I sat my “Inter” 25 years ago.
For those of you who don’t go back that far, the Intermediate Certificate was the fore-runner to the Junior Certificate. It was replaced by the latter in 1992.
Back then the Department of Education had toyed with a number of different commencement days for the state exams. Monday starts had shifted to Friday by 1984 before eventually settling to Wednesdays when my turn came in 1987. That suited fine as we had four full days to study.
The first day was taken up with two English papers. It had, by then, become my favourite subject and I had high hopes of doing well. All three volumes of Exploring English had been tackled and devoured with relish while I could mentally conjure up the plot of Julius Caesar in reverse. Paper I was, however, the tricky one; this was where a poorly-written essay could throw a spanner in the works and destroy one’s hope of an A grade – the ultimate prize.
As it happened the essay wasn’t an issue. Feeling pleased and confident, I proceeded to Section II and quickly scanned the comprehension piece. It didn’t really make much sense so I read it again with increasing apprehension and a growing feeling of desperation. It was awful and I started to panic. After a few moments I gradually regained my composure and tried to make sense of the words. OK – it seemed like a travelogue; somebody describing an aerial view of Ireland.
“Frisky blue skies”.
“Clouds lying sick and white”.
The writer then described the plane flying over Arklow or Wicklow
“In these moments the country looks wan and exhausted. You reach for the whiskey flask”.
I knew how he felt. Make this nightmare stop.
“Those wan sick clouds, only a few hundred feet above the earth, might be damp souls of little value”.
So that was it. The clouds were meant to represent the shite state of the country. And to top it off we got a stark illustration of the different geographical cloudscapes – Howth (“cherubic”), Dublin (“black umbrella”), South (“flat white”), South West (“cumulus on the boil”), North (“motionless slate”) and West (“hilarious wisps).
In keeping with the chaotic prose the final line is confusingly doom-laden
“You have reached the beginning or the end of creation”.
There were four questions that needed to be tackled.
The first one asked that we sum up the principal ideas in 140 words. One wonders if a single tweet could cover a satisfactory response now.
The remainder dealt with style, mood and word definitions (“anarchy” and “bizarre” among them; how fitting). Throughout the second hour a number of us exchanged forlorn glances and shrugged shoulders in bemused despair. This was a real whiskey tango foxtrot moment.
Thankfully I wasn’t alone in my bafflement. The following day’s Irish Times saw Christina Murphy describe the piece of prose as “extraordinary” and “stylised nonsense”. Numerous complaints had come in throughout the day to the paper’s Examdesk section while ASTI representatives referred to it as “far too precious and unsubstantial a passage for that sort of question”. To this day the identity of the writer remains a mystery.
But that’s not all. The craziness continued when I turned over the exam paper. Have a look at Section III, Part B.
What about this for a great idea? Let’s ask a bunch of 15-year-olds to compose a letter of condolence to somebody who’s lost a loved one. Isn’t it a little early to be imposing such a morbid task on a group of nervous teenagers? The cautionary guideline about not using your own name and address merely added to the oddball dynamics of the paper. At least that question was optional and you’ll note that I avoided it.
1987’s results took a while to touch down – not arriving to schools until the beginning of October. Our headmaster wrote a covering letter to every student’s parents which took a somewhat ungracious attitude to the exam results. He sternly warned us of the pitfalls of dossing during fifth year and bid a curious goodbye (farewell and thanks in quotation marks) to those who had decided to leave or change schools during the summer. In retrospect it’s probably a fitting epitaph to one of life’s more surreal chapters.