For Burns Scholar, water and romanticism mix

'Watery romanticism' represents a confluence of two of award-winning author Claire Connolly's scholarly pursuits

Photos by Caitlin Cunningham.

Technically, Claire Connolly may be a “visiting scholar” at Boston College, but she already knows the place quite well.

The Burns Visiting Scholar in Irish Studies for 2023-2024, Connolly spent 2002-2003 as a visiting associate professor at BC, and has spoken on campus several times over the years. She also collaborated with Associate Professor of English Marjorie Howes, a member of the BC Irish Studies faculty, as editor of the six-volume Irish Literature in Transition, 1700-2020.

“There is just a great community of scholars here, across the disciplines,” said Connolly, professor of modern English at University College Cork and author of A Cultural History of the Irish Novel, 1790-1829, which won the American Conference for Irish Studies Donald J. Murphy Prize for Distinguished First Monograph.

“The students, undergraduate or graduate, are wonderful people to speak with, whether in the context of a class or one-on-one. And then are the amazing resources of the Burns and O’Neill libraries. So I was very pleased and excited to have the opportunity to come to BC again for an entire academic year.”

A collaboration between the Center for Irish Programs and University Libraries, the Burns Scholar program brings outstanding academics, writers, journalists, librarians, and other notable figures to the University to teach courses, offer public lectures, and work with the resources of the Burns Library in their ongoing research, writing, and creative endeavors related to Irish history, art, and culture.

Connolly—a native of Clonmel in County Tipperary—will share insights from her unique perspective on 18th- and 19th-century Irish culture when she presents “Watery Romanticism: Crossing the Irish Sea with Keats,” the fall Burns Scholar Lecture, on December 6 at 5:30 p.m. in the Burns Library Thompson Room. The event, preceded by a 4:30 p.m. reception, is free and open to the public.

“Watery Romanticism” represents a confluence of two of Connolly’s scholarly pursuits. She has long researched and written about Romanticism, the artistic and intellectual movement that accentuated emotion and individualism, in large part through veneration of the past and the natural world—a response to the Age of Enlightenment and, in particular, the scientific interpretation of nature. Among its leading figures was the English poet John Keats, tragic author of works such as “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (“Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”), whose travels in his short life included a walking tour of England’s Lake District and Scotland that involved a brief trip to Ireland.

October 12, 2023 -- University College Cork Professor of Modern English Claire Connolly, Boston College's 2023-2024 Burns Visiting Scholar in Irish Studies.

Claire Connolly: "So, how do we assess the impressions of a Romantic like Keats in the context of what scientific findings, official documentation, and other evidence tells us? What might it say about Romanticism and its place in Irish history and culture, and about criticism of Romanticism, such as during the early years of the Irish Free State?"

Prior to beginning that odyssey, Keats became one of countless individuals to make the crossing between Scotland and Ireland via the Irish Sea. Such journeys were commonplace, even mundane, but also held great cultural significance for Ireland, notes Connolly.  

“Seas and coasts were part of everyday Irish life in the Romantic era,” she explained. “Authors, soldiers, landlords, migrant workers, students, and members of Parliament moved between the islands and across the British Empire along with books, letters, wine, food, weapons, and cattle.”

In recent years, Connolly has led the interdisciplinary environmental and public humanities projects “Deep Maps: West Cork Coastal Cultures” and “Ports, Past and Present,” analyzing the extensive, often complex relationship over hundreds of years between Irish people and the coastal and marine areas they have inhabited, explored, utilized, and exploited. For her lecture, she will use findings from this work as a lens to analyze Keats’s Irish and Scottish letters and consider the limits imposed upon the creative imagination by the teeming, dismal scenes of pre-famine Ireland.

“Keats had yet to write his most well-known poems before the trip to Ireland, so it’s interesting to get a sense of what he encountered,” Connolly said. “He hadn’t really envisioned a ‘tour’; he just got on the ferry and was in Ireland. His writing from that time doesn’t have a tourist’s perspective: Among other things, he saw a rapidly developing Belfast, ravaged with disease, and was unimpressed: He remarked that Belfast was more expensive than Covent Garden.”

Environmental humanities is a highly effective means by which to view Irish history and culture more comprehensively, said Connolly. “The late 18th and 19th century was a very intense period where the relationship between people, land, environment, along with justice, was intertwined in ways not always fully appreciated. As records indicate, there was certainly a legacy of extraction and exploitation—the colonial government seeking to ‘improve’ the land through draining bogs and harvesting seaweed, for instance—but also one of conservation and attention to biodiversity.

“So, how do we assess the impressions of a Romantic like Keats in the context of what scientific findings, official documentation, and other evidence tells us? What might it say about Romanticism and its place in Irish history and culture, and about criticism of Romanticism, such as during the early years of the Irish Free State?”

Having grown up “at the bottom of a valley with no TV reception,” Connolly said, she was always a keen reader. She came of age in the 1980s, a period marked by the continuing turmoil of the Troubles but also referenda on abortion and divorce that finally led to some important societal changes in Ireland. After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees from University College Cork, Connolly emigrated to Wales, earning a doctorate at Cardiff University and serving on its faculty. She returned to Ireland in 2012.

Connolly has edited or co-edited 10 books and authored dozens of book chapters and articles, and has been O’Brien Professor at Concordia University in Montreal and Parnell Fellow in Irish Studies at Magdalene College, Cambridge. Her affiliations include membership in the Royal Irish Academy, the board of the Irish Research Council and Council of the Royal Irish Academy, and the Cambridge Studies in Romanticism editorial board; she also is a Fellow of the Learned Society of Wales and a Corresponding Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.