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John Rhŷs, Celtic scholar, was born John Rees, at Aberceiro-fach, Ponterwyd, Cardiganshire, on 21 June 1840. He was the eldest son of a farmer and lead miner, Hugh Rees (d. 1886), and his wife Jane Mason (d. 1863). John Rhŷs was educated at Bryn-chwyth, Pantyffynnon, and Ponterwyd, and from 1855 at the British School, Penllwyn, where he became a pupil teacher. He studied at the Normal College, Bangor (1860–1861), and was subsequently appointed master of Rhosybol British School, Anglesey. In 1865 he was offered a scholarship to study at Jesus College, Oxford; in 1869 he was elected a fellow of Merton College. During the holidays he travelled and studied abroad, and in 1871 he matriculated at the University of Leipzig.
In 1871 John Rhŷs was appointed HM inspector of schools for the counties of Flint and Denbigh. He married Elspeth Hughes-Davies (1841-1911), a teacher originally from Llanberis, on 6 August 1872, and the couple settled in Rhyl. They had three daughters, Gwladus (d. 1874), Myvanwy and Olwen.
Although some of his work had already been published, John Rhŷs's reputation as a Celtic scholar was firmly established following a series of lectures he delivered at Aberystwyth in 1874, later published as Lectures on Welsh philology (1877). He was elected first professor of Celtic at Oxford in 1877, and made an honorary fellow of Jesus College. In 1881 he became official fellow and bursar of the college, and was elected principal of Jesus College in 1895.
Rhŷs's main field of interest was Celtic and Welsh philology. However his scholarly research extended beyond philology and his published works related to grammar, Celtic history, folklore, ethnology, and archaeology. He travelled throughout Britain, Ireland, and Europe recording Celtic inscriptions, in particular Ogam inscriptions.
John Rhŷs was a prominent figure in academic and public life; in addition to his scholarly research he was a popular public speaker, especially in eisteddfodau. He was president of the Dafydd ap Gwilym Society at Oxford from its formation in 1886, and chairman of the council of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion. He served as member of various committees, councils and commissions and, at the time of his death, he was chairman of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales and Monmouthshire.
Several honours were bestowed upon him during his lifetime, including the honorary degree of LL.D., University of Edinburgh (1893); honorary D.Litt., University of Wales (1902); fellow of the British Academy (1903); and the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion medal (1912). In 1907 he was knighted, in recognition of his contribution to public services; and he was made a member of the privy council in 1911.
John Rhŷs died at The Lodgings, Jesus College, Oxford, on 17 December 1915; he was buried at Holywell cemetery, Oxford. The British Academy founded the annual Sir John Rhŷs Memorial Lecture; the inaugural lecture was given by his former student, Sir John Morris-Jones, and contains a comprehensive bibliography of his mentor's published works.