My Education Week: ‘I feel like the Pied Piper’
Little Museum of Dublin assistant curator Mark O’Neill gets schoolchildren’s attention with a blast of a second World War air-raid siren and details of tenement life
Curator Mark O’Neill at the Little Museum of Dublin on St Stephen’s Green with pupils from St Pius X Girls’ National School. Photograph: Simon O’Connor
We are working with Dublin Theatre Festival on a temporary exhibition in the Little Museum. Everything has been lent by a bunch of generous theatre junkies, and today is the first time all of the material is together in one place. Now begins the fun: taking this disparate collection of memorabilia and using it to tell a story. The delivery man almost walks straight into a door with a plate of glass from one of the display cases. Thank heavens for bubble-wrap.
Our education programme, I Love Dublin, offers free civic classes to schoolchildren every morning. Thanks to the law firm Matheson, more than 3,000 kids will receive free classes this year. The programme is just starting up again this week. I start calling schools to invite them to participate. As the programme enters its third year, it’s getting easier to convince teachers to come back, and we get a few bookings for the end of the week.
One of the most fun things I’m working on is a collaborative exhibition with Clerys heritage gallery and Luas Cross City on the history of Dublin’s trams. The demise of Dublin’s tramways in the 1940s was one of the most unfortunate consequences of our reckless and haphazard approach to civic planning, and I’m glad we’re celebrating them at the museum. In the morning, I speak to Michael Corcoran, who literally wrote the book on the subject (Through Streets Broad and Narrow). I could study the trams for a week and learn less than I do in half an hour with him.
Two transition-year groups join us in the afternoon. The format of our classes is different for primary and secondary groups, but in both we discuss the conditions of tenement dwellers in Dublin a century ago. Henrietta Street was once the grandest address in the capital, but by 1911 it was effectively a shanty town. Most of the students gasp when I tell them that one of the houses had more than 100 residents. A lad at the back gets the gravity of the situation. “Jaysis,” he says, “and they’d no wifi.”
We have a few last-minute additions to our theatre festival exhibition courtesy of the Gate Theatre, so I cycle there, and then on to the framers, where I pick up some beautiful old posters that will soon find their way into our permanent collection.
In the morning the fifth-class pupils from Catherine McAuley School come in for I Love Dublin. Catherine McAuley is a school for dyslexic children, and one of my favourite groups; they’ve participated in the programme since it began. We welcome them with a blast of our second World War air-raid siren – one of the most effective ways of getting 25 10-year-olds to stay quiet long enough to tell them your name – and ask them to sit around the fireplace in the museum. We talk about the tenements and the 1916 Rising. Any educator will tell you that teaching requires patience, but not too much patience, and, as the kids get more comfortable at the museum, they become more excitable too. Four teachers and I struggle to get a word in edgeways.
After 20 minutes of group discussion we set the class loose to find their favourite object in the collection. This is my favourite part. It’s noisy. Children blow trumpets, ride around on a 50-year-old tricycle, test their strength on a fairground machine and bash away on old typewriters. I walk about, answering questions and showing the kids what hides in the nooks and crannies of the museum: our spooky automaton monkey always provokes some oohs and aahs.
I have my lunch on the roof of St Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre. Nelson’s Pillar may be gone, but you can still find great views of Dublin from the top of her carparks. Then it’s off to study monasteries. I’m one of six staff at the museum participating in a Fetac level-six course in Dublin heritage and tour-guiding. One day each week we attend classes in Dublinia, and there are several day trips to a heritage site outside of the city. Tomorrow we’re off to Glendalough. The course is very practical: we each have to do commentary on the bus down, and a walking-tour presentation of two points of interest at the site. One of mine is Reefert Church. I’ve never even heard of it. I feel like a 15-year-old desperately cramming for my Junior Cert.
The sun is splitting the stones, and I’m excited to be getting out of the city for a few hours. We meet at 9am. I’m first up on the microphone giving commentary. I’m nervous but it’s enjoyable. We pass Blackpitts, so called because of its use as a burial site during the bubonic plague; and Harold’s Cross park, the site of public executions in Dublin until the 18th century. Is our history always this grim, or is it just this road? After 15 minutes it’s someone else’s turn to give the commentary. So I sit back and enjoy the scenery as we ascend towards Sally Gap. Glendalough is gorgeous and peaceful: the perfect tonic for a hectic week.
Friday - Culture Night
Two primary groups from St Pius X Girls’ National School in Terenure arrive at the museum early, and immediately the place is full of laughter. I feel like the Pied Piper as I lead them through the exhibitions. I show them our Polyphon, a disc-playing music box that is more than 100 years old, one of my favourite recent additions to our collection. They’re not as impressed as I am. “Can you get one that plays Rihanna?”
I finish every class by asking the kids to name their favourite thing about Dublin. Today someone says: “The chimleys at Sandymount.” I’m on a high as I wave goodbye to the kids on the steps. Quick breakfast roll, then back to work.
On Culture Night three years ago, the Little Museum opened its doors to the public for the first time. Its founders were still hanging pictures even as the first visitors streamed in. We like to think we’ve learned from experience and are better-prepared this year. We’re not. There’s a healthy dollop of last-minute panic as I scramble to apply the final captions to our new exhibition. Then the madness begins. More than 1,800 people come through the door, and there are guided tours every 15 minutes. Despite the queues the atmosphere is electric, and five hours go by in the blink of an eye. I’m exhausted but I feel lucky. My favourite thing about Dublin is its people. In this job I meet them every day. Jammy.
Details of class visits and the I Love Dublin programme in the Little Museum of Dublin at littlemuseum.ie. Encore! A History of Dublin Theatre Festival runs at the museum until the end of November
THIS WEEK I WAS . . .
- Dancing to Pantha du Prince at the Opium Rooms. Or at least trying to dance. How do they cram so many people in? I catch myself thinking, this was much better at the National Concert Hall, and reluctantly accept I’m getting old.
- Walking around Stoneybatter on a free tour with Dublin legend Pat Liddy. It’s organised by Dublin City Council, and about 250 residents come along, blocking traffic everywhere we go. It’s a logistical nightmare but the old master rises to the task.
- Cooking: Elotes – spicy, cheesy, irresistible Mexican corn.
- Re-reading: From the Gracchi to Nero: a History of Rome from 133 BC to AD 68, Howard Hayes Scullard’s definitive account of the demise of the Roman Republic.