Primary history - Pop-up pirates

Understanding historical events becomes easier when you put pupils in the picture. Paul Bracey explains all

Paul Bracey

Five Year 2 pupils were sitting around a table pouring over a black and white woodcut of a meeting between two well-dressed women.

"Yes but what would she be thinking?" a teacher's voice prompts, and they rapidly show that they understand that there can be a difference between what people say and think.

The children were studying what happened when Grace O'Malley, the Irish queen, met Elizabeth I, the English queen. They knew that Grace was no ordinary queen - she'd been a pirate, a sailor, and was a mother of four as well as a ruler of her kingdom. Grace had a problem with Sir Richard Bingham, Elizabeth's representative in Ireland.

He had been taking her lands and cattle and had locked her away once in jail. Grace decided to risk all to go to England to see its queen to sort out the problem.

All of the children had acted this meeting out, using the print to produce a freeze frame. Two children modelled the scene. One boy took on the role of Grace - the strength of the character he was playing overcame any gender stereotyping. The rest of the children suggested what the characters were saying and thinking. This was to model the task.

Then in groups they wrote speech and thought bubbles for each of the main characters.

Other groups provided a range of comments from Elizabeth, such as: "Is she good or bad?" through to a charming: "Grace. Welcome. How are you?" and "What is it I can do for you?"

This exercise was the third lesson of a themed unit, "Should we call Grace O' Malley a pirate?"

Pupils had started by exploring images of pirates from Blackbeard to Johnny Depp before looking at Grace O'Malley and Sir Francis Drake to see how far they looked like pirates.

This was followed by a lesson in which children were told the story of Grace O'Malley and then sequenced the key events of her life including the problems she faced with Bingham.

This third lesson - on the meeting between Grace and Elizabeth I - involved a discussion about how much Grace was a pirate before selecting a picture for the cover of a book.

The main purpose of this unit was for the children to challenge stereotypes of pirates, women and Anglocentric history - developing sophisticated ideas in a simple way.

Paul Bracey is a senior lecturer at the University of Northampton


- Focusing on real issues faced by people in the past appeals to the children. The story of Grace gives them opportunities to explore moral issues usually associated with the adult world.

- Speech and thought bubbles are a good way of getting children into thoughts and feelings of people in the past. All you need is a good picture.

The picture we used is the Frontispiece to Anthologia Hibernica, Vol II,1793. Find it on www.graceomalley.comwhowasgrace.php.

This lesson is one of many free resources produced by the Ireland in Schools project

Useful resources

We developed this activity from ideas we read in the following article: Kirkland, S., Wykes, M. (2003) Grace O'Malley, alias Granuaile, pirate and politician, c.1530-1603, Primary History, 34:34-36 and also "Who needs Florence Nightingale?" It worked for me: key stage 1 cameos, Innovating with history. London: QCA. This is available from 1index.htm.

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Paul Bracey

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