Historian John D. Ruddy wasn’t into history when he was a teenager, he was more into J.R.R Tolkien and Star Wars.
And yet now he is a Youtuber, who produces videos about Irish and world history. He released his second book, ‘Manny Man does revolutionary Ireland, 1916 to 1923’, this autumn.
The Donegal native has had blinding success online, amassing over 17 million views and over 100,000 subscribers on YouTube alone.
When asked if having a middle initial was the clincher for his second book deal, he laughed.
Ruddy explained: “The middle initial has become a bone of contention in some regards, I’ve begun having to insist on the D.
“Some people put my name on a poster and say ‘John Ruddy’, but John Ruddy is also the Wolverhampton goalkeeper. I don’t want people showing up thinking ‘he’s not a goalkeeper.’
“I’m John D. Ruddy, the Youtuber extraordinaire, not the Wolverhampton goalkeeper.
“Plus you’ve had these other people with those middle initials, particularly within the acting world, William H. Macey, Samuel L. Jackson, John D. Ruddy.”
As well as a Youtuber and an author, John is an actor, illustrator and a trained teacher.
He has a vibrant personality, and on his YouTube videos, this is the thread that ties his talents together. People want to see how he portrays history, as opposed to other Youtubers covering the same topics.
“There’s loads of little in-jokes [in my videos], in the illustrations in particular,” he said.
“Some of them are little blink-and-you’ll-miss-it things. There’s all sorts of little movie references and stuff like when I did the Cuban Missile Crisis, for a second I had a shot of the X-Men in the corner, from X-Men first class. And they’ll be saying ‘we weren’t really here, sure we weren’t?’
“Sometimes I’ll make really cryptic to see if people get them, like in the World War Two video there’s an image of London during the blitz and I do a little kid with a gas mask asking ‘are you my mummy’, a Dr Who reference.
“Little things like that to make it accessible, and to make it fun as well.”
This is John’s way of avoiding a common pitfall that so many teachers fall into, making history boring.
He said: “Sometimes you can dive into history without context and it doesn’t make the sense that it should. It doesn’t carry the weight that it should.
“Quite often at school that can happen where kids are going, ‘why are we even learning about this?’, but in the context of where it happens, all of a sudden it makes sense.”
The proof of this, John says, is evident during his classroom presentations. One tool in particular he’s fond of is comparing historical periods to the popular Assassin’s Creed video game series.
“I ask has anyone played assassins creed, and if they say yeah, then I tell them that’s the American Revolution,” said John.
“The one based in France, well that’s the French Revolution, and the industrial Revolution is the one in London. I like tapping into that.
“Obviously there are fictional stories within the historical context but it gives them the beginnings of a feel for running around that space and seeing the technology available.
“The games aren’t 100 per cent accurate, but it’s a really good jumping off point to give them some form of reference.”
This approach works for John, and clearly, for a lot of other teachers who play his videos to their students in class. His first viral video ‘Irish History in Six Minutes; Manny Man does the history of Ireland’ attained 70,000 views in a week.
His videos about topics like World Wars, The French Revolution, and the American Revolution were even bigger, owing to the international audience that was tuning in.
He said: “Teachers all over the world use these, watch these videos in class, and kids whenever they’re revising will be watching it themselves.
“I always love May/June time because I always get people leaving comments going ‘you really saved my ass here’, or ‘is anyone else here because they’re about to fail history tomorrow?’
“And then the next day they reply saying “Oh my god you saved me, I didn’t fail, yay!”
He added: “It is really rewarding, and really nice because you do get so many positive comments or you do get people saying ‘why weren’t you my history teacher, I learned more in the last six minutes than I learned in six years of history in school’.”
While his schedule is hectic, he already has plans in place for his next Youtube video. But the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.
The Vietnam War is his most popular request, and it’s not hard to understand why, as John explains: “…people have been asking for it for ages.
“In fairness I’ve been hinting at it for the last three years because also as part of my storytelling at the end of my videos I’ll add a little teaser.
“Like at the end of the World War One video where people thought this was going to be the war to end all wars… but unfortunately they were mistaken. And there’s a picture of a little disgruntled Hitler going ‘I could run this country a lot better’.
“But then I did a video about the Cuban Missile Crisis, I hint at the Vietnam War. But I did that video back in late 2014.
“People have been going ‘when are you doing Vietnam?’, and I touched it in my cold war video, and I touched it again in my presidents of the United States video.”
So presumably you would think the Vietnam War video would be next… but Irish history comes first.
“I’m probably going to do a video about the Flight of the Earls which I will be doing for Rathmullan in the museum up there which I have been asked to do.
“I’ll be producing that for hopefully some time in February. So that one will come first, sorry Youtubers but money talks! So they will be the TWO upcoming videos.”
Leaving the Vietnam project on the wayside offered John other advantages, like giving his latest book a quicker turnaround than his last book, ‘Manny Man does the history of Ireland’.
Another advantage he had this time was that he had the experience of writing a book already under his belt.
He explained: “I knew where the big pinches in time would come. I also went straight from doing that video on the presidents of the United States to this so it was a real tight schedule but I managed to do it.
“And because of the illustrations as well, I had the guts of 200 illustrations to do for the book, including a wonderfully detailed map of Dublin from 1916.
The book was initially supposed to be about the Easter Rising, but was extended out to encompass the War of Independence and Civil War, to capitalise on their upcoming centenaries.
He said: “It’s very relevant, plus a lot of kids really got into history last year and they really bought into the whole centenary of the Easter rising.
“I’m trying to make sure that love of history isn’t abandoned and going ‘okay, let’s see what happened next’.
“Because so many kids got so into it, and they want to see what happened next.
“And not only that but it’s also for adults. That’s the thing about my books, and also my videos, kids can read them, but adults can read them just as easily.
“I don’t talk down to kids. I don’t think kids should be talked down to – obviously, there’s certain language that one would use – but kids are smart. They’ll pick it up.
“It’s not about dumbing down, it’s about finding the common place.”
The common place for John came from worlds created by J.R.R Tolkien and George Lucas. An early video of his is a fusion of The Hobbit and Donegal winning the 2012 All-Ireland.
“I’m a big Tolkien fan and he was a very influential writer in my years, and I suppose it’s a part of what stems my love of history,” he explained.
“When I was a teenager I wasn’t into history but I was into Lord of the Rings and Star Wars and I was into the mythologies behind them.
“I remember being fascinated with the chronology of events and how these things that happened a millennia ago led to what happened in the movies and then what happened beyond the movies.
“I suppose it almost laid the groundwork for my love of history.”
What all of this experience has told him is that history needs to be less of a list of bullet points, and more of a story with central characters, sharing the same tenets as Tolkien and Lucas.
“That’s the thing about history, sometimes it can be reduced to dates and names and battles. Sometimes it becomes just a list.
“And it’s not a list – it’s a story. That’s where the word comes from, his-story, his story, which is a wonderful patriarchal word, it probably should be revised at some time in the future, but that’s another discussion.
“That’s how I approach my videos, is storytelling, and telling a story. Introducing topics, introducing characters.”