Back to School at the Museum of Childhood Ireland

It’s almost time to pack up your pencil cases and return once more to school…

Pupils from the South Monastery Primary School in Cork, on March 28, 1935. Photo courtesy of @irishfamilydetective

Our entire childhoods are bookended by the years we spend in schooling. From four to sixteen, eighteen, and indeed into our twenties should we attend university, school is a hugely integral part of daily life.

For some, our schooldays are a source of fond nostalgia – we reminisce about our time spent in the schoolyard or the classroom, about subjects, sports and activities, and the friends along the way. Of course, for some, memories of times tables and exams are less than pleasant – however it is something that we all have in common, that has shaped our experiences through our younger years.

Organised primary schooling has been in place in Ireland in some form since the early 19th century, with a number of institutions and ‘hedge schools’ appearing before then. However, state-wide and state-funded primary and secondary schooling has existed since 1966. As such, there is a wealth of lived and shared history on this topic, and one that is especially topical at this time of year as parents straighten ties, label textbooks and pack some ham and cheese sandwiches for their children, ushering them out the door with stories of “back when I was in school…”

For me, growing up in the early 2000s, school elicits plenty of really positive memories. I enjoyed my classes, had some wonderful teachers, and made great friends. My only negative memories are those of running away from the ball playing Gaelic football in P.E. – sports were never something I exceled at!

For me, schooldays nostalgia is primarily object driven, and it only takes a few items to bring me right back to my days in the classroom, paring pencils to an outrageous point at the bin in pairs just to have a few moments of whispered conversation with a friend, playing “Queenie-i-o, who’s got the ball?” at lunchtimes, or spelling tests on a Friday morning…

Fallons table book, a staple in the early 2000’s classroom

One of the most iconic images for me from my primary school days is the Fallon’s table book – I spent so many hours reciting my times tables and pestering my parents to test me – delighting at multiplication, but always dreading division – and being thrilled at essentially having a night off from study when the 11 times tables rolled around. Who could stumble when you had the beauty that was 11, 22, 33, 44, 55….

The colourful primary school chairs that changed with the years

The culmination of any education is in the form of graduation. Yes, a cap, gown and scroll at university level has its charm, but primary school offered way more gratifying graduation. There was the graduation from pencil to pen, when your handwriting was deemed good enough to advance to the permanence of ink; there was the graduation from one level of reading book to the next, however one of the most nostalgic graduations for me was the changing sizes and colours of the metal and wooden chairs that decorated the classroom.

Every year, the excitement would be palpable, a chance to sit in a new chair, to be raised ever so slightly more off the ground – a status symbol, a symbol of having that little bit more authority in the schoolyard as the years progressed. This was made even better by being sent to Junior Infants when our teacher was out, cramming ourselves onto the tiny white chairs and exclaiming “We were definitely never this small!”

It is strange how objects can drum up such vivid memories of the classroom days, and it is wonderful to me that these objects are so generation specific – my parents and their parents would have completely different memory triggers than me, and for the students going back to school this week and being introduced to a whole new world of school-related bits and bobs, I am intrigued to hear what the quintessential Irish schooling object will emerge in the coming years.

We here at the Irish Museum of Childhood are fascinated by the memories that objects and topics can unearth, and we are passionate about building a museum and community that reflects those who lived our history and shared in these experiences. We would love to hear from people of all ages about your childhood memories – your schoolday stories and playground tales.

Please contact me at community@museumofchildhood.ie to tell us more about your experiences at school, including your name and county, and we’d love to hear from you and share some of your stories in the coming weeks!

By Chloe Browne

Chloe Browne is an Irish curator and Art Historian, with a keen interest in objects and social history.