Leaving Cert English 2: Heaney goes astray

Writer shows up Unseen Poetry and not in Prescribed Poetry - as many were expecting

Examiners sent Seamus Heaney astray again this Leaving Cert, as the poet turned up on the Unseen Poetry section and not in Prescribed Poetry - as many students were expecting.

Heaney had also appeared on yesterday’s English Paper 1, raising fears he would not surface again this year.

His inclusion as an Unseen Poet on Paper 2 was described by many students as “just cruel”.

"A lot of my higher level students were disappointed not have the chance to answer on Heaney in the Prescribed Poetry section this year," said Ollie Power, who teaches at Deansrath Community College.


However, many students were happy to see the second favourite, Emily Dickinson, feature with a question about her delightful and disturbing approach to poetry.

Featured in the Prescribed Poetry section were Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, WB Yeats and Philip Larkin. Leaving Certificate students study a total of eight poets over the course of senior cycle and must answer on one from a choice of four on the day. Heaney did appear as a prescribed poet on the ordinary level paper.

Guessing the poets has become a national sport in Ireland, fuelled by social media discussions. There was widespread rage online in 2012 when Sylvia Plath evaded Paper 2.

Yesterday saw Heaney trend in the top ten most talked-about subjects on Twitter.

In an exam that went on for 200 exhausting minutes of handwritten literary appreciation, students considered a range of texts including Shakespeare’s Macbeth, JG Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

The questions on Macbeth centred on themes such as power struggles in the protagonist’s relationships and dramatic techniques used by the playwright to elicit audience response. Many students were hoping for a question on the role of women in the play; creative critics may have been able to turn the first Macbeth question to that end.

“The first Macbeth question conflated a character question with a question about politics, so any student hoping to write a straight-ahead character profile was not given that option,” said Ollie Power. “The question on Shakespeare’s dramatic elements, however, was typical.”

Jim Lusby, English teacher at the Institute of Education in Dublin, concurred, saying: "The questions on Macbeth, the Single Text option for the vast majority of candidates, were almost exact duplicates of those set on the same play in last year's examination - one on the character of Macbeth that looked straightforward but was actually complex, and another on dramatic technique that looked intimidating but was quite comfortable."

Use of the words “dictates” and “theses” in the Comparative Literature question was a stretch for some students, according to commentators. One teacher described the questions on this section as “unwieldy and poorly defined”.

“Heaney was the story of this year’s Leaving Certificate English examination,” said Lusby. While students were pleased overall with the paper, he cited “poor phrasing of some poetry questions in recent times, culminating this year in students being asked to find ‘glimpses of the redemptive power of love’ in the poetry of Sylvia Plath.”

The use of the word “redemptive” turned this into a “curveball of a question”, he said, adding it was especially “unfair” to introduce such ambiguous phraseology at the end of the exam.


Plath makes effective use of language to explore her personal experiences of suffering and to provide occasional glimpses of the redemptive power of love.

Discuss this statement, supporting your answer with reference to both the themes and language found in the poetry of Sylvia Plath on your course.

Louise Holden

Louise Holden

Louise Holden is a contributor to The Irish Times focusing on education