Unorthodox historian's journey along the highways and byways of the past

 

BOOK OF THE DAY: JAMES KELLYreviews And Did Those Feet: Walking Through 2,000 Years of British and Irish HistoryBy Charlie Connelly Little, Brown 308pp, £12.99

AS ONE of the “dusty, musty” academics that have contributed, in Charlie Connelly’s estimation, to the “still-too-common perception of history” as boring, I might be expected to dislike this book, and to dismiss it as eccentric if not simply misconceived. It is certainly not a work of orthodox history.

Essentially a travelogue, in which Connelly traces the “routes taken by some of the famous and not-so-famous figures in the history of these islands”, it presents a series of historically grounded journeys, laced and enlivened with contemporary observations, personal experiences and present-centred reflections on the history and landscape of England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and the Isle of Man over two millennia. Moreover, it does not observe the historians’ commitment to impartiality. Connelly’s accounts of the legendary figures and emblematical events which are his primary focus is unfailingly sympathetic; while the “journeys” he chooses to pursue seem to be guided more by the drama associated with the personality and the symbolic significance of what happened rather than by larger historical questions of causation and consequence.

Furthermore, the text abounds with anachronisms, colloquialisms and latter-day anecdotes that few will find either relevant or insightful. Yet these obvious deficiencies notwithstanding, this is a warm, informative, engaging work. Charlie Connelly clearly loves history as much as he does travelling; he also revels in the landscape (if not the weather, which proves very trying on several occasions), and meeting people. Moreover, having studied history at university, he possesses a developed historical sensibility that permits him to isolate and to prioritise pertinent facts, which he melds with the travellers’ relish for the landscape and the people that occupy it, and the creative writer’s capacity to tell a story. It is a narrative that is accessible, entertaining and frequently insightful.

The seven journeys that comprise this book were conducted over a period of eight months. In six of the seven, Connelly traces the epic journeys by major personalities from British history. They commence with the shadowy Queen Boudica’s (AD 60-61), whose long-celebrated revolt against the imperious Romans he pursues from its beginning at Norwich to its defeat at St Albans.

Connelly empathises with the elusive Boudica, but it is clear from his account not only that she was motivated by revenge, but also that she was a less consequential figure than King Harold (his second subject), who had kingship thrust upon him, and whose untimely end at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 paved the way for the ascendancy of William the Conqueror. By comparison, his third personality, Olaf the Dwarf, king of the Isle of Man (c1150), is less well known, but this man with a “pious heart and perky libido” rivals Owain Glyndwr as one of the most fascinating characters to whom Connelly introduces the reader. Of the author’s journeys, his travel through Wales in pursuit of Glyndwr is certainly the most revealing in its observations on the present, and Connelly’s conclusion that “Welshness is more about consciousness than the trappings of state” is intriguingly sustained by his fascinating account of the commemoration by a devoted body of Welsh nationalists of Llywelyn the Last – the last of the Welsh princes. By comparison, the journeys of Mary, Queen of Scots and the escape of Bonnie Prince Charlie, with the aid of Flora MacDonald, lack an equivalent contemporary echo.

This is not true, certainly, of the only Irish journey – the harrowing Doolough Famine Walk – which concludes the book, and which is explored in 10 moving pages. It is the only journey that engages with the “faceless”, but it serves as well as its predecessors to achieve the author’s objective, which is to animate “a sense of the vibrancy that history hoards”, and which even those of us who habituate the “dusty, musty” archives can but welcome.

  • James Kelly is head of the history department at St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra. His most recent work, The Proceedings of the Irish House of Lords, 1771-1800, was published by the Irish Manuscripts Commission in November