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Honours English Leaving Cert Essays

Long story short: there are no guarantees with the Leaving Cert, but if there were — Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin would be on the 2018 English paper.

There appears to be a logic to how the SEC structures papers. For HL English poetry, a woman, an Irish person, somebody who hasn't come up in a while... Yes, that's right - there appears to be a logic to SEC decisions, but they don't make any promises.

Be careful with predictions.

Are these patterns are too broad to lead to a definite conclusion? Let's see. Our advice is that you can take risks, but don't ever risk complete ruin. How to do that? Read on.

The day after the English Papers are finished, there's always an article in some Irish newspaper or blog saying that the paper wasn't fair. The only way the paper wouldn't be fair is if you felt it owed you something. It doesn't. We are all in the same boat, and what will definitely come up on the exam is unknowable (unless you want to try and infiltrate the SEC - I think they are in Westmeath).

Your very clever teacher may say: "I've a feeling Durcan will be on". What you may not be consciously aware of is that next week they may say: "I've a feeling that Bishop is going to come up, sure, Plath's been done to death." And so they repeat their clever predictions five times, so that you revise five poets. With four poets of the paper, having revised five properly, you are 100% percent prepared. They are really clever, those teachers.

Every year, there are eight prescribed poets and four are on the paper. You have to do one.

The table below has every poet that has been on the syllabus since 2011. The guys in bold are the ones that came up. The observations at the bottom of the table identify the patterns.









Irish man 1KavanaghKavanaghKinsellaYeatsMontagueDurcanDurcanDurcan
Irish man 2YeatsHeaneyMahonHeaneyYeatsYeatsMontague
British man 1HopkinsLarkinHopkinsLarkinDonneLarkinKeatsKeats
British man 2WordsworthWordsworthKinsellaHardyHopkinsHopkins
Generic womanBolandBolandBishopNí ChuilleanáinNí ChuilleanáinBolandBoland
American woman 1DickinsonPlathBishopDickinsonDickinsonBishopBishop
American woman 2RichRichPlathPlathPlathDickinsonPlath
The other yank (M/F)FrostFrostRichFrostEliotEliotFrost
Ní Chuilleanáin
Observations2 women1 woman2 women2 women1 woman2 women2 women
1 British man1 British man1 British man1 British man1 British man2 British men
1 Irish man2 Irish men1 Irish man1 Irish man1 Irish man1 Irish man
1 American man1 American man
Repeat: PlathRepeat: Bishop

Limit it to women or Irish men if you're a badass. No promises though. It's not like you'll be able to take the SEC to court for sexism/racism should they decide to change it up!

Having said that, the SEC probably doesn't want to be crucified by virtually every newspaper in this country who undoubtedly will take the opportunity to accuse them of setting the paper unfairly should the paper not contain someone Irish or female. Alas, it is a political issue (it is the State examining us after all). Or will they be praised for making the dreaded Leaving Cert less predictable? Or will it be seen as unfair? It's hard to know and ultimately it is a personal decision that depends on your tolerance for risk: a bit like if you were buying stocks and bonds.

What are the risks actually like if you go below 5 poets?

Even if we assume that each poet is equally likely to come up:

If you only do 4 poets, there is a 1/70 (1.4%) chance that one of the poets you studied doesn't come up. That's a ~98.5% chance that you will be fine.

If you only do 3 poets, there is a 1/14 (7.1%) chance that one of the poets you studied doesn't come up.

If you only do 2 poets, there is a 3/14 (21.4%) chance that one of the poets you studied doesn't come up.

If you only do 1 poet, there is a 1/2 (50%) chance that the poet you studied doesn't come up.

When you think about it, the odds aren't against you no matter what way you play it. It's a personal decision. Everyone who writes for 625points revised five. Just saying.

Another important point to consider is that everyone is hoping for the same poet. Last year (2017), everyone wanted Eavan Boland to come up. She did. So most examiners were correcting possibly 4 or 5 Boland essays for every non-Boland essay. What does that do?

Well, the examiner (a human being, ultimately) will get tired of hearing the same thing over and over. While a great essay is still a great essay, the people who usually get 70-80% may get lower grades. It's just harder to engage the examiner if you are (inadvertently) repeating what they have already read 5 times earlier that day. This shouldn't be the deciding factor in your choice of poet: even if you do an obscure poet, you still need to be excellent to get a high grade.

If all other things are equal, however, go for it. For example, I, the author of the guide, know all eight poets equally well and if Larkin, Keats or Hopkins came up, I would definitely do one of them. Why? Because I know that their poetry is full of obscure features that are lost on most people and this gives me an advantage.

Having said that, don't do a poet you find annoying for the sake of doing a more "exotic" poet. Your lack of interest is much harder to hide than you might think.

We don't like to make predictions [cough cough, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin], but let's just say we gently brought our video on Eavan Boland to the attention of more people than there were doing the LC via our Facebook presence. Watch out for more subtle cues this year ;)

Note that poets can come up two years in a row (though it happened only twice in 5 years in the above sample).

2. Know your quotations.

As a rough guide, try to have a quotation, even a short one, 3-4 times per average paragraph.

3. Don't be afraid of new essay titles.

All essay titles are slightly mutated clones of each other. Don't be thrown. Every single poetry essay title asks you to discuss two things in the broadest sense: imagery (how things are described) and themes (what is described and what does it mean). You know what to say. You've done it before. Lakes-birds-metaphors-alliteration-iambic-pentameter and love-country-childhood-loneliness-satire-philosophy... Ok, there's more finesse to it, but you won't be asked to split the atom.

Don't all these titles below look quite alike? 

Poet A uses <adjective> imagery to discuss <adjective> subject matter

Poet A is an <adjective> observer of reality that is enhanced by <adjective> subject matter

Reading the poetry of Poet A’s can be both an uplifting and a disturbing experience

Poet A’s poetry is full of <negative emotion> with occasional glimpses/moments of <positive emotion>

4. Try* to mention six poems. 

*This depends on the poet. In my actual LC I wrote about four of Eliot's poems. It depends on the depth you go into.

However, the marking scheme does say: "Normally the study of at least six poems by each poet would be expected. (DES English Syllabus, 6.3)". "Study", not "mention", but by and large, six is a good aim.

5. Engage with the poems.

Don't write a paragraph about a poet's life and so on without talking about a specific poem. The context is important: Durcan's relationship with his father, Bishop's troubled childhood, etc. The context is only a supporting part. The main focus is on the poem. 

6. Don't obsess about being exactly right. 

The examiner is required to keep an open mind as per the marking scheme. Make your points and back them up.

"Note that there is not a finite list of any ‘poet’s themes and interests".

7. Show your writing skills. 


As for single texts, there really isn't much point in trying to predict it. Is a character question guaranteed every year? No. It's always somewhat different angles on the same core themes.  We go into depth on that in the Complete Revision Guides for 2017 and 2018

Similarly, with the theme for Paper 1. What difference will it really make if I told you the theme was going to be Peace, or Diversity, or whatever? Your writing skill and ability to draw on your reading of the texts and previous experiences won't be much enhanced if you spend 4 weeks thinking about the theme.

Cian Menton and Olivia Cunningham from Trinity Comprehensive in Ballymun as they prepared before their first Leaving Cert exam. Source: Leah Farrell

THE FIRST PAPER of this year’s Leaving Cert is done, and overall students seem quite happy.

So as students stream out of schools and discuss how the exam went – what did teachers make of English Paper One, which contains questions on essays, reading comprehensions, and functional writing.

So how did it go?

“Leaving Cert students seemed quite happy with both the Ordinary Level and Higher Level papers,” says Kate Barry of the Irish National Organisation for Teachers of English.

“The general reaction seems to be ‘Not too hard, not too easy’ because they like something that will challenge them.”

“In Higher Level, the texts were lovely, especially the first text. The second was a bit harder, and the third one was very nice.”

Celine Gallagher, Higher Level Leaving Cert English Student at Jesus and Mary Secondary School, Enniscrone said the texts were easy to discuss and relevant.

“I found it easy to talk about, given that we’re living through it and we’re always talking about. Text 3 on childhood memories, made it easy to take a personal approach and include funny anecdotes.”

The ‘Question b’s were “what we’d expect” Barry said. One of those questions asked for students’ opinions on relying on the internet for news updates, which was “topical and positive for those that read up on current affairs”.

Question b about poetry was “different and new”, and gave students a “nice opportunity to write about poems that they wouldn’t use tomorrow”.

The essay questions were “very very nice”, according to Barry.

“They were well-pitched, not too juvenile, as sometimes they can be a bit too teenager-y, but there were questions about advertising, democracy, and on how scientists and writers contribute to society.”

There was one ‘silly’ question though: imagine it was the Stone Age and you’ve just invented the wheel.

Source: English Paper One

Barry pauses after reading it out.

You might be able to write a humourous piece… but hopefully not too many people chose that question.

Leaving Cert Ordinary

Lorraine Tuffy, Studyclix Expert Teacher and English Teacher at Jesus and Mary Secondary School, Enniscrone said that a well-prepared student would have been happy to see the first question.

“The article for inclusion in a school magazine offering advice to Leaving Certificate students on how to develop study skills, maintain a healthy lifestyle and balance in the build up to exams will be welcomed by many Ordinary Level candidates who are well equipped to answer this question.

A question on Text 3 proposes that all teachers in Irish schools will be replaced by robots. Candidates were asked to write letters to the Editor of a newspaper giving reasons why they do or do not support the proposal.

“This question undoubtedly invited some humorous considerations on the student’s part. I’d be interested to read what some of my students wrote for that one.”

Kate Barry agrees.

“The text was really good – it was about school and schooling, which was really nice and positive. Often kids read negative things in the media, so this was something positive, without being gushy.”

First year of Junior Cert changes

File photo. Source: Laura Hutton/RollingNews.ie

The significance of the first year of controversial changes to the Junior Cert exam, obviously wasn’t lost on the State Examinations Commission who chose ‘mystery’ as the theme of the paper.

The Higher Level paper has been cut down from two papers to one, and Barry says that the issue with that are evident straight away.

“An exam paper is a bit like a political poll – you want an evenly spread random sample from the course. But parts of the course didn’t appear on the paper – there was no fiction question.”

Barry says that she’s aware that one paper would save costs for the State, but said that teachers would have reservations that the breast of the course wasn’t being assessed.

But they were aware that this was the first time students would have been doing the exam, so there were no nasty surprises and students are mostly happy.

So was it a good start to the first day of exams?

“Oh yes, very much so,” Barry says. “The Leaving Cert is a nice examination in that the format is the same every year, but the content changes a lot.”

But tomorrow is the day for the big Leaving Cert paper, English Paper Two, which contains questions on novels, plays… and poets.

English Paper One went well enough, but it's Paper Two tomorrow that's the real worry for me 💀 #LeavingCert

— Danny Brennan (@DannyBrennan72) June 7, 2017
Source: Danny Brennan/Twitter

“Well they’re worth the same in terms of marks,” Barry stresses. “The second one, if they’re well-prepared and done the work on five poets, then they’ve nothing to worry about.”

Exam time: Here’s how your breathing and imagination can help during your exams

Exam advice for parents: How to support your child during the Junior and Leaving Cert

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