are inundated with jewelry, clothing, and other works of art inspired by medieval Celtic peoples (or going as fair to claim that they are 'authentic'). 

 'Celtic'

One might expect that, based on the evident popularity of the medieval Celts, there would be a healthy body of Public Histories and digital resources feeding this public interest. But, this is not the case. While Mark Williams at Oxford has produced two brilliant public-facing books on medieval Irish literature, Ireland's Immortals and Celtic Myths That Shape The Way We Think, and University College Cork's Irish Sagas Online or CELT are digital troves of academic translations, the field is under represented in Public History resources compared to the public's ravenous interest in medieval Celtic literature. 

As students of Celtic Studies, the limited Public History resources produced by the field has heightened our role as messengers bridging the scholarly and public worlds of our field. We are not only the 'front line' of discussions with the public, but, like Conall Cernach in Fled Bricrenn, serve both as the fore-guard and the vanguard of the field.

On TikTok, Roro_The_Terrible (@Roisin_McNally on Twitter) produces short videos about medieval Irish legendary material, simultaneously educating a large audience and valiantly standing alone against tides of commenters arguing with her. The largest digital porthole for Public History, the Reddit community AskHistorians, has a small number of posters who answer questions relating to medieval Celtic peoples (including, rarely, myself as /u/For-cith), who, while shrouded in anonymity, I am almost positive I have shared drinks with at least two of at the last Celtic Congress. A Harvard graduate student (who asked to remain anonymous) has been nearly-single-handedly answering Tumblr's questions (and correcting wildly misguided opinions) for several years. Finn Longman, recent University College Cork Masters graduate, has produced several YouTube videos discussing specific medieval Irish texts in depth. Personally, I have been giving public lectures every month for the last three years in a history and mythology focused online community of several thousand people (we are currently working our way through the Táin as a book club), as well as giving public lectures with the Undergraduate Student Societies at University College Cork, and been a guest of historical games streamer LudoHistory as he played through Celt-based video games.

In these digital spaces, students of Celtic Studies (predominantly graduate students) carry the brunt of the public's attention, and work to amend persistent pervasive errors or misunderstandings (such as 'did the Celts really fight naked in battle', 'were the Celts really matriarchal', and 'why did Saint Patrick commit a genocide against the pagans') that have found themselves deeply rooted in public consciousness. These misunderstandings appear to have been perpetuated by the rise of the internet giving the public access to wildly out of date scholarly publications, the Wikipedia articles on medieval Celtic literature being deeply inaccurate, and a small cottage industry of people producing exceptionally inaccurate self-published books (and ebooks) about 'Celtic Mythology' that dominate digital marketplaces such as Amazon and the Kobo storefront. 

Despite this being important work, and entirely legitimate scholarly labor, it can be disheartening when this work is not recognized as legitimate or worthwhile by senior members of the field compared to standard scholarly activities. Which leads me to the topic of this blog post (914 words into it!): what is the future of Public History for medieval Celtic Studies? I would argue there are three major areas current students, future faculty, and independent scholars should push towards.

Firstly, and possibly most daunting, is rewriting almost every article on medieval Celtic literature on Wikipedia. The world's premier digital source of information has been filled with wildly out of date and often factually incorrect information since the pages were first written. It is the main source the public looks to (and many other websites plagiarize) for personal curiosity or quickly checking information. While this would necessitate rewriting around a hundred and fifty pages at a quick count, easily representing hundreds of hours of work, the benefit this would have is tremendous. Wikipedia is the poisoned well many of us have spent years administering antidotes to on an individual level. While the task is massive, and in an ideal world it would be a joint project across the entire field to limit the amount of work any single person needs to do, it would be the most efficient way for us to cause a large scale shift in the public's understanding of our topic.

Secondly, as members of our community finish their degrees and continue in academia or escape its fiendish clutches, we need to keep involved with public outreach. While students of Celtic Studies have been quietly contributing a tremendous amount to the field, it shouldn't remain predominantly the responsibility of students. If those of us who choose to remain in academia (as faculty or independent scholars) can begin to publish public histories, we can hopefully lessen the burden on the next generation of students, provide more resources for the curious public, and begin to provide alternatives to the various poorly researched and misinformation laden books that are currently widely available to the public.

Lastly, we need to work to further legitimize public outreach as a scholarly activity in the field. While all of us have been doing this as students, that in no way lessens its importance. Isolating ourselves from the public and leaving them to their own devices has resulted in the tides of misinformation regarding our topic on the internet. Working with the public to correct these misunderstandings and foster the love the public has for medieval Celtic Studies is important for the long-term survival of the field, both in continuing to attract new young scholars and more grimly to render ourselves sufficiently important in public consciousness that closing our departments will be met with at least some mild opposition.

We have a tremendous opportunity to take advantage of a long-simmering fascination in our field by the public. While it will not be easy, my suggestion of fixing the Wikipedia articles alone fills me with anxiety, we as students and young scholars have a chance to carry our current successes and small victories in public outreach into wide, sweeping changes for the field and to feed the public's ravenous appetite for medieval Celtic Studies.

Emmet Taylor

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