Upper School Social Studies teacher, Paul Doolan, is a master of bringing history to life.
It takes fewer than five hours to fly from Cork, on Ireland’s south coast, to Zurich. But for the schoolboy Paul Doolan, now an Upper School Social Studies teacher, it may as well have been a different world. “I was frustrated by only being taught Irish history at school, so I had this huge interest in what the rest of the world looked like,” he says.
In fact, feeding his curiosity has powered Paul’s career. After leaving school in 1977, he spent five years travelling the globe, picking up odd jobs, from Israel to India.
In 1982, he decided it was time to get a degree, and studied history and Indian philosophy in the Netherlands, where he met his wife, Esther. After they both qualified as teachers, they moved to Japan for a decade, where they had their first two children (their third was born in Zurich).
Now Paul finds joy in making history come alive for others – and not only in the classroom. A few years after moving to Zurich, he began to run informal tours for visiting friends and new colleagues, something he’s happy to do for whoever asks. “If I can enrich people’s experience of the city, then that makes me happy,” he says.
The focus of his tours varies, covering anything from medieval history to the start of the Dada movement in art. “One of my favourites was an American couple in their 70s: she was from the Amish community, he was from the Mennonite community – religions that date back to 16th-century Zurich. I was able to really personalise their tour.”
When he first arrived in the city, Paul wasn’t sure he wanted to settle, but a snippet of local history convinced him to give it a chance. “I was walking in the rain, missing Japan, when I went past the Hotel zum Storchen and saw a plaque that claimed Theophrastus von Hohenheim, an eccentric chemist better known as Paracelsus, had stayed there in 1527. He’s one of my favourite 16th-century people, so I thought, ‘Well, if it’s good enough for Paracelsus…’ and immediately felt much more at home.”
"History lifts you out of the world you’re in and shows you that things used to be different – and maybe will be again."
Many of Paul’s favourite historical sites are off the beaten track, like the Brunngasse, a picturesque lane in the old town that features the oldest wine bar in Zurich and a building that used to be a Carmelite convent. The city government’s Heritage Department allows him to borrow the keys to some of Zurich’s hidden attractions, which include a house containing rare Jewish frescoes from the 1300s and the remains of a Roman castle under the Lindenhof.
At the moment, though, he spends most of his free time on his doctoral dissertation, which is about the former Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia. “What interests me is that all Dutch people know Holland ruled Indonesia, but hardly anyone knows about the last years of the colony, from 1945-49, so I’m investigating how those years have been represented in Dutch culture.” He expects to finish it this year, but his love of history is unlikely to ever end. “History sparks the imagination,” he says. “It lifts you out of the world you’re in and shows you that things used to be different – and maybe will be again.”;
WORDS DIANE SHIPLEY / PHOTOGRAPHY NATO WELTON