Category Archives: Leaving Cert Paper 2

Paper 2 advice and notes.

Macbeth in performance

NOTE: This article was originally published in the Irish Independent Written Word Supplement, March 2014.


There is an oft repeated cliché that plays are meant to be performed on a stage, not dissected in a classroom. Like so many clichés, there’s more than a grain of truth to this idea. Shakespeare wrote to entertain. His plays are filled with intrigue, betrayal and bloodshed and these features come to life more fully embodied in the flesh, rather than read on a page.

Yet an either / or debate pitting performance and close reading of the text against each other misses the point entirely. Students should both study the play and see the play! So the question really becomes, in what order?

Your experience of a play undoubtedly matters. The emotions you feel as the drama unfolds should not be ignored or discarded or dismissed. In fact, one of the most common examination questions on the Shakespearean play asks you to trace your fluctuating levels of sympathy for the central characters, so tune in to your human visceral response as Lady Macbeth imagines dashing her child’s brains out on the flagstone; as Macbeth cries out in horror “full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife”; and as Lady Macduff so piteously begs for mercy as her killers advance. As the tension rises and the stakes become ever higher; as their mental state unravels and ultimately things fall apart because the centre cannot hold and mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. You should feel adrenaline coursing through your veins.

But, like it or not, sometimes the Shakespearean language is a road block to this level of connection. For many students, seeing the play ‘blind’ is an exercise in futility.

So let’s consider the other option: you study the play first, then you go see it performed.

This works well for two reasons. First of all, you know what the hell is going on! When you hear that Macbeth “unseamed” some bugger “from the nave ‘to the chops”, you have the mental image of him slicing someone open already hideously clear in your mind. You can bask in the dramatic irony of Lady Macbeth being addressed as an “honoured hostess” even as she plots Duncan’s murder and almost cringe at her confident assertion that “a little water clears us of this deed” because you are aware of her imminent psychological collapse. Knowing the play in advance deepens your experience of seeing it performed, even if it does admittedly deprive you of the tense anticipation of wondering what will happen next.

Secondly, you can disagree with the way the actors interpret the characters. They may play a character or scene differently to how you imagined it in your mind’s eye. This feeling, the feeling ‘that’s not how I’d play that scene’ is incredibly powerful and extremely valuable in clarifying your interpretation of both the characters and the play itself. Conversely, if you see the play before you study it, the version of each character presented to you by the actors is very difficult to dislodge from your mind. Their interpretation becomes the ‘truth’ of the character and may shut down debate, which is the last thing you want! Ultimately you are searching for the version of each character that makes the most sense to you personally, even if others might disagree.

Once upon a time, seeing three different versions of the play before sitting the exam was pretty difficult, but nowadays with youtube at your fingertips, theatre companies like Second Age and Cyclone Rep performing the leaving cert play annually and many different film versions to choose from, this isn’t such a tall order anymore.

So how does this help you to prepare for the exams?

It helps a lot, if you know what to do! Select a scene. It could be the Banquet scene, the sleepwalking scene, or Macbeth’s famous soliloquy “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”. Go to youtube and compare the different levels of sympathy you feel depending on who’s delivering the lines. Re-watch pivotal scenes until you know which version fits your sense of how that scene should be performed. Now you know how you would play that character if you were acting in the play. Ultimately what you view as the ‘truth’ of that character should become clearer in your mind.

Let me illustrate with an example. Last summer, I saw Joseph Millson play Macbeth in the Globe in London. He’s about 40 but he looks younger. He’s tall, very good looking and has a commanding physical presence on stage. He interpreted Macbeth as an ambitious power-hungry noble, determined to prove his manliness to his wife. However, he rarely gave us any convincing glimpse of the “milk of human kindness” in his personality. He showed remorse for the murder of Duncan but his horror hinged on madness and his determination not to get caught was emphasised far more than any self-loathing. Hence, when he delivered his “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy, I found it hard to connect emotionally to his despair because I had never fully connected to him emotionally in the early scenes of the play. I was frankly quite glad when he was eventually defeated by Macduff.

I’ve also seen Patrick Stewart’s BBC version of Macbeth from 2010. His Macbeth is older, in his late 50’s at least and there is an insecurity to his character, a desperation to prove to his glamorous yet ruthless young wife that she has not made a mistake in marrying a man so much older than her. His pitiful panic, confusion and palpable fear following the murder of Duncan is profoundly disturbing for the audience, as is his gradual transformation from puppet in his wife’s schemes to a cold hearted murderer. When he delivers his “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy, he is looking down upon her dead body and his utter contempt for life is frightening to behold. His portrayal of Macbeth is edgy and unsettling, filling the audience with conflicting emotions as we are torn between sympathy and disgust in a film which plays havoc with our emotions and leaves us utterly exhausted by the end.

Finally, I recently saw Macbeth performed in a classroom in our school by Cyclone Rep Theatre Company, with Marcus Bale in the central role. He plays a Macbeth slightly younger than his wife, who is eager to please and quite easily manipulated. His immediate remorse is heartfelt and his transformation never feels fully complete despite the horrific deeds he engineers. Thus when he delivers his soliloquy, there is pain as well as numb despair as he observes that life “is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. His interpretation of Macbeth was, for me, the most authentic of the three.

Seeing each of these performances allowed me to clarify that it is the human face of Macbeth’s character, despite his disturbing embrace of evil, that makes me choke back tears every time I hear that soliloquy. This perhaps says as much about me as it does about the play; about my blind determination to believe ultimately in the goodness of human nature, despite all the evidence to the contrary this play presents.

I believe it also helps to experience live theatre in a really intimate space. Film versions are always observed at one remove, and the Globe is a large open air space with the stage on high, which places the actors at a certain distance. By contrast, having the actors pacing the floor so close you could reach out and touch them really heightens the drama and establishes a connection to the characters that youtube can never provide!

Poetic verbs…

Some verbs should rarely – possibly never – be used when discussing a poem. “The poet tells us” or “the poet says” are problematic because poetic language is always carefully crafted, with every word and punctuation mark deliberately chosen to capture the exact feeling and idea the poet wishes to communicate.

The verbs “tells” and “says” imply that the poet is telling us things rather than hinting, showing, evoking, then allowing us to figure it out for ourselves. If he/she uses colloquial language, yes it will feel as if the poet is simply speaking, but again, this is a conscious decision, not an accident.

You need verbs which are more accurate in analysing what the poet is doing. Here are a few suggestions:

– explores

– describes

– evokes

– celebrates

– reveals

– laments

– confesses

– exposes

– challenges

– creates

– captures


Relevance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth

Relevance to a modern audience

In my classroom, at parent-teacher meetings, even chatting to acquaintances, I often get eye-rolls at the mention of Shakespeare.

It’s difficult though, isn’t it?” parents will sometimes say, expecting me to nod and let that be that.

Yes” I’ll reply… “It’s difficult” I nod… “But it’s bloody wonderful too”.

I don’t ascribe to the notion that if something is complex or difficult it’s not worth our time. In fact, chances are the more complex something is, the more time it demands, which is perhaps why people often give up on complexity prematurely. Relationships, careers, family; life itself is complex and at times, bloody hard work. Yet these complexities – being a wife, a parent, a teacher, a daughter, a friend – are also the source of most, if not all, of the happiness in my life.

Don’t run from complexity, embrace it. You’ll need a familiarity with complexity in the years to come, in the real world, in your real life, if you are to achieve and maintain the level of happiness we all deserve.

That’s not to demean or dismiss the very real challenge Shakespeare presents. For most people the language is not very accessible, at least initially. So you may be tempted to equate the challenge of accessibility with proof of the irrelevance of Shakespeare to your life, your world, your experiences.


It can be hard to access AND relevant at the same time.

I’m not here to provide you with an answer you can learn off and vomit up in the exam. In fact, I often struggle with the complexity of my role as teacher/blogger/guide on the side/sage on the stage. If I write a blog post, offer my opinions, give you, effectively, an answer, am I depriving you of the opportunity to think for yourself, to figure it out for yourself? Or am I simply provoking you to think harder, to look deeper, to contemplate things you might not have contemplated before? On the other hand, if I (or your teachers) don’t offer you something to work with, but instead leave you floundering (in a lovely space full of the text itself, to be fair!) isn’t there a danger that – at least some of you – may never fully see and appreciate the relevance of Shakespeare to your life?

I’ve made my peace with this (sort of) by reminding myself that if you look online, you’ll find it anyway, so perhaps by offering my own passionate perspective, I might change a few minds about the relevance of Shakespeare.

In a series of blogposts, I’ll make some suggestions as to why I believe Shakespeare’s Macbeth is still relevant in the modern world and will continue to be for centuries to come. This blogpost does not constitute a ‘sample answer’. Do not vomit it back at the examiner if this question (the relevance to a modern audience of Shakespeare’s Macbeth) appears on the paper in June. It doesn’t have the structure of an argumentative essay; it’s written in the colloquial style of a blog post rather than the formal language of academic critical analysis; and it is WAY longer than anything you’d get to write in an hour. This blog post is simply a discussion of one idea that occurs to me when I consider the relevance of Macbeth as a play and hence why I believe that despite the difficulty of accessing his work, Shakespeare is still worth studying. You’d need to discuss 3 – 5 reasons why you believe the play is relevant (writing approx 4 pages) in an exam scenario, not just one as I’ve done below.

NOTE: I wrote this first blog post back at the beginning of April & never got around to the others due to my mum-in-law passing away and my subsequent writers block, but I’ll publish this one anyway rather than leave it floundering in my drafts.



Have you ever witnessed a relationship fall apart? Your parents, your aunt and uncle, your sister and her boyfriend? Maybe you’ve had a relationship collapse personally. I know I have. It’s awful and it hurts and if only you understood why it happened, perhaps you could have saved it, stopped it, fixed it. At the very least if you could figure out what happened, you’d know what NOT to do the next time.

Lots of writers explore relationship collapse. So what makes Shakespeare so special? Why not study a film or a novel or a modern play IN PLAIN ENGLISH which explores this very same theme?

The answer, of course, is that you could. There are plenty of modern texts which dissect this issue brilliantly. Often, however, the crux of the plot is that these characters fall out of love. They love each other but they’re not IN love so often they cheat and this infidelity contributes to the collapse of the marriage.

This is NOT what happens in Macbeth.

In fact what’s fascinating and tragic is their journey from passionate, devoted equals in a fairly open and healthy relationship to isolated, depressed individuals who barely communicate, without any kind of infidelity or overt ‘falling out of love’ occurring. It’s kind of scary to observe how quickly and relatively easily this transformation occurs. So I believe that Shakespeare is quite original in exploring how a marriage can fall apart even though the couple still love each other and have each other’s best interests at heart.

That’s so sad too, and scary, the idea that it could all go to shit even though the love is still there. Excuse me while I go give my husband a hug!

The process looks a little something like this:  1. conflict takes over 2. communication deteriorates 3. they shut each other out 4. they end up leading separate lives.

Initially the relationship is relatively healthy. Macbeth confides in his wife; (writing to his “dearest partner of greatness“); they share the same dreams and ambitions (to be King and Queen)) and are determined to help each other achieve their potential, whatever the cost (“come you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here…”). However, this leads to one partner trying to change the other (“When you durst do it then you were a man“) which is never a good sign in a relationship. Unable to cope with the stress of his crime, Macbeth confides in his wife (“o full of scorpions is my mind dear wife“) only to be scorned and rebuffed (“infirm of purpose, give me the daggers“). Although she begins to feel the same regret (“nought’s had, all’s spent, when our desire is got without content”) she’s too embarrassed or ashamed to admit that she was wrong so instead she puts on a false face to hide what she knows in her heart, pretending to Macbeth that everything’s fine. The breakdown in honest open communication here is the key to the problems in their marriage. He’s not happy with the person he has become but he cannot confide in her anymore because every time he does she refuses to listen.

So they shut each other out. Ironically they’re both trying to protect each other (“be innocent of the knowledge dearest chuck“) from the pain of their mutual stupidity (“things without all remedy should be without regard”) but their failure to communicate openly and honestly ultimately leads to the collapse of their marriage. They still try to help each other (“my lord is often thus and hath been since his youth“) but it’s ineffective because, again, Lady Macbeth offers not empathy but scorn and ridicule when faced with her husband’s suffering (“This is the very painting of your fear… shame itself! Why do you make such faces?”). So he becomes what she thought she wanted him to be (empty of the “milk of human kindness“) but now he’s not really interested in speaking to her anymore. He no longer even claims her as his wife but rather refers to her in a very detached manner, asking “how does thy patient doctor?”. He still loves her but their connection has been lost.

She goes insane, haunted by the horror of what her husband has become, in no small part thanks to her interference. Meanwhile he’s completely detached emotionally, depressed and homicidally suicidal, which means he wants to die but takes out his rage at the world on others, killing as many people as possible before he gets killed (think school shootings). When he hears of her death he replies “she should have died hereafter“. Nonetheless, do not underestimate the depth of his devastation. Like many people who lose a spouse, he’s numb initially, rather than collapsing in floods of tears but he also immediately feels that life is empty and pointless and no longer worth living; that “life’s but a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing“.

Shakespeare’s wisdom: If you love someone, accept them for who they are. If you try to change them, they might change to make you happy and maybe you’ll convince them that it will make them happy too. But remember that some changes are more permanent than others, more difficult to undo (relocating to a new country; getting a boob job; embracing a life of crime, KILLING A KING).

If your partner admits that this change is making them unhappy (a new job for example) don’t force them to stick with it; don’t ridicule them for feeling regret. If you shut them down every time they try to be open and honest with you, eventually they’ll stop communicating, but their sadness will manifest itself in other ways (hallucinations, insomnia, depression, rage).

And if you feel you’ve made a mistake, admit it. Say sorry. Don’t hide what you’re really feeling, even if you think you’re protecting the other person by doing this. Because if you can’t talk, your connection will weaken until it’s too brittle to be repaired.

You too might feel unable to live with your new reality, but because you’ve refused to listen to their fears, you can hardly expect them to listen to yours now. So you end up with similar problems (sleepwalking, OCD, depression, suicidal despair).

Then you’ll end up lonely within a relationship, which is the saddest kind of loneliness there is.

Sadly, that’s how, even when two people love each other dearly, their relationship can still fall apart. It’s profound and sad isn’t it? And that’s why I love Shakespeare.

Adventures in unseen poetry

As an experiment with my brain, when I gave my leaving certs an unseen poem last Wednesday, I deliberately selected one I’d never seen before and wrote (well o.k. I typed, cause I don’t really hand-write at all anymore) my own personal response in 20 minutes.

The poem was “A Glimpse of Starlings” by Brendan Kennelly which I have since discovered is on the ordinary level leaving cert course.

A glimpse of starlings

This little experiment proved to be way more fascinating than I originally anticipated. I thought I was just going to put myself in their shoes, and model some good practice. How wrong I was!

As I “corrected” their unseen poetry answers, I was astounded and impressed by the vast array of interpretations we came up with, several of which I’ve reproduced below, none of which we could verify were ‘correct’ as we were responding ‘blind’ to the poem, with no knowledge of the poet’s biography or access to interviews with him asking what the poem’s ‘really’ about!

But this got me thinking about a truth we often whitewash, which is that there is no fixed, immutable meaning. I bring myself to every encounter with language and ascribe meaning to that encounter. It might mean something completely different to the other people in the exchange and I’ve got no control over how they respond to it! Every time I open my mouth, compose a text or a tweet, I know what I intend it to mean. And how often have I found myself saying, to quote TS Eliot “That is not what I meant at all; That is not it, at all“.

We do this don’t we? We get agitated when people take us up ‘wrong’. We re-phrase so they’ll see things the way we want them to. We try to bring them around to our way of thinking; try to control their interpretation of events.

How much distress has this caused the human race down through the centuries? How many mis-understandings and arguments has it engendered? Perhaps that’s why we obsess over achieving clarity in our communications, in our speaking and writing, because we want to minimise any potential gap between what we mean and what people think we mean.

But we need to face up to one crucial truth:

Meaning is not something that exists, it’s something that we create. 

Then perhaps we can acknowledge that, for the most part, people are not deliberately ‘mis-interpreting’ us, they are simply bringing their own truth to the conversation. There will always be a gap between your intention and the meaning as it is received by the reader or listener. You cannot control this. The only thing you can do is try to make your intention as clear and unambiguous as possible.

Of course, poets are a different breed to the rest of us. They deliberately don’t do this. They wallow in the grey areas their art form creates. They LOVE ambiguity. They know that once you put something out into the world, you can’t control it anymore, or to paraphrase a well-worn trope they know that “language is in the ear of the beholder“.

Reading poetry is a complex process; an interaction between the poet’s intentions and the readers’ struggle to impose meaning on what they’ve just read. The annihilation of poetry occurs when we ‘fix’ that meaning. And while we can mock this process …


 … (yeah, the curtains were fucking blue!) we should also acknowledge that there might be something more going on here. Some dance of language between the speaker and the listener; some ever-changing, ever-moving complexity that is, in itself, a pleasurable tango that endlessly entertains even as it refuses to come to a standstill. Poetry makes multiple meanings, complex responses and a multiplicity of emotions possible.

And this is a GOOD THING if you ask me!

This experience also got me thinking about how the poetry textbooks we use, crammed with notes, shut down critical interpretations. They ‘fix’ the meanings of the poems. I’m guilty of this too with my poetry podcasts. In my eagerness to help students appreciate the prescribed poetry on a deeper level, I created mp3s of me discussing the poems, but there’s a danger that if students rely too heavily on listening to me, or any so-called ‘expert’, their own response, analysis and interpretation gets lost or demeaned.

This wasn’t my intention.

I created the podcasts to try and close the gap in time which opens up when you’re asked to revise a poet and write about them in an exam, sometimes a year, or even 18 months after you first study them. It was my intention that they would function almost as a kind of time portal so that the ideas we explored in class could be re-visited to refresh their memories.

But as the old cliché goes “the road to hell is paved with good intentions“.

Of course, this is why it’s important that students write at length and in depth about a poet immediately after they study his/her work. It’s so important their own unique response doesn’t get swallowed up, flattened out, diminished in a sea of notes (and podcasts!) so that it ends up conforming to the ‘norm’ rather than taking flight and becoming a truly original take on the poet in its own right.

So if you’d like to read some truly original takes on Brendan Kennelly’s poem “A Glimpse of Starlings“, have a look below.

Here’s what I typed in 20 minutes:

My personal response to this poem was one of confusion initially. The poet is remembering someone who has died, revealed in the first striking line as he admits “I expect him any minute now although / He’s dead”. There’s something shocking here, something heart breaking about the sad reality that we glimpse the dead continuously in our memories even though they’re not here anymore. I like how the poet made clever use of contrast (distinguishing between his expectation and the reality) to achieve this effect.

The poem does not settle into acceptance, however. Instead we get an atmosphere of gothic horror as we picture the dead man in some kind of afterlife “talking all night to his own dead” but the “first heart-breaking light” of morning brings no release or comfort. Personally I think he’s in some kind of limbo, although that may be me reading the poem too literally, because he’s desperate to know “why his days finished like this” but he gets no answer. As the contrast between what I expect for those who have died (either nothingness or heaven) and what this poem offers (“Daylight is as hard to swallow as food”) washes over me I am filled with despair. The simile of the “questions that bang and rattle in his head like doors and canisters the night of a storm” is so noisy, so ugly, so disturbing that I honestly didn’t want to read on anymore and the metaphor of starvation in the line “Love is a crumb all of him hungers for” is in my opinion the most haunting and heart breaking image in the entire poem, full of torment and longing.

The poet’s uncertainty about what lies beyond death is memorably captured in his allusion to the gates of heaven “The door opening to let him in” as simply being “what looks like release from what feels like pain” but the ambiguity captured in “looks like” and “feels like” leaves us with little comfort.

It is noteworthy, however, that the poem ends with “A glimpse of starlings” and that this is the title he chooses to give an otherwise bleak poem. It’s as if he’s looking for a sign in nature that all will be well, but I’m also reminded that this technique – pathetic fallacy – is called pathetic for a reason, because it is so foolish, illogical and ‘pathetic’ of us, as human beings, to think that our mood can in any way influence the weather or the seasons.

Sample answer 1 from one of my students

The poem’s opening line is in my mind extremely striking due to the poet blurring the lines between the possible and the impossible with the oxymoronI expect him any minute now, although / He’s dead“. The line’s ambiguous nature draws me in and implores me to continue reading.

His unusual description of simple everyday actions such as viewing a picture, as “eating a small photograph with his eyes” lends the poem an originality which I find incredibly refreshing. From the poet’s detailed description of the man in the poem, I believe him to be an extremely complex and troubled man who longs for affection as “love is a crumb all of him hungers for”. Throughout the poem there is a tangible melancholic atmosphere which I feel emanates from the man’s evident misery.

However, the final image of the starlings rising into the sky “a glimpse of starlings suddenly lifted over field road and river” is to me a somewhat hopeful image that there may one day be happiness for this man. Nonetheless, the poet’s simile in the last line “like a fist of black dust pitched to the wind” gives me the impression that this man is lost without any direction in his life. which again gives this poem a mournful, bitter feeling at its conclusion.

I gave her 20/20 because she’s managed a perfect balance of the 3 Ts – Theme, Tone, Technique (also known as ideas, feelings and writing style) with a wonderful flow of language and concrete coherent yet complex vocabulary.

Sample answer 2:

I found this poem to be a very poignant one, whose message – that life is a continuous cycle – remained in my mind long after I had read it. The poet uses simple images of the everyday actions of this man who is now dead to depict the lonely gap that is left behind, as only memories of him remain.

He seems to have led an ordinary life, when alive. We are given a list of his daily actions “sipping a cup of tea, fingering a bit of bread, eating a small photograph with his eyes“. However, the depressing tone that seems to linger in these lines made me feel sympathy for this man. The questions that continuously “bang” and “rattle” in his mind are compared to “doors and canisters the night of a storm“. This image simile is an upsetting one. He seems to no longer have an aim in life and can barely manage to walk down the “concrete path” but awkwardly drags his feet. It is not a life that I would personally like to lead.

The final three lines had an emotional impact on me as I found them to be very sombre and hopeless. The man walks in the door and looks over his shoulder to see “a glimpse of starlings“, flying, carefree, in the air. A simile is used to compare them to a “fist of black dust pitched in the wind“. For me the black dust represents symbolises this man’s ashes as he is now dead. The memory of the man is slowly fading away and will soon have disappeared, just like these starlings in the air.

I gave this student 17/20. You’ll notice two occasions where I crossed out her word and put in a more precise one which would identify the poetic technique being used; so “image” became “simile” and “represents” became “symbolised”. My comment at the bottom of her answer was “use the language of poetry in your analysis. Otherwise excellent

Sample answer 3: 

The poem “A Glimpse of Starlings” by Brendan Kennelly is a poem which contrasts an alcoholic’s life with that of a bird (starlings) roaming free in the wind.

At first reading of the poem this theme suddenly became apparent to me. The alcoholic man is called “dead” indicating to me that he is simply wasting his life. He shares a relationship with “his own dead friends“. This line reminds me of the old men and women who sit all day in my local pub.

Together, drinking, they forget about the rest of the world and it isn’t until the “first heart-breaking light of morning” that the man realises what he has become. Unfortunately he cannot resist his addiction, instead he follows his routine and returns to the pub awaiting the “slow turn of the Yale key“. This man, however, longs to leave his ways behind as “Love is a crumb all of him hungers for“.

As he enters the pub, cinematically, over his shoulder we see birds taking off from a field afar. The comparison symbolism here is that the birds are free while the man feels trapped and locked in his alcoholism. Evaluating this poem, it brings evokes in me a feeling of sympathy and understanding towards those who suffer from addictions. They are trapped, imprisoned by their addictions. This poem allows us to gain respect and understanding for those who spend their lives suffering “like a fist of black dust pitched in the wind“. The starlings drift into the distance continuing with their business as the man begins to drink again.

I gave this answer 13/20. Her interpretation is really original and completely credible from the details included in the poem. However, the one solitary word which nods in the direction of commenting on the writer’s technique is “cinematic“. She didn’t use the word symbolism, that was me. So although she implicitly traces down through the poem as a metaphor, she never mentions that word, or uses any of the ‘lingo’ we associate with the act of interpreting poetry. Whether or not you think she should be penalised or not for an honest response which ignores ‘jargon’ is a discussion for another day. I’m torn on this one.

Sample answer 4:

The poem is an explosion of the senses for me, a contrast between silence and noise, life and death. The first paradox is presented in the first line of the poem: “I expect him any minute now although / He’s dead“. This thought is immediately conflicted in my mind by the verbs following, the onomatopoeia creating a tangibility that clashes with the idea of death (“struggling”, “sipping”, “bang”, “rattle“). I feel relief and a connection when I am told that “he” is as confused as I am: “He doesn’t know why his days finished like this“.

The allusion further down the poem strengthens the connection between me, the reader, and the elusive presence in the poem, with the reference to the “Yale key“, a brand name I am familiar with myself. Symbolism is hinted at in reference to the starlings, connecting him to the birds by referencing “over his shoulder” (meaning unclear…). The ambiguity of the “fist of black dust” gives another layer of confusion to the poem. Is it a fist of triumph thrown up into the air, finally getting in the house, or is it a threatening presence, a reminder of the perils that await him outside the house?

I found this one difficult to grade. There is a deep appreciation of the language of poetry, a bright mind asking as many questions as she answers. There’s an engagement with her feelings and with the feelings in the poem but zero attempt on any level to suggest what the poem might be about. So in terms of the 3T’s, she’s established tone and techniques on a deep level but has only briefly mentioned the theme of the poem (life and death) in her opening sentence. It’s a complete contrast to the answer above which focuses on meaning but ignores style almost completely. 16/20???

Sample answer 5:

Upon reading this poem for the first time, I believe that the speaker is the grim reaper who is patiently waiting for his next victim to drop: “I expect him any minute now“. As the victim struggles tries to perform simple tasks “he is struggling into his clothes” and nostalgically looks at his past “eating a small photograph with his eyes” I feel some deep empathy for him. It appears he is really struggling to go on for an unknown reason, perhaps heartbreak as “love is a crumb all of him hungers for“. It is clear this man is going through a tough time. It makes me think about the cruelty of this world, how death can happily wait for you to succumb as you can barely cope.

His use of the similedaylight is as hard to swallow as food” really speaks to me. It paints an intense picture of how much pain he’s in, that swallowing a simple piece of bread is causing him great pain such distress, alongside his lack of willingness reluctance to go on as the brightness of day kills him inside. The writer’s use of vivid imagery is intense; “like a fist of black dust pitched in the world” really hits me on a personal note. I can almost feel the punch by the fist, like it is the last pang of agony he will ever experience, almost like a sense of relief.

Again, I found it hard to grade this one. On the one hand you have an original and intelligent interpretation, comparing the speaker to the grim reaper. She achieves a good balance of the 3Ts, although I would have liked to see a little more integration/analysis of techniques. The bits I’ve changed above have been altered for the most part because there’s a tendency here to get ‘stuck’ on particular words and to repeat them, instead of using synonyms. The last line takes a literal interpretation of the word ‘fist’ which doesn’t quite follow the logic of the simile it belongs to, but then the word is there for a reason, to make you picture a fist, so I don’t know…. 14/20 ???

A poem doesn’t have a FIXED meaning but it is possible to miss important distinctions if you’re not fully tuned in. A couple of students failed to distinguish between the “I” and the “He” in the poem. The speaker “I” is writing the poem about “Him”, the man he says is dead, the man he observes. They are not one and the same person and a careful reading of the poem reveals this but in the rush to respond, some students conflated the two.

Interestingly, if you google it, this is a poem about grief. So one student, although she did not distinguish between the “I” and the “He” in the poem, otherwise came closer than any of the rest of us to the ‘intended’ meaning of the poem.

Here’s what I wrote as feedback on some of the less successful answers: (it might help you to see where you’re going “wrong”!!!)

“Your job is not to translate the poem into simple English. your job is to examine how the poem communicates with us, how it creates ideas in your mind and feelings in your heart. Offer an opinion, an interpretation, not a line by line re-phrasing”

“You must integrate discussion of at least four techniques in your answer. Examine how she expresses herself as well as what she says”

“Don’t put the quote first and then comment on it. It prevents there from being any flow in your answer. Think of something to say first, then support with a relevant quotation and comment on the effect this quote has on you, if possible identifying the technique as well as the intellectual/emotional impact”

“Zoom in on individual words/lines. Don’t comment in general terms on an entire verse”

“Don’t jump around too much. Stick with your point and develop it fully before you move on”







Chief Examiner’s Report

Every year, the chief examiner in several subject areas will write up a report examining what students are doing well and how they could do better in that subject. In fact, if only just for an insight into what real report writing looks like in terms of language, layout and tone, you should read a couple of them!

The last time Leaving Cert English was the subject of one of these reports was 2008. It contains examples of student answers, with grades and commentary at the end. Before that, there was a report from 2005 and one from 2001.

This week, Leaving Cert English was once again under the spotlight. The Chief Examiner’s Report for the 2013 English has just been published and I’ve been browsing back through the various English reports to look for some trends & useful advice.

Here’s what I’ve gleaned from them:


It’s pretty eye-opening to realise that 63% of students get between a D3 and a C1  in Honours Leaving Cert English. This just goes to show that getting an A or a B grade in honours English really is a great achievement. In a class of 30, this means on average you’d expect about 3 students to get an A, 8 to get a B, 12 to get a C and 7 to get a D (or if unlucky, 6 to get a D and one to fail).

However, if a higher percentage of students than normal opt for higher level, the number of students getting Ds will most likely be higher, because there are more students in the class who are borderline hon/pass and who, in another school or with another teacher, would/should have opted to sit the ordinary level paper. I find more and more students who never read and whose standard of written English is in need of a lot of work would prefer to sit the higher level paper and scrape a D2 (50 points), rather than sit the ordinary level paper and get a B2 grade (40 points), in part because of pride but mostly because it’s worth more points.

Also, the number of students getting A grades in certain wealthy middle class areas would most likely be higher than 3 in a class of 30, because students from wealthy educated homes tend to have more access to books; hear more sophisticated vocabulary; and have a greater emphasis placed on education in the home from an early age (this is not prejudice on my part, it’s proven from research and of course there are exceptions). This then has a knock on effect on the averages, so in a socially disadvantaged area, you may well have a class of 30 where no-one in the class gets an A or a B.

Speak to any teacher and they’ll tell you that every class is different and every year the results are different. I’ve had a year where 25% of the class got an A – that’s way above the norm. I’ve also had a year where no-one in my class got an A. One way to understand this on a simple level is to compare football teams from year to year. The U16s might win the All-Ireland this year; next year, with a new team in place, they might get knocked out in the first round. Occasionally what can also happen is that you’ve got a great team who just don’t perform well on the day, which is the worst thing that can happen, for the students and the teacher.

Have a look at these stats, ranging from 1999 to 2013.

Results 2001

2005 resultsResults 2005 -2008Results 2013

I’m a little sad it doesn’t stretch back to the dark ages of 1997 when I sat my Leaving Cert but you will notice the jump from about 6% of students getting an A in 1999 to an average of 10% since the new course was introduced in 2001. It’s also interesting to note that the examiners felt that those failing the exam (about 3 out of every 200 students who sat it) should have just sat the ordinary level paper and this advice is mentioned again in the section on the rates of students taking higher and ordinary level.

Paper 1 – comprehending 

Two things to note here.

The first is that you’re not just expected to “retrieve information” from comprehensions and re-phrase it in your own words, although this is one of the skills being tested. Students are also expected to “draw inferences from what they have read or seen, synthesize the material, and question or critically evaluate it, as required”. What this means is that you need to figure out what is being suggested or implied, as well as at the obvious literal meaning.

You need to demonstrate that you can stand back from the passage and see the bigger picture of the point or message the writer is trying to communicate. You must show that you can question and disagree with the writer’s opinions (if the question asks you to what extent you agree with the writer’s viewpoint) rather than simply accepting and agreeing with everything they say. You must be able to evaluate the extent to which they have been successful in communicating whatever it is they wanted to communicate and to analyse HOW they did this, in their writing style (their use of persuasive, argumentative and literary techniques).

I also liked this observation about what exactly it is you’re supposed to be doing when you read a text (but only IF the question demands it) – “relate texts to [your] own experience, generate personal meanings, discuss and justify those meanings, and express opinions coherently”

The second is that despite living in the most visual era the world has ever experienced, lots of students don’t know how to “read” images. Here’s what the report had to say on this topic:

Visual literacy

Paper 1 – composing

The main advice was to know your genres. The report states in no uncertain terms that “It is imperative that candidates who choose to write in a particular genre be familiar with the conventions of that genre and show evidence of this knowledge in the course of their writing“. So if you choose a descriptive essay, you must write descriptively (5 senses, active verbs, adjectives, moment by moment description) . If you write a speech, you must engage with your audience, include facts, stats, quotes, embed the repetition of a key phrase. If you write a short story, you must develop plot, setting, character. The list goes on. Each genre has its own style and set of expectations.

However, I was amused to see that “skills in letter writing require attention“. I honestly didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at this one. The examiner complained that “greater attention” needed to be paid “to the rubrics appropriate to the task (e.g. return address, date, salutation and closing signature)“. I would suggest that greater attention needs to be paid to the fact that THIS IS 2014!!! For God’s sake, when is the last time a teenager any of us sat down and wrote a letter? We email, we tweet, we blog, we skype. I’m as sad as the next person that the art of letter writing is in decline, but the day of the letter is dead and gone. I think it’s about time those setting the exam took a long hard look at themselves instead of criticising kids for not giving a crap what the correct format for a letter is, when the only time they have ever or will ever write a letter is in stupid school or applying for a job, in which case they’ll google a template! Ok, sorry for the rant but I had to get that off my chest!

In other news, correctors paid compliment to students composing skills: “the best compositions were fresh, well-organised, confident responses”; “there were great examples of aesthetic writing, poetic flourishes, and well observed situations”; “the quality of dialogue and description impressed”; “it was pleasing to see the varied and imaginative ways that students were able to approach the instructions in the questions”. However, they did mention that a small number of the compositions were extremely brief and in some cases where students decided to write a short story, they failed to grasp the fundamentals that entails – characterisation, setting, dialogue, atmosphere, plot i.e. action, conflict, turning point.

A previous report – I think it was from 2008 – criticised students for going into the exam with a pre-prepared short story and writing it no matter what came up. See 7. below…

Essay critiqueI also like the way they didn’t come straight out and say it, but the mention in no.6 of “heartfelt” articles is not a compliment. I’m willing to bet these were sickly sweet, full of cliches and made the examiners want to vomit just a little bit. Sincere can only bring you so far. Just because “that really happened” or “that’s really how I feel” does not mean it’s worth writing about.

As for QB, “writing in the correct genre using an appropriate register” was the skill they wanted students to demonstrate and we’re told that “Examiners pay particular attention to a candidate’s efforts to tailor their writing to the audience in question and to write in an appropriate register. This may involve writing in a particular style (e.g. formal, informal, rhetorical etc) and using language appropriate to the context“. This isn’t exactly news to us teachers, but it can be difficult to get students to take enough time to figure out who their audience/readership is and what kind of language might be appropriate to this audience and this task/genre.

Paper 2 – single text

I’ll quote at length here from the report, because I think it makes a very important point which students often miss. Just because the statement is written on the exam paper, does not mean that your job is to agree with it and then just find evidence to back it up. This is actually a terrible way to approach any question. It’s dull in the extreme, simplistic and prevents you from showing off your ability to see the nuances in the texts you have studied.

Here’s what the report had to say: we “invite candidates to engage with them but not necessarily to agree, either wholly or in part, with the premise put forward in the questions. Teachers and candidates should note that while it is essential that candidates fully engage with the terms of any question attempted, challenging the terms of a question, perhaps disagreeing with some part or the entire premise outlined, is an acceptable way in which to approach an answer. Such a possibility is often encouraged by the phraseology of questions e.g. “to what extent do you agree or disagree with…”. It is catered for in the marking schemes by the inclusion of points of disputation and also by use of the term “et cetera” to cover any possible worthwhile answers offered by candidates. Examiners sometimes report that candidates can appear to adopt an overly reverential approach to questions. This can affect candidates’ ability to demonstrate skills in critical literacy“. 

The other behaviour students frequently exhibit is not engaging fully with all aspects of the question asked, and lapsing into simply telling the story instead of using what they know to argue a point. Here’s what they had to say about this:

Single text 2008

The bit about adapting knowledge is a nod to the fact that students often learn off sample answers to questions but aren’t willing or able to transform what they know so that it applies to the question asked. I wrote this blog post recently examining this very problem which  you might want to check out. 

Paper 2 – comparative study

There were two main criticisms, the first relating to actually engaging with the texts and the question asked in a critical way “it is possible for candidates to challenge, wholly or in part, not only the premise put forward in questions but also the views and opinions they encountered in the course of studying texts“. So same problem as above, where students feel they’re being asked to simply agree and provide evidence, when in actual fact they can agree in part, or agree in relation to some texts but not all. So we’re told that “examiners were pleased when they saw candidates trust in their own personal response and demonstrate a willingness to challenge the ‘fixed meaning’ of texts. The best answers managed to remain grounded, both in the question asked and in the texts”. 

The second major criticism was similar to the complaint above about students learning off a short story and writing it no matter what came up. The same goes for the comparative where examiners complained that students had pre-prepared answers which they refused to adapt to the question asked.  Don’t get confused here: in the comparative section you have to have done a lot of preparation prior to the exam. The similarities and differences are unlikely to simply occur to you on the day under exam conditions and the structure of comparing and contrasting, weaving the texts together using linking phrases and illustrating points using key moments is not something you can just DO with no practice. It’s a skill you have to learn. But you MUST be willing to change, adapt, and select from what you know to engage fully with the question asked.

This compliment, followed by a warning, was included in the 2013 report:

Many examiners reported genuine engagement with the terms of the questions, combined with a fluid comparative approach. As in previous years, examiners also noted that a significant minority of candidates were hampered by a rigid and formulaic approach“.

A similar comment was included in the 2008 report. It seems the same problems we encounter as teachers correcting your work are appearing in exams too, unsurprisingly:

Comparative 2008

So the key to doing well is to know your texts, know the similarities and differences between them, have practiced weaving them together using linking phrases and illustrating points using key moments, but ultimately decide what to include (and leave out) AND how to phrase it on the day, depending on the question that comes up. Christ, they don’t ask a lot, do they!?!

One minor issue was students thinking they could get away with only knowing 2 texts. This is explicitly NOT the case, unless the question says “in two or more texts“. There’s no guarantee this phrase will appear, it often doesn’t, particularly at higher level, so going into the exam, you must be prepared to answer on three texts, as this is more than likely what the question will demand of you. Here’s what the report had to say: “candidates taking examinations in Leaving Certificate English should be prepared to refer to three texts in answer to questions on Paper 2, Section Two, Comparative Studies“. Also, it’s worth noting that you cannot answer on two films and you cannot include the text you’ve discussed as your single text in your comparative answer.

It also seems that there are lots of students writing comparative answers that are WAY TOO LONG. Aim for 5 pages not 9. Here’s the comment from the report which tells me that: “All candidates are reminded of the practical imperative of managing their time during the examination carefully and of the need to complete all of the requisite elements of the examination papers“. I’d say the comparative section is the main reason why students run out of time for poetry and in some cases, leave out unseen poetry altogether.

Paper 2 – poetry

Here, the problem of pre-learned off answers not being adapted to the task reared its head again.

Candidates were most successful when they avoided a formulaic approach and demonstrated the ability to link and cross reference the work of their chosen poet in the course of an answer. The syllabus requires students at Higher Level to “study a representative selection from the work of eight poets… Normally the study of at least six poems by each poet would be expected.” Candidates who had taken the time to engage fully with the work of a poet were better placed to select judiciously, comment intelligently and respond constructively to questions posed in the examination”. 

They’re also clearly arguing that if you only know three or four poems you’ll be limited in your ability to respond to the question. In other words you may have ‘left out’ the poems that are most relevant to that particular question.

The “link and cross-reference” phrase refers to the problem whereby students offer a poem by poem analysis without interlinking them, referring back to earlier poems, or emphasising the developing nature of the poets work. Your poetry essay, after all, should not be five mini essays on five different poems; it should be an integrated overview of features of the writer’s themes and style so this will inevitably involve referring backwards and forwards to poems previously discussed or about to be discussed and identifying common themes or stylistic traits as they recur or evolve.

Two more really obvious bits of advice come from previous reports, but I’ll include them here because they’re still relevant, particularly the first one:

Poetry advice

Poetry 2005 critique

As for unseen, the problem seems to have been that quite a few students just left it out, obsessed, no doubt with getting the other sections finished. This in turn skewed the average marks achieved in each section (see below). You’ll notice unseen is the lowest. This isn’t because people do badly in this section – those who answer it generally do very well. It’s ‘easy marks’ as long as you engage with the question(s) and balance the 3T’s – theme, tone, technique, also known as ideas, feelings, writing style. But enough people got 0/20 to drag the average down to 11/20. So let me re-iterate: Students Do Well In This Section – those that answer it that is!

Average marks per question Conclusions

What we’ve suspected all along – that the comparative section is bloody hard, is reflected in lower scores. The report says “in the Comparative Study section, candidates in general scored less well here than in other sections of the examination paper. Formulaic approaches to answering questions in this section can hinder candidates by inhibiting their engagement with the terms of the questions and curtailing the expression of independent thought”.

What they don’t recognise or admit is that the demands of the genre itself – comparative analysis – are what’s leading to formulaic answers. Many students find this section next to impossible even when they have unlimited time to compose their essays. Weaving texts together is bloody difficult. Weaving three texts together and answering a set question and expressing independent thought and illustrating using key moments, but not going into too much detail in case you spend too long on one text and then get penalised for not weaving, comparing and contrasting enough with limited time under exam conditions is a head wreck of mammoth proportions!

The results are lower because it’s the most difficult section. There’s no mystery here. It’s just BLOODY HARD

I mentioned earlier that the stats don’t go back to 1997 when I did my leaving cert. Back then I got an A1 (which redeemed the B in Junior Cert English that I found personally devastating) but the comparative didn’t exist. I’d love to sit the exam again for the hell of it and see how I’d get on. I’m confident I’d get an A1 again in every section except possibly the 100 mark composition (it’d depend largely on getting a topic that suited me and I’d find handwriting rather than typing infuriating in the extreme) and definitely the comparative, where I might scrape a B1, but only if things went well on the day. Are you getting the vibe that I hate the comparative? Yeah, I kinda do.

In more general terms, there’s no substitute for fluid but controlled sentence and paragraph structure, complex but accurate vocab, good spelling and grammar and fluency and flow with language.

Spelling grammar structureThese are things your teacher can attempt to teach you but the roots of this go deep deep into the vaults of your past (How much do you read? Did you read a lot growing up? Did your parents talk to you a lot using complex vocab?) and also reflect your personality. Do you actually and have you ever cared about planning and structuring your work? Do you and have you for the past 6 years checked your spelling or do you just fling down any oul guess? Do your thoughts appear in random disconnected bullet points or do they flow one into the other like a living stream of language?

Two more final observations.

You can’t do well in English by just learning loads of stuff off. This can be hard for students to accept, particularly because I’m told there are some subjects (but I wouldn’t dare name them!) where learning stuff off and vomiting it back up is rewarded. English is not one of them. You can know a lot but still do badly if you can’t express your knowledge in a coherent way. One of the reports identified this by saying that “some examiners identified candidates who were able to demonstrate knowledge of a text or texts but were less able to deliver this knowledge in a lucid or coherent fashion“. Ultimately, if your points are unclear, or unrelated to the question, you won’t be rewarded for simply knowing stuff.

Finally, finally, finally. The marking scheme PCLM stands for purpose, coherence, language, mechanics. But no matter how beautifully written something is, if it’s not relevant to the question/task (Purpose) then it won’t make any sense (Coherence) and you won’t get good marks for writing well (Language / Mechanics) if it’s completely off task / off topic. This wasn’t referenced in the most recent report but it did appear previously, the idea that your mark for P dictates your mark in the other sections C L & to a lesser extent M.

PCLM importance of pSo???


That’s the best advice I or any teacher can give you.