Leaving Cert English paper 1: the verdict

Students thrown by Heaney’s surprise appearance

Seamus Heaney. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Seamus Heaney. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh


Before the first English paper had even begun, students’ minds were already leaping ahead to the following day’s exam, and the all important question of which poets will appear on the paper. Today, over 37,000 students were shocked to discover an article by Seamus Heaney appearing on higher level English Paper One. Post exam, students immediately took to Twitter to indulge in fevered speculation about whether his poems are now less likely to appear on tomorrow’s English paper. Should they now focus on Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop? Was this all just a cruel trick?

The answer, says Evelyn O’Connor, founder of leavingcertenglish.net and a teacher in Mount Saint Michael’s Secondary School in Claremorris, is that Heaney’s surprise appearance changes nothing. “Different examiners set the different papers. Predicting which poets will appear is a mug’s game.”

Teachers expressed concern that the most capable students may have been tempted to use knowledge of Heaney’s poetry when answering a question about his work. “The Heaney piece was beautifully descriptive with fair questions but one would worry that students may have used knowledge from the study of his poetry in answering question 3: ‘One of Heaney’s gifts as a writer was his ability to make complex and profound ideas accessible to the general reader’,” said Elaine Dobbyn, an English teacher at Callasanctius College Oranmore. “It reads exactly like a Paper 2 poetry question and while it reminds them to focus solely on the extract some students may have strayed off the path.”

Ms. O’Connor said students who were not up to higher level standard would have found the paper particularly challenging. This year’s English Paper One was based around the theme of “influence”, which Anne Gormley, a teacher in Laurel Hill FCJ, Limerick, said was enlightening. “The exam offered an opportunity to speak about the various influences in their lives, ranging from a humorous approach to the Irish obsession about the weather to the more serious topic of how young people can have an influence on important global issues.”

Students were given comprehension questions based on an extract from the novel Canada by Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Ford. “This piece also featured a very challenging question asking for analysis of Ford’s ‘engaging narrative, lyrical beauty and concrete realism’ which is a lot for a student to cover in one question,” said Ms. Dobbyn. Students were also given an extract from an article in the Guardian newspaper which focused on writing about video games and music.

“Students all seemed to find an essay title that suited them with one of mine especially thrilled with the short story ‘in which a ghostly presences plays a significant part,’” said Ms. Dobbyn.

Overall, most students reacted positively to the higher level paper. Siobhan Sweeney, a student at Lauren Hill FCJ said that she was happy with the exam but was surprised that there were very few questions on images this year.

This morning’s Ordinary Level paper was sat by 15,996 students, and featured comprehension questions on Roy Keane and Malala Yousefi, the Pakistani girl who was shot by the Taliban for campaigning for girls’ education. Ms. O’Connor said the questions were set at the appropriate level.