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A History of Ireland in 100 Objects

Fionnuala Ward, Primary Education Officer

Waterford Charter Roll

Lessons on Selected Objects from: A History of Ireland in 100 Objects

Almost two years ago, I opened The Irish Times, one lazy Saturday afternoon, and found myself looking a picture of a headless horseman. It wasn’t a particularly scary headless horseman. Much more an accidental one. It was as if the rider’s head had left its body in a moment of absentmindedness.

The picture was actually of a sculpture, made some time in the thirteenth century and the Norman mark was apparently all over it. It was, in fact, part of a series by Fintan O’Toole on A History of Ireland in 100 Objects.

As my eyes took in that decapitated figure, it struck me that kids would really love it. This object had a story to tell and was a veritable gateway into Anglo-Norman life. The other objects could surely open up eras and ages in a similar way, if approached appropriately.

And so, I pitched the idea to various publishers and got exactly nowhere. In fact, worse than nowhere, in that nothing came back, not even a polite rejection. Come to think of it, not even a brusque rejection.

But somewhere, in the middle of it all, I also approached the Royal Irish Academy and they actually replied. Now, it was a ‘no thanks’ but a reply nonetheless. And months later, due to a fortuitous change in circumstances, the ‘no thanks’, turned into a ‘let’s talk’ and a series of lessons for 5th and 6th class on 14 objects came about.

King William's Gauntlets

The headless horseman, as it turned out, didn’t make the cut. That was really down to the fact that we had to have objects outside of Dublin. Life can be pretty unfair but then a headless horseman doesn’t need me to tell him that. The Waterford Charter Roll got the Norman gig instead. It’s a wonderfully bizarre object with an amazing story to tell so there wasn’t much competition.

The other objects fell into place fairly quickly. The Mesolithic fish traps had to go in. Seven thousand years is an unfathomable age, yet a perfect starting point.  After that, boxes had to be ticked – the Neolithic age; the Bronze age; Christianity; the Vikings and the list went on.

The story of each object involved a translation from the original text published in the Irish Times into age-appropriate language. The new format had to informative yet inviting, fun yet frank. No pressure there then. None of which was helped by the fact that peer reviewers were recruited to pour over each line of text for the minutest of historical inaccuracies. 

We have no way of knowing this, the peer reviewer for King William’s Gauntlets effectively commented . William had given his gauntlets as a thank-you to the man who’d, wisely, granted him bed and breakfast, following his victory in the Battle of the Boyne. I had put in the piece that William was in a good mood, the best of moods, as he’d handed over his gloves. Surely he was, I summised. At the very least, he had to have been relieved, maybe a teeny bit happy? The battle was over. The victory was his. 

But I slipped in a ‘probably’ nonetheless. Bloody battlefields may well have been commonplace for William. Defeating rivals and cementing power just another day’s work.   

But the lessons turned into so much more than stories and a selection of teaching ideas. The Royal Irish Academy got to work and collected photographs and videos, interviews and documentaries. They approached institutions and individuals alike, asking and beseeching, persuading and pestering, until each object was fairly basking in a sea of digital resources.

It’s an impressive collection right now and available for free online. All in one place, no searching, no trawling.

The Normans, as is well-known, were supremely pragmatic. Maybe our headless horseman would even approve.

All lessons are available here.

Leaflet for A History of Ireland in 100 Objects Lessons

Information on lessons for 5th / 6th based on 14 objects from the project: A History of Ireland in 100 Objects 

Address: Educate Together, Equity House, 16/17 Upper Ormond Quay, Dublin 7, Ireland - Charity Number: CHY 11816