Three decades on, Irish exam felt far more user-friendly

How would the teenage Harry McGee have fared with this year’s Irish?

I chose question 1 (A) worth 50 marks, and documented the life of Nelson Mandela. Photograph: Rodger Bosch/AFP/Getty Images)

I chose question 1 (A) worth 50 marks, and documented the life of Nelson Mandela. Photograph: Rodger Bosch/AFP/Getty Images)

Wed, Jun 11, 2014, 01:00

After almost three decades I try to remember how the Leaving Cert me would have found Gaeilge Ardleibhéal Paipéar II. What words and phrases would I have stumbled over? What seemed unfamiliar in the paper I looked at yesterday compared to the one I did in the 1980s?

Paper 2 has all the prescribed literature: short-stories, poetry, drama and prose. Gone since my day are the despised Peig and the amazing but difficult short stories from Liam O Flatharta, Dúil.

The paper is more user-friendly than it was, with more emphasis on comprehension than knowledge of obscure poems. Both passages were topical and modern – we even had the Irish word for tweet: the ungainly “tvuít”.

The gearrscéal that came up, Dís was wholly unfamiliar to me, although I remember passages from the poem An Spailpín Fánach. The Litríocht Bhreise (additional literature) included a play (An Triall) and a story (Tóraíocht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne) which I knew – the rest including Gafa and Canary Wharf were unknown.

I chose question 1 (A) worth 50 marks. It was one of two comprehension pieces (between them comprehension was half the total of 200 marks) and documented the life of Nelson Mandela (the other was a look back at 2013). Neither passage was a gimme. There were a few words that I’m sure Leaving Certs needed to guess: eisceachtúi (exceptional); go seoigh (very good); An Tóstal (The Gathering). I’m not sure how students divided their time but if was 45 minutes for question one, there would be no dawdling possible.

Did I find it hard? I will say it is a fair test and it felt like honours Irish. The trick is to stick to the test – you could almost answer all questions just using what was written about Mandela. The last question tested grammar and had an “in your own words” section. I’d like more of that.

I have a degree in Irish, I speak Irish daily, I write in Irish frequently. I’m a journalist and write quickly for a living. That kind of colours it as an exercise. I think I would have found it doable but hard at 18. I grew up in an Irish-speaking home and went to an Irish school in Galway city. My time management was atrocious but I would have understood more or less everything in the two passages