On Thursday 23 August 2018, Professor Anders Ahlqvist passed away suddenly at his home in Porkala, Finland. He was 73 years old. Celticists the world over are mourning the premature loss of a leader of the discipline, a kind and generous mentor, a delightful teacher and a true friend. Members of the Celtic communities in Australia have also lost a great friend and supporter.
Professor Ahlqvist had a distinguished career in Celtic Studies, following a PhD at Edinburgh with a spell at Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, and many years at NUI Galway. He took up the post of inaugural Sir Warwick Fairfax Professor of Celtic Studies at the University of Sydney on 1 July 2008. Earlier that year, he travelled to Sydney to put in place the mechanisms to enable him to ‘hit the ground running’. He met with the Celtic Studies Foundation and others, and took on the monolith of the University administration to arrange for units of study to be offered to students the following year.
On his return to Australia in June 2008, Professor Ahlqvist immediately built relationships with Celtic community organisations. He addressed the Irish and Scottish Gaelic language winter schools the same weekend he landed in Sydney, and continued to be a regular participant in Irish language activities. He immediately joined the Celtic Council of Australia, the Aisling Society of Sydney, the Sydney Society for Scottish History and others, and established important links with the Breton community.
On Friday 17 October 2008, Professor Ahlqvist delivered his inaugural lecture to a standing-room-only audience on the topic ‘Celtic!’. The lecture reviewed, in a typical blending of diplomacy and scholarship, some important Australian Celtic connections as well as material from each of the Celtic literary traditions.
Professor Ahlqvist began to teach at Sydney at the beginning of 2009, and for five and a half years, taught three ‘units of study’ in each semester. Every student in Defining the Celts, Old Irish, Middle Welsh and Modern Irish Linguistics received outstanding teaching and careful attention. Alongside his own teaching, he appointed Desmond O’Malley to teach Modern Irish Language and Culture (with funding from the Irish Government), and John Coombs to teach Modern Welsh Language and Culture (funded by a bequest). Two history-based units were taught by Lynette Olson, Sybil Jack and Pamela O’Neill.
In 2009, Professor Ahlqvist hosted a one-day symposium on Early Celtic Legal Language, bringing together scholars from Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. In 2010, he hosted the Seventh Australian Conference of Celtic Studies in Sydney. An array of senior and significant scholars of Celtic from around the world, reflecting the widespread respect and friendship for him and his scholarship. In 2011, he hosted a day symposium on Early Medieval Mariners in Britain and Ireland, at which colleagues from the Anglo-Saxon and Norse area of the English Department at Sydney joined Celtic Studies researchers to share scholarship on this area of interest.
The year 2012 saw the securing of an Australian Research Council grant by Professor Ahlqvist and partners for a project on early Irish law, including a specialist conference on Medieval Celtic Law Texts at Sydney in October 2012. In 2013, he published his Grammatical Tables for Old Irish, designed to assist his students, and based on teaching materials he had used in both Galway and Sydney. He also hosted the Eighth Australian Conference of Celtic Studies in 2013.
This account is a mere skeleton. As well as many more activities in Australia, Professor Ahlqvist constantly travelled between the hemispheres, fulfilling his commitments to Celtic Studies elsewhere – doctoral theses were examined, board meetings attended, Congresses planned, and much else besides. He spoke several languages, and had a delightful habit of putting people at ease by speaking with them in their preferred language.
Professor Ahlqvist retired from the Chair of Celtic Studies at the University of Sydney in December 2013. He left behind him well over a hundred students who have had the privilege of being taught by an outstanding teacher and scholar. He co-edited four books in the Sydney Series in Celtic Studies and six volumes of the Australian Celtic Journal, peer-reviewed articles for many publications including the Australasian Journal of Irish Studies, and attended numerous conferences, including the ISAANZ conference each year. He also left untold numbers of colleagues, community members and friends whose intellectual and personal lives have been enriched by his contribution to Celtic Studies in Australia and abroad.
The sympathy of his many friends is extended to his wife Judith, son Jacob, and family. A private funeral will be held in Finland. Memorials will be arranged later in the year in various places including Sydney.
Dr Pamela O’Neill, FSA Scot, D.Urr
Honorary Research Associate, Medieval and Early Modern Centre, The University of Sydney. She is also Principal of the School of Celtic Learning. D Urr stands for Duine Urramach – Scottish Gaelic for esteemed person, an honour bestowed by the Celtic Council of Australia.