The Humanities and Me:
Sinéad Mitchell-Brennan

Everybody loves a good story.

In many ways, my role as Educational Facilitator at the Jackie Clarke Collection centres around that very simple premise. The Collection is home to 100,000 items of Irish History spanning four centuries. It is an unparalleled archive, amassed over a lifetime by one local man, Jackie Clarke (1927-2000).

It is my job to interpret the material contained within the Collection on behalf of the younger generation. Using the primary source material at hand, I research, devise, and deliver a year-round schedule of tours, workshops and learning experiences. As clichéd as it may sound, I endeavour to ‘bring history to life’ for our many visiting school-age visitors.

The sheer breath of the Collection allows for a varied and ever-evolving Programme. Topics such as the 1798 Rebellion and the Great Famine are firm staples which support the school curricula and bring pupils in contact with contemporaneous artefacts and documents. There’s scope for creativity and imagination too. Re-creating an entire 1940s Irish schoolroom on site at the Collection was one of my favourite projects to date.

The Collection is housed over two landmark buildings in Ballina’s town centre. The main exhibition is displayed in the beautifully restored former Provincial Bank, built in 1881. The Repository and Education Space are on the upper floors of the Ballina Library-formerly The Moy Hotel- a building as iconic as the river from which it took its name. These surroundings lend themselves perfectly to my work and the stories I tell our young visitors. I never tire of showing off the old bank vault where Jackie’s original copy of the 1916 Proclamation is kept, or pointing out the balcony of the Moy Hotel from were Charles Stewart Parnell spoke, just months before his death in 1891.

I didn’t exactly plan to work in Museum education. I studied for a BA in Modern History and Nua- Ghaeilge, followed by an MA in Modern History at Maynooth University. Then it was on to Trinity College for the Higher Diploma in Education. My years spent teaching History and Irish in an all-boys post-primary school in Dublin gave me a solid foundation for my current role.

I learned the value of hard work, preparation and, when the occasion demands, how to laugh and roll with the punches! Working around young people is very rewarding- another cliché I know, but for me it’s true. Their enthusiasm and outlook add so much value to our everyday lives. And they ask the best questions. Ask any teacher, they will tell you!

Taking up the role as Education Facilitator in the Collection seemed a strange twist of fate on the path of life. As a young university student, I was generously given access to Jackie’s vast archive, then held in the Clarke family home. Little did I know at the time what lay ahead of me.

When invited to reflect on ‘the Humanities and Me’, I realised that the Humanities have shaped and informed my career path, interests and passions in so many ways. Reading Martina Conlon-McKenna’s iconic Famine novel ‘Under the Hawthorn Tree’ as a young girl had a truly profound effect on me. It was the start of a lifelong passion for all things Irish History, and in particular the experiences of ordinary people.

I’m naturally drawn to any expression of that theme, in literature, cinema, theatre and music. A love of the Irish language greatly enriches these experiences for me. It brings a kind of nearness to the past. A recent trip to see the Irish language film ‘Arracht,’ set during the Great Famine, seems a good example of this.

The current pandemic has posed many challenges for my usual work at the Jackie Clarke Collection. It also brought new opportunities and a fresh perspective. I’ve had time to regroup and make plans.

I’m hopeful that 2022 will bring a full return to the Education Programme.
There are so many stories yet to be told.

Published: 22 Nov 2021

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Sinéad Mitchell-Brennan is a native of Ballina and a graduate of Maynooth University and Trinity College Dublin. She is qualified teacher of Irish and History. She has been the Educational Facilitator at the Jackie Clarke Collection since late 2016 (