Vale, Anders Ahlqvist

Val Noone, a scholar of Irish-Australian history and culture, circulated the following email to a  group of friends.

Professor Anders Ahlquist


Greetings. Some of you will already know, others not. Our much respected friend and colleague Anders Ahlqvist died suddenly in Finland on Friday 24 August 2018, aged 73. He is survived by his wife Judith and their son, Jacob.

Pamela O’Neill has written an excellent tribute to Anders for Tinteán (6 September), and there will doubtless be international contributions honouring his legacy. The following paragraphs are a small personal tribute from Melbourne.

Learned and gracious

What a loss. Anders was an outstanding scholar of Celtic languages, one of the greatest of our era. Indeed, at the time of his death, though retired from teaching, he was still chairman of the Governing Board of the School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

Anders was gracious in sharing his immense learning with me, and thousands of others, without a trace of condescension. Personally, as one who came to the study of the Irish language in my fifties, Anders gave me great encouragement. We shared much about Celtic Studies in general, and he was a true and loyal friend. Just this past month I have been working under his guidance on a research paper and also on an Irish-language session for the Irish Studies conference in Sydney in November.

I was negotiating with Anders and Pamela O’Neill – what great works he and she have produced together this past decade – about which illustration might or might not be suitable for the article I was writing. I emailed Anders that my wife Mary had quipped that the three of us were “over-egging the pudding”. On 10 August 2018, he replied: “I agree entirely with Mary: the proof is in the pudding. Very best wishes, both of you, Anders.” Those were to be his last words to me.

News of last days

Dr Lorna Barrow, colleague and friend of Anders, has been in communication with Judith, Anders’ wife, and has passed on the following account of his death: “Anders and Judith had spent a lovely summer in Finland with family and enjoying the weather and Anders, his boat and writing. He had been well the whole time until last Thursday. He collapsed while retrieving his newspaper at the end of his road, and was able to call Judith to come and get him, and she quickly arrived to find him collapsed on the side of the road. He knew that she was with him, but all efforts by her and emergency people were unable to revive him. There was nothing anyone could do. It is suspected that he had a massive stroke. This was a huge shock as Anders was just 73 and had never had any illness.

“Judith cannot do any more until the autopsy is done and a good deal of paperwork, including a death certificate that will take 3-4 weeks.  She will be with her son in Edinburgh for the next little while, but will be in Sydney again on 14 September. A private funeral for Anders will be held sometime in October in Finland.” My thanks to Jeff Kildea for sharing Lorna’s email.

Early encounters

One of my early encounters with Anders was late in 2005 when Pamela O’Neill convened an Old Irish reading group at the University of Melbourne and as part of my preparation I tackled Anders’ opening chapter on ‘Litriú na Gaeilge/ Written forms of the Irish language’, in the thick book on the history of the Irish language edited by Kim McCone and others.

However, it was in Sydney on Friday 6 June 2008 at Scoil Gheimhridh, the Irish language winter school, that I first met Anders. (I think that is a cleft sentence, of which more later.) Alongside Ambassador Máirtín Ó Fainnín, Anders was a guest speaker. He had arrived in Sydney on the Tuesday to take up his post as Inaugural Sir Warwick Fairfax Professor of Celtic Studies at the University of Sydney. Eilis and Greg Hurst arranged for him to speak to us.

“I feel upside down”, he joked as he gave us a brilliant survey of the state of the Celtic languages today plus a summary of his argument that the Celtic languages have had “a huge influence” on the English language. He explained that his experience of being born into a Swedish-speaking family in Finland had given him a lifelong interest in minority languages. He spoke about his delight at what he called “the privilege of studying the Celtic languages”.

Prior to his Sydney appointment, Anders held important teaching and research positions in Galway, Helsinki, and Utrecht. In a sense, he came out of retirement to take the Sydney professorship. What a difference his presence has made, not just in Sydney but around Australia.

The following year, on 19 May 2009, Professor Elizabeth Malcolm invited Anders to address the Melbourne Irish Studies Seminar on ‘Celtic and English: a linguistic point of view’. His handout was a crowded 10-page set of quotations from the relevant scholars in the field, including himself, from which one could find enough reading matter for a few years’ work.

“The majority of scholarly opinion has long held that Celtic influences on English as been minimal on all levels of language. … I join the voice of those scholars who have challenged the prevailing view” he said. He argued in favour of influences from Celtic languages from five aspects: the verb “to be” in Old English and Welsh; periphrasis, the use of several words where one would do; cleft sentences, the use of a warm-up clause in order to emphasise the person or action spoken about (for example, It was John who made the mistake); various forms of past tenses; and the link between English “she” and Irish “sí”.

Summarising, he asked why does English differ from other Germanic languages and he answered “because English has been influenced by British Celtic languages”. A corollary was that “to study English you have to study Celtic languages”.

A seventh century link

During the 2010 Celtic Studies conference in Sydney, an optional tour of the rare books collection at Sydney University’s Fisher library was offered, which deepened my friendship with Anders. For an unknown reason the amazing collection of Celtic materials belonging to Nora Chadwick (1891-1972), author of the Penguin best seller, The Celts, is housed there. One of her books on display had a special connection to Anders. This was Robert Atkinson’ 1887 facsimile edition of the 1390 AD Irish manuscript known as the Book of Ballymote. Anders’ international reputation is built in part on his edition and commentary of a crucial section of that manuscript which deals with grammar. In brief, the text called Auraicept na nÉces / The Scholar’s Primer, dates back to the 600s AD. The Primer records early sophisticated studies by Irish scholars of the grammar of the Irish language, and includes explanations of the ancient Ogham way of writing Irish. Pleasantly surprised to notice this connection, I called Anders over, drew others attention to it, and took a photograph of him beside the facsimile, which is attached below.

His legacy

In the days after hearing of his death, in addition to making a fresh start on his chapter about the history of written Irish, I have enjoyed re-reading his masterly short commentary on the famous poem, ‘Is acher in gáith innocht’. That’s the one about the Vikings being kept at bay by the wild wind and waves. Anders dates it to about 850 AD and accepts that it was possibly written at Nendrum monastery in Strangford Lough, on an island now known as Mahee Island. In case you have not read his article, the surprise in Anders’ analysis is that the Vikings mentioned were coming not from Scandinavia but from a Viking naval fort near Dublin.

Anders Ahlqvist will be greatly missed and his influence will live on. May he rest in peace.

Val Noone