“I like to find out about people from the past,” said Cecilia O’Donnell, age 10, from Castleknock.
“Music especially, because there’s lots of interesting musicians, like Mozart or Beethovan. Irish music, I like that as well.”
Does this match her favourite subject in school? “Well, I was going to say lunch, but I guess that’s not a subject,” says Cecilia.
Last September, Dervilia Roche started to talk to kids like Cecilia about the history they wanted to learn about.
Roche, who since September has been Dublin City Council Culture Company’s children’s historian in residence, says their answers have steered the online workshops that she’s been running.
She’s eager to involve children in history as much as possible, she says, while bearing in mind pandemic restrictions.
Her newest project involves encouraging children to take to the streets to find history within 5km of where they live.
“When you start to look around your local area, you see a lot of interesting things,” Roche says.
Every month since her role began, Roche has hosted a Saturday workshop, taking children through different windows of Irish history, using activities and discussions.
Parents who had signed up to newsletters from Dublin City Council Culture Company and Dublin City Libraries got an email, inviting children to get involved.
She started workshops to gather what kids wanted to learn about, just general chats to see what themes they like, she says. “I’m not just presenting history to kids, we’re working together.”
“She was asking us some questions about history, like, ‘What’s your favourite era?’ things like that,” says Rebecca Carolan, also age 10, from Whitehall, who has taken an online workshop.
“My favourite era is the 1800s because I like the clothes and I read a lot of stories about it,” she said.
Roche, the children’s historian in residence, says she makes sure her interactive Zoom workshops are funny and intriguing enough for the 9- to 12-year-olds who call in.
She gets questions like, how old would St Patrick be if he were still alive? “Kids just put a different spin on things,” she says.
She picks up new threads of local history too, when children bring up a funny story that a relative has told them about their local area, or an interesting fact they learned.
“I’m definitely learning loads from the kids,” says Roche.
Many are interested in dark stuff, she says. “The Famine and the Holocaust. I think there’s a real curiosity about those subjects, which is understandable.”
Mythology comes up too, and the ancient Greeks and Romans.
“If they have a particular interest, they’ll be asking me about sport, or the history of music,” says Roche.
That’s great to make it personal and more meaningful, says Roche. “Rather than some abstract thing.”
Roche says her online workshops have fared quite well and the kids have been engaged.
But she’d love to be out doing projects over the summer, she says. “At least outdoor gatherings where we can go on a walk.”
That’s the way this role was always imagined, she says. “That it would be going off and exploring the city, making connections and learning.”
The Book Club
All Rebecca and Cecilia can talk about is the book club. They’re both big readers.
English is Rebecca’s favourite subject. “I love reading. I love books,” she says.
She’s read some historical fiction, mainly Jacqueline Wilson, she says, like the Hetty Feather series set in Victorian London. “I like it because it’s funny and it has a good storyline to it.”
Cecilia read Under the Hawthorn Tree with her class in school. “It was alright,” she said.
Says Roche: “I find, with kids, they’ll tell me what their favourite part of history is, and I’ll ask why, and often it’s because they’ve read a book set in a historical period.”
Reading the books immerses the reader in a time past, which is why Roche wanted to start the book club.
The first session is lined up for Saturday 27 March. Anyone can join by emailing her, says Roche.
“We can have chats about [the books] and I can talk to them more about the specifics of the history,” says Roche.
In the Neighbourhood
Spotting an unusual feature on a building or an aged monument, or following a family or local story to its roots are all ways to begin history research, Roche says.
With her latest project – getting children to find history within their 5km zone – Roche says she’s “just curious to see what they come up with, what they’re interested in, and then I’ll see if I can help them understand it”.
She’s asking them to visit nearby places of historical significance, make short videos of them, and sent in questions about their history to her – which she’ll answer in online videos.
She wants to foster a genuine interest in history and give young historians the tools to learn more themselves, she says. To show them online resources, and how to collect oral histories, for example.
“I love the idea of children feeling more connected to their neighbourhood and to the city and understanding their place in history,” she said.
“I want to give them that inspiration that they might keep it up, and show that it’s not difficult to do your own bits of research,” says Roche.
As a historian, Roche feels the children help her to look back with new eyes.
Historians have to make sure they’re not getting stuck in their ways, she says. “A kid can come in and ask the question in a totally different way.”
Roche used to be a tour guide on the Battle of the Boyne site in Meath.
She felt there were ways the site could be more accessible to different ages, she says, so she did a master’s to study that more.
“I researched how children engage with heritage sites, asking, Is there anything here to make it more fun or interesting for them?” says Roche.
She studied a group of kids, exploring how they interpreted the site. What did they enjoy? What did they remember?
“I use a lot of those ideas in my work now,” says Roche. “Making things interactive is a big one.”
It’s so fulfilling when the kids respond and they’re really interested, she says. “And maybe if they’re going to go off and research something themselves, that would be amazing.”
Children and their parents can get involved in the book club, or the local history project, by emailing Dervilia Roche at [email protected]