Oliver Callan: ‘I got through last two days of the Leaving on painkillers and no sleep’
My Leaving: Monaghan-born satirist recalls tearing cruciate ligament during the exams
Oliver Callan: ‘The Leaving Cert is no measure of intelligence; it leads to nightmares throughout one’s later life and quashes the aspirations of the young that they might endure an easy life.’ Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Your most vivid Leaving Cert memory?
During the weekend in between exams, a few cattle “broke out” into a neighbour’s field. It was Sunday night, dusk, and I was summoned to help the rescue mission. Running across boggy ground, I went down, twisting my knee in a hole and tearing my cruciate ligament. My father had to carry me back across the field. Dosed on painkillers and with no sleep, I managed to get through the last two days of exams with my leg up on a chair. I felt very Joan of Arc about the sacrifice for the cause of agriculture. History was my last exam. I got an A1, but I may have tested positive for performance enhancing drugs.
Who was your most influential teacher?
English was my favourite subject, so Barbara Sweeney was my hero. I guess she was a crusader for poetry and those “difficult” authors. Teenagers don’t want to read poetry or a Victorian novel, but she somehow made them sing. It’s the sign of a great teacher that they have the talent to get flitty kids excited about onomatopoeia and the existential moanings of Yeats and Kavanagh.
Most difficult subject?
Ugh. Maths. I love words, so Maths was just ugly. Trigonometry has no romance. There’s nothing to learn about mortality from Pythagoras.
How many points did you get?
I got 495 points. I’m not bitter about not being in the 500 club. Not at all.
Did your results impact on your future career?
In a way, yes. I was in school in Monaghan, so the Leaving Cert was the only way out, to get to a university in Dublin and stay there. If I hadn’t made the 475 points for journalism in DCU, I would’ve ended up in my second choice, which was English and social studies in University of Limerick. Who knows what would’ve become of me had I gone to the Treaty town instead of the Big Smoke? A bigger interest in horses and hurling probably.
Is the Leaving Cert fair?
The Leaving Cert is no measure of intelligence; it leads to nightmares throughout one’s later life and quashes the aspirations of the young that they might endure an easy life. Sounds perfectly fair to me.
What subject would you add to the Leaving Cert that wasn’t on the curriculum when you sat it?
It’s there now, but politics would’ve been a great one for me, studying the ideologies and theories tried out in nations throughout modern human history. All millennials should be forced to examine them now, to break the chains in their minds that the trends they hold dear today aren’t going to last, nothing does.
What advice would you give your Leaving Cert self?
Treat your favourite subject as a hobby, because it’s likely to become a beloved hobby soon, then a career not long after.