Cracking over the papers – Frank McNally on uncomfortable parallels between column writing and the Leaving Cert

I resorted to 40 press-ups, on the desperate pretext that blood rushing to my brain might arrive with a fully-formed column outline

I spotted amid the stone-walled boreens a road-sign saying: “Boston 15km”

As the Leaving Cert began on Wednesday with the first English paper, I felt sorry for the young people sitting it. Poor kids, I thought: trapped indoors for three hours, writing furiously, as the sun blazes outside.

But I couldn’t sympathise for long, because as a daily columnist, I had my own work to do. With a sigh, I set about the usual weekday morning routine which, like the Leaving Cert, begins by reading the paper. Then other papers. Then various social media sites.

After that, no Diary subject yet presenting itself, I started trawling through the detritus of recent news cuttings, reader emails, iPhone picture memos, etc.

Then, still bereft of inspiration and sighing more deeply, I drank another cup of coffee and ate some chocolate in the hope that a sugar rush would spark an idea.


Sometime later, I resorted to 40 press-ups, on the desperate pretext that blood rushing to my brain might arrive with a fully-formed column outline.

But 11am passed and the sighs grew deeper again. Then it was 12, with still no sign of something worthy of 800 words. By now, as always, my breathing was starting to tighten: the first symptom of deadline panic.

For the thousandth time, I despaired the inadequacy of my life as a source of column material. Then it was 12.30. The Leaving Cert kids were back in the sun again, I realised bitterly. Meanwhile here was I, still trapped, my three-hour English paper receding ahead of me, and not a word yet written.


I was amused to read later that the higher English exam’s overall theme was “connections”. This is the staff of life for columnists too. We’re always trying to connect things, in ways that appear elegant or enlightening. But life can seem chaotic much of the time, and there are many days when nothing links up meaningfully.

Driving around the west of Ireland last weekend, for example, I experienced a sequence of events that briefly promised to become a column.

First, I found myself in a hotel called An Cruiscín Lán, when a WhatsApp arrived from the International Flann O’Brien Society announcing that a paper I had delivered at a conference in Boston College two years ago had just been published in the society’s journal, The Parish Review.

The anglicised “Cruiskeen Lawn” was itself of course a long-running Irish Times column written by one of Flann’s alter egos, Myles na gCopaleen. Mildly amused by this coincidence, I thanked Paul Fagan of IFOBS for publishing the piece. Then I commented: “Boston seems a long time ago now.”

Imagine my delight when, a few hours later, driving around the Burren in Co Clare, I spotted amid the stone-walled boreens a road-sign saying: “Boston 15km”.

Surely there was 800 words here somewhere, combining the coincidences with the story of why the Clare Boston is so called. Alas, as I’ve since discovered, nobody seems to know how this 19th-century name arose.

It’s certainly not an anglicisation of any Irish original. There are two older names, in fact, both ominous. One is Móinín na gCloigeann (“Little bog of the skulls”). The other, even more cheerful, is Druim na Doimhne (“Ridge of the Abyss”).

How those derived is also lost to local memory. But if I were the suspicious type, I’d say that calling the place “Boston” was a cover-up.


It can be hard to switch off in this line of work, even when you do finally get your column in. That’s why, earlier this year, I took up yoga to relax.

It’s physically challenging but the best part of classes is the bit at the end, when we can assume whatever pose we like, usually prostrate, and concentrate on feeling at one with the universe.

There I was, last Tuesday night, obeying the teacher’s instruction and “just letting go”. But while I was letting go, I was also mentally replaying the Diary I’d written earlier, which had included mention of a reader named Terry Walsh.

And even as I breathed deeply, “releasing all tension” as the teacher advised, I suddenly knew with a stab of inner pain that I had called this man “Terry Woods”, after the Pogues musician.

“We are completely relaxed,” the teacher was saying in her soothing voice. “You feckin’ eejit,” I was saying in mine, recalling that Mr Walsh and I had been disputing a point of grammar, and that of all contexts to get someone’s name wrong in, a debate about pedantry was one of the more embarrassing.

Moments of clarity about such errors typically come at midnight, when it’s too late to correct a mistake for the print edition but still early enough to deprive you of sleep.

At least in this case, it wasn’t yet 9pm. There was still time to change the name both online and in print. Then few would ever know.

“There is no strain anywhere in our bodies,” the teacher was saying softly, to the soundtrack of spiritual music. Alas, it wasn’t true. I was tense again in every fibre, breathing unevenly, in advance of dashing out the door afterwards to ring the Night Editor.