Whatever happened to the A1 students?


THE NEWSPAPER PHOTOS are the same every year: a beaming student holding up an impossibly good Leaving Cert results sheet, or an elated brain-box held aloft by his classmates, pumping the air with his fist. These are the elite who make the national press with their stunning results – 17 or 18 year-olds who open those envelopes to see eight or nine A1s staring back at them.

Out of 55,000 or so students each year, they are the ones who come out on top.

Since 2000, about 31 students have earned the title of top student. Out of those, an astonishing 15 have been from Cork. Dublin lags well behind with six top students. The rest are scattered throughout the country: Galway boasts three; Kerry, Kildare, Wicklow and Waterford have two each, while Carlow can claim the remaining student.

High results are becoming more common. Three students achieved nine A1s this year, the first time more than one student has managed nine in a single year, while 10 students shared the top slot with eight A1s last year.

So we’re all familiar with the stories of delight upon opening the envelopes, but we decided to ask, what happens next?

FEARGUS DENMAN is from Maynooth. He got nine A1s in 2001, the top marks of that year. He is a Harvard graduate, has travelled the world and is currently on a break from his PhD research.

“It occurred to me when I was doing nine subjects that I could get nine As and that could be kind of a big deal. I wasn’t looking for high points. I had arts in Maynooth which was about 400 points down on my CAO so I didn’t have any stressful target but of course I wanted to do well.

“When I did, I had a notion that I wanted to go to college abroad. My brother had gone to Cambridge – they rejected me. But really I didn’t know whether I wanted to do linguistics or European studies or philosophy. I was all over the place. I suppose I was fortunate to be a relaxed 18 year-old. I worked in Dublin for a couple of months fundraising (chugging, really) for Amnesty before travelling to Russia and living in St Petersburg, working with various charities. While I was over there I got a call to say I’d been accepted to Harvard and they offered me financial aid.

“Harvard was a bit of a strange experience. I had been very unaffected by the whole Leaving Cert thing but then I chose to go to this very prestigious institution. I was surrounded by a lot of very stressed people and you can’t help but be affected by that. I remember suddenly realising that I was way more stressed than I ever had been but being unable to quite identify why.

“I had bought into the whole status thing but I thought at one stage that I really would have liked to go back and do a course in Ireland or any of the other courses I was offered abroad. But then of course there was the element of shame, I had been in the papers with my nine A1s and there was this feeling that people would be saying, ‘Oh look, he’s back’.

“So there were a lot of people under a lot of stress. I was studying social studies and I left after two and a half years for a break. I came back to Ireland and worked in Carpetright and then I went back and completed my degree. I graduated in 2007 but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. It’s a bit strange, I was a Harvard graduate, I had all of these opportunities open to me but I wasn’t convinced I was making the most of things.

“I spent that summer teaching English. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. I applied for a job teaching English to pilots in Kazakhstan. That was a great experience. I travelled throughout central Asia – Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, South Korea – and I was earning money in euro so it was comfortable.

When I returned to Ireland I began a PhD researching language ideology in Ireland but while working on that, I ran out of steam, got stressed and depressed and needed a break. At the moment I’m working as a resident life supervisor with the Foundation for International Education, supervising their students who come to Dublin. I’ll return to my PhD in the spring.

“The system we have is a strange one. I have a friend who’s about to begin graduate medicine, but in school, he never thought he was into science or maths. He’s very creative, makes music and for years now he’s been a hobbyist student of brain chemistry. I’d say he’s much more intellectually able than I am but the idea that anyone would see the pair of us and our respective merits in relation to the points we got is laughable. I’ve another friend who got 500 points and he’s an actor now. The fact that the last two years of post primary was a points training programme – you could make the case that he was officially wasting his time.

“I could go on, but my point is that 10-plus years on from my closest friends finishing in school, their results in the Leaving did not set any one of them up to be where they really wanted to be. In fact, results probably left at least half with the impression they weren’t going to get there. We’re a lucky bunch in that things seem to be working out fairly well for us all at this stage. The decisive factor would appear to be having identified something each enjoys and the happy ones seem to have focused on doing something worth doing well.”

Feargus Denman is presenting Radharc na Rúise, a Russia-based series for TG4 to be broadcast this autumn.

EMER McGRATH was the top student in 2002 with 8 A1s. She is from Ballinrobe, Co Galway. She is a qualified doctor, currently conducting PhD research into stroke medicine.

“I qualified as a doctor from NUIG in 2009 and then completed my internship in Galway. During my time as a medical student, I developed a strong interest in research and spent a summer on a HRB research scholarship in Canada. After my internship, I decided to complete a Masters in Clinical Research in Galway. I got a Patrick Hillery Scholarship which enabled me to go to the University of Toronto for a three-month research elective.

“I really enjoyed this experience and decided to transfer into a PhD, and am now based at the HRB Clinical Research Facility in Galway. I’m currently conducting research on stroke in patients with atrial fibrillation – basically an irregular heartbeat. Patients with atrial fibrillation have five times the risk of a stroke than patients without, and are twice as likely to suffer a poor outcome after a stroke, so I feel this is a really worthwhile area of research. I am very lucky to have received a fellowship from the HRB, which has been a big help.

“Initially, after I got my Leaving Cert results, I studied theoretical physics in Trinity but I found that while I enjoyed physics in school, I wanted a career that would allow me to couple my interest in science with the chance to be able to help people, and so I switched to medicine in Galway. It was a good decision for me. While it took a few years before I got to really experience clinical medicine, I knew early on that medicine was for me.

“At the moment, I am really enjoying my work. My ambition is to become an academic neurologist, with a specialist interest in stroke medicine. The idea would be to spend part of my time treating patients in hospital, and the remainder in an academic position engaged in clinical research. Your research time is sort of ring-fenced in that kind of position which would be great, but as much as I love research, it’s really important to me to still be able to interact with patients. I’d love to have the opportunity to do both. I’m also planning on spending time training in the US in order to gain further experience in neurology.

“I never expected to get the results I got in the Leaving Cert. The whole thing came out of the blue really. I had done well in school but honestly I wasn’t even going to go in to collect my results on the day. I don’t think I even added the points correctly on my first count. When I called my parents, they were delighted but they were like, ‘Are you sure you read that right?’ I left it behind me. I’d never be singled out and I certainly wouldn’t be going around telling people.

“Occasionally it comes up if I have to submit a CV for something and my friends would sometimes joke about it but I think what you’re doing now is so much more important than something you’ve done in the past.”

RONAN McGOVERN from Kildare got nine A1s in 2006. He was the top student of that year. He studied engineering in UCD and worked briefly at CERN before travelling to MIT to do his PhD.

“People forget about the Leaving Cert very quickly. Having the nine A1s on my CV probably helped me get a summer job in first year and second year of college, although I found it tough to find work in second year so it didn’t even help that much.

“I knew I had a reasonable chance of doing very well but really it didn’t have that much of an impact on my life. I think motivation is one of the key factors of success but motivation isn’t necessarily something that’s easily measured. It’s about more than a series of subjects. I’m very glad I did my undergraduate degree in Ireland. I studied mechanical engineering in UCD and it was a great experience academically and in terms of extra-curricular activities too. One of the definite highlights was an Erasmus year I did in third year. I went to Lausanne in Switzerland and took classes through French. It gave me great exposure to engineering outside of Ireland. I don’t think I would have come to the States if I hadn’t gone to Switzerland first. I ended up working as a design engineer in CERN for two months. I was working on the design of a future particle accelerator. It gave me a good insight into research at an industrial level. I’m currently doing a PhD in MIT. Cambridge over here is a real education hub. There are so many educational institutions and so many business start ups – it’s a great place to be.

“A lot of PhD students in MIT end up starting companies. That’s certainly something I’d consider. I’d like to either be involved in a start-up or to go into academia. At the moment I’m 50/50 on that. I need to do more research into what’s available in terms of professorships and so-on.

“At the moment, I’m working to solve the problem of treating very salty (or highly saline) waters. When oil or gas is pumped from deep shales or rock formations, water is also pumped to the surface. This water, that contains many of the salts and minerals of the rock formations below, is highly saline.

“You also find highly saline water inland, far away from the sea. When water is pumped from underground it is sometimes filtered before being distributed for drinking. The water that is retained behind the filter is a further example of very salty water also rich in minerals. My goal is to remove further water from these highly salty streams. In this way, we can recover clean water and valuable minerals as well as reducing the volume of waste.

“I hope I’ll be finished my PhD two years from now. My main areas of interest are energy, water and education at the moment. I’m not sure from an education perspective whether I’d be best in a university or in a leadership role in a company or even with a role in governance. I’m trying to work out what my next step will be. I’ve tried to remain focused and to keep stepping up. I don’t want to be looking back. At the moment I’m young with a lot of energy and fairly limited experience. It’s a good time for me to be in research.”

What some of the others did . . .

Aodhnait Fahy:9 A1s, 2000. Studied biochemistry in Oxford and completed her PhD in Imperial College London. She is currently excelling in her graduate medical studies in Keble College Oxford.

Donagh Healy:8 A1s, 2003. Qualified as a doctor from UCC in 2008.

Eamon O’Murchu:8 A1s, 2004. Qualified as a doctor from RCSI in 2009 and completed his internship in Ireland. In July of last year, he started an anaesthetic residency programme in New York.

Rory Clune:8 A1s, 2004. Studied civil engineering in UCC. After qualifying he went to MIT to do a masters in civil and environmental engineering. He is currently doing his PhD, also in MIT.

Peter Barrett:8 A1s, 2005. Graduated as a doctor from UCC in 2010 and went on to do a postgraduate degree in global health in Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute. Currently working in Our Lady’s Hospital for Sick Children in Crumlin.

Laura Hurley:
8 A1s, 2005. Studied economics in Cambridge at undergraduate and postgraduate level. Curently working in the UK as an assistant economist at Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Susan Spillane:8 A1s, 2005. Studied pharmacy in TCD. Currently a cancer pharmacoepidemiology researcher (PhD) and health services research scholar in TCD.

Orla Houlihan:
9 A1s, 2008. Currently studying medicine in UCC.