Campus & Community

McKenna new professor of Celtic languages, literatures

3 min read

Described as ‘medieval scholar of great distinction’

Catherine McKenna, whose interpretations of the Welsh tales ‘Pwyll’ and ‘Manawydan’ are widely admired by her peers, has been named Margaret Brooks Robinson Professor of Celtic Languages and Literatures. (Staff photo Kris Snibbe/Harvard News Office)

Catherine McKenna, a medievalist who has written engagingly on Welsh poetry and prose and Irish saga and hagiography, has been appointed Margaret Brooks Robinson Professor of Celtic Languages and Literatures at Harvard University, effective July 1, 2005.

McKenna comes to Harvard from Queens College of the City University of New York (CUNY), where she is currently professor of English and of Irish studies and coordinator of the Medieval Studies Certificate Program at CUNY’s Graduate Center. She is also a visiting adjunct professor of English and of Irish studies at New York University.

“Catherine McKenna is a medieval scholar of great distinction, and the momentum evident in her work shows the promise of even greater things to come,” says William C. Kirby, Edith and Benjamin Geisinger Professor of History and dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard. “She enjoys great respect in North America, Ireland, and Britain as a first-rate scholar and teacher, and will be a tremendous asset to Celtic studies at Harvard.”

Best known for her scholarship on the court poets of 12th and 13th century Wales, McKenna is regarded as one of the world’s most gifted interpreters of these notoriously difficult works. Her pioneering book on these poets’ religious verse, “The Medieval Welsh Religious Lyric” (1991), provides authoritative texts and sensitive translations of poems that had long been neglected. The only American contributor to the seminal Welsh series “Poets of the Princes” (1994), McKenna is currently working on a translation of these volumes, producing a work that will introduce this body of poetry to a new audience of English-speaking medievalists.

McKenna’s interpretations of the Welsh tales “Pwyll” and “Manawydan” are widely admired by her peers, as are her more recent publications on the figure of Brigit, an enigmatic Irish character held by many to be both saint and goddess. Challenging orthodox views of Brigit, McKenna’s writings, including “Apotheosis and Evanescence: The Fortunes of Saint Brigit in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries” (2001) and “Between Two Worlds: Saint Brigit and Pre-Christian Religion in the Vita Prima” (2002), fully analyze representations of Brigit as both saint and goddess from the seventh century to the present.

McKenna received her Ph.D. from Harvard’s Department of Celtic Languages and Literatures in 1976. She joined the Queens College faculty as an assistant professor that year, serving as director of that institution’s Irish Studies Program from 1984 to 1997. She has been coordinator of CUNY’s Medieval Studies Certificate Program since 1990, and a visiting adjunct professor at New York University since 1996.