Wednesday 21 August 2019

Testing times as the sun comes out

Blue skies can only mean one thing - it's exam time again, writes Tanya Sweeney. We round-up some time-honoured traditions that will make you glad you're not doing it again

Sunny daze: The sunshine looks set to stick around this week as the Leaving Cert exams start today. Stock Image
Sunny daze: The sunshine looks set to stick around this week as the Leaving Cert exams start today. Stock Image

Tanya Sweeney

We may only be there for five or six years, but even in that short amount of time, school stays with you forever.

And depending on who you ask, the Leaving Cert is either the first stepping-stone to a new life, or the literal stuff of nightmares.

Whether you enjoyed your final year of school, or hated exam time with every fibre of your being, you're not likely to forget these time-honoured traditions.

Cue the dreamy music and wobbly screen and take our hand as we go back in time to what was, according to all our teachers at any rate, the most important fortnight of our lives…


So good that it recently became a best-selling poetry book in its own right. Back during our school days however, its green and white cover was a signifier of pure poetic penance. We knew our Kavanagh from our Yeats and our sonnets from our soliloquies.

Originally printed in 1969, the Soundings syllabus changed in 2000 to include more modern texts (in its original incarnation, there was only one female poet and one living poet). Yet no matter what year you did the exam, you weren't really doing Soundings properly if you weren't scrawling illegible notes all over Sailing to Byzantium and Stony Grey Soil.

Writing your name on the exam paper

Every single Leaving Cert student during English Paper 1: "Well, that's 10 points if you write your name down properly anyway. At least I haven't totally disgraced myself here."

Deirdre Madden's Home Economics book

Hot on the heels of Soundings' reprint in 2010, the textbook by domestic goddess Deirdre Madden saw a revival in 2011. A whole generation of Home Economics students grew up with Madden's bible - an idiot-proof guide to running a home. The tome, which boasted a brown cover showing a fruit cake, mixing bowl and wooden spoon, elicits much more affection than any other textbook, mainly because it has the recipes for such retro delights as 'Pineapple Upside Down Cake' and, eh, 'Pot Roasted Heart'.

Exam weather

As sure as night follows day, you could put your house on the idea that there would be the first significant 'heatwave' (fine, a 20-degrees spell) in the weekend before the Leaving Cert. As though facing the exam wasn't torture enough, all cramming then had to be done in lovely balmy weather, and within earshot of everyone else's fun. It's almost as though God (or someone very high up in Met Eireann) had a penchant for punishment.


Four small letters, but an entire universe of misery. Peig Sayers may have been a great storyteller, but the Blasket Island legend, who died in 1958, cast quite a dreary cloud on the Leaving Cert year. The saying 'always look on the bright side of life' clearly didn't exist in Peig's time, and her Irish-language account of life in mall-island Ireland was, to put it mildly, bleak. "I'm an old woman now with one foot in the grave and the other on its edge . . . Had I known in advance half, or even one-third of what the future had in store for me, my heart wouldn't have been as gay or as courageous as it was in the beginning of my days," is the first line, and it doesn't get much better from there. Peig was in time demoted from a compulsory read to an optional text in the mid-90s. And thus, Irish students were spared one sliver of misery in an otherwise grim year.

Getting your stationery in order

Blue pen, red pen, maths set, ruler, pencil - if being forearmed with the right accoutrements actually meant anything in the Leaving Cert, you'd probably be a surgeon/dentist by now.

Brian Mooney

Every Leaving Cert student knew that there was no turning back once career guidance expert Brian Mooney appeared on the airwaves. It really was as though the wise and affable Mooney was in our corner, offering words of wisdom for those about to face into battle, as well as advice on how to calm frayed nerves. 'Read the exam paper properly' truly did feel like sound advice at the time.

The timing

Whether by accident or design, the Leaving Cert always appeared to coincide with some pretty big global and local events like the World Cup, the Euros or the Cat Laughs festival. In the darkest moments of our soul, you couldn't help but wonder if Fifa & co were in cahoots with the Department of Education, on a mission to properly ruin your life.

To uniform or not to uniform?

Technically, we were no longer school pupils (we'd had that big graduation ceremony a few weeks previously), but still, the rule loomed large. Wear the school uniform to the exams, or risk not being admitted to the Halla Mór. A few hardy types really did think about flouting the rules for a second, but then the possibility to chucking away two years' hard-ish work over a blazer made them think twice. In the end, common sense prevailed, but we got to burn our ties on the school lawn after the exams (our mums would have scalped us for burning the blazer).

Special treatment

Whatever your favourite dinner was, you could rely on Mammy to have it on tap during exam time. Leaving Cert time was also the only time you were allowed a Red Bull at the dinner table, mainly because it was considered a perfectly reasonable treatment for 'exhaustion'. Being allowed to bring Cola bottles and Wham bars in the exam hall is one of the few positive memories.

The cheating urban legends

Did you hear about the guy who put the Maths book in the cistern of the school toilet? You know a girl in Stillorgan scratched a quadratic equation into her calculator? Or the bloke in Naas who has the dates of the Second World War written on the back of his tie? If you ever saw a school pal duck out to the loo, you couldn't help but wonder if they were about to commit some dastardly deed. Still, you knew you wouldn't have the gumption to do anything of the kind.

The Irish aural exam

"Léigh anois go cúramach na treoracha agus na ceisteanna a ghabhann le Cuid A." We don't know what they mean anymore, but they are nonetheless words that can strike fear into every Irish person's heart.

Someone asking for more exam paper

An eternity in the fiery pits of hell was wished on any such creature. Or at the very least, a D3.

Getting the results

Usually, the wait between the exams and the results is about two months - not that you'd think it by the way we stroll back into school in August like some sort of… grown-up. A lot happens in that post-Leaving Cert summer, both emotionally and fiscally, so by the time we're picking up the results, we are grizzled, world-weary selves, with new haircuts and clothes and all sorts. So emboldened are we that Mr Kelly the biology teacher is now known as 'Howaya Brian!' Treating teachers like they're real people - that's another crazy learning curve in and of itself.

Irish Independent

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