I attended a very special dinner a few weeks ago.
It was held at Jesus College and hosted by the Chancellor of the University of Oxford, Lord Patten. What made the evening so very memorable was the opportunity to view the Red Book of Hergest, one of the most important medieval manuscripts written in Welsh. This scholarly treasure is owned by my old college and usually kept in the University's Bodleian Library.
To view it at leisure, whilst sipping chilled champagne with the likes of Sian Phillips, Jan Morris and Huw Edwards, was not only a pleasure, but a huge privilege.
I squealed with pleasure when the invite landed on our doormat. Frankly, I love Oxford and will use any old excuse to go back and amble around my favourite English city. The architecture of those unique historic institutions, the beautiful boulevards, lovely little shops and caffs, all enchant me.
But there was a serious purpose to the visit. We were gathering to support the Jesus Chair of Celtic. The most recent holder, Professor Thomas Charles-Edwards, retired in September 2011. Due to pressure on funding, the University is unable to refill the Chair until an endowment of £2.64 million for the post has been raised. Oxford University wants to achieve this goal as soon as possible, and to have a new Chair in place no later than October 2017. A brain-storming session was the real purpose of our visit.
Oxford is the home of Celtic as an academic subject. The Jesus Chair itself was established in 1877, championed by the poet Matthew Arnold. It was the first Chair of Celtic in the world and is Oxford's oldest chair in a modern language. One of the reasons I wanted to study under Professor Ellis Evans, the post holder back in the eighties, was because Oxford was known as "the Welsh College". Between 1571 and 1915, an almost unbroken succession of Principals of Jesus came from Wales or were of Welsh decent. Twenty four all in all. In more recent times, the Catatonia song Every Day I Wake Up & Thank The Lord I'm Welsh, thumped out across the quad. And the joke goes, if the name Jones is shouted out, dozens of undergraduates respond....
As a proud Lloyd, it thrills me that the 17th century Welsh historian and linguist Edward Lhuyd, an alumnus of Jesus College and the second keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, actually coined the term 'Celtic' to describe languages comparatively. I feel privileged to have been accepted on said Celtic course. As a hat-tip to my namesake, I always make a point of visiting the brilliant Ashmolean when I return.
So forgive me if I'm rattling my charity can, but I really would love to see the Celtic Chair reinstated. It is, after all, the only one at an English University. And it's as vitally important for our English neighbours to understand their own Celtic heritage, and ours, as it is for them to understand the Romans or Normans. These are British texts, and to quote Welsh poet and author Owen Shears, "They form the very foundation of literature in these islands... and capture the transition from an oral to a written culture. They are also texts which embody some of the earliest imaginative renderings of our identity as a people and a place"
Hear hear Owen! THIS is why we need the Celtic Chair back where it belongs, at Jesus College Oxford.