Salad days

by Maria on June 21, 2005

Dervala has the most beautiful, true and hair-raisingly universal (if you’re Irish) essay on the Leaving Cert, the quintessentially Irish right of passage, the Murder Machine, or, as I knew it at the time, The High Jump. I did the Leaving the same year Dervala did, and I could have written this piece myself. Except that I couldn’t. It’s just so well-written it feels like that, capturing hauntingly what it was to be 17 and have your dreams channelled through the points system and your entire life blocked off by an enormous obstacle/national obsession. And the sheer finality of it all:

“For two years we consumed seven subjects. Over a June fortnight, we regurgitated this knowledge into thirty hours worth of essays and proofs. The first day, we might dispatch Yeats, Scott Fitzgerald, George Eliot, and Shakespeare for good, and then choose from a list of titles the last original essay composition we would ever write. The next day, we would think about calculus, trigonometry, and quadratic equations—intensely, for six hours, and for the very last time.”

The LC marks you for life. I still dream every few months that I’m repeating it, especially when the weather starts to get warm and over-achievers’ happy little thoughts are inexplicably tinged with guilt.

Speaking of the weird things people do when summer finally comes to Belgium, two friends recently went to a community fair in one of Brussels’ rougher communes; Schaerbeek. Instead of jam stalls and face painting, they found tables full of rifles for purchase by all comers. Not Very European! And for family entertainment – one man was covered in heavy padding and put in an enclosure while another goaded a german shepherd with a stick and set him on the first man. Everyone clapped.

The fairs in the city are much nicer, though – and on a Sunday here you can’t walk half a mile without encountering one. Or a tiny, hidden park, or a humbly gorgeous art nouveau facade in an un-prepossessing street. I’m starting to think that Brussels, not Paris, is the true city of the flaneur.



Ray 06.21.05 at 11:21 am

I think I knew Dearbhaile in college…


des von bladet 06.21.05 at 11:32 am

Um, “universal (if you’re Irish)”?

(We’re not, as it happens, and while it only rarely occurs to us to publically rejoice that this is the case, this is certainly one of those times or occasions.)


P ONeill 06.21.05 at 2:05 pm

Nice nostalgia trip. I don’t dream about the LC but I do occasionally have this vision of sitting down for an interview for a civil service job (God forbid) and someone wants to see my LC results, because as far as I can tell, they’re only ones who seem to attach some additional value to knowing them over and above whatever later qualifications one has. Slightly on the same subject, I also wonder whether this notion of knowing one’s “bank manager” — and the ability of said person to be a reference — is peculiar to Ireland. I recently got ensared in some Irish government bureaucracy where the proposed resolution from the other side of the counter was to call my “bank manager” whose presumed willingness to testify as to my sound character would move this other procedure along. It’s like we all still live in villages where the priest and the bank manager are the pillars of society.


Eszter 06.21.05 at 4:01 pm

I’ve been meaning to blog about the Hungarian equivalent, the “Érettségi” (~ “maturity”), but the thought of writing a post about the experience is stressful enough that I haven’t gotten around to it yet. Maybe next Spring. This year there was a major scandal in Hungary around this, because the questions were leaked. That is, for the written exam, the questions are the same across the country. You prepare for several dozen in Literature and Math and then they announce on the radio in the morning which ones have been picked for all seniors across the nation to write about/solve that morning. The oral you draw. For Lit, I drew Homer. I don’t remember the History and Grammar topics anymore, which is probably a good sign for my sanity. Luckily, I had already passed the state language exam in German and English so I didn’t have to take those. Less hell for me that week, but still plenty.


Aidan Kehoe 06.21.05 at 4:08 pm

Des, what’s your complaint? You know well that our friends from Alto Méjico would post something similar about summer camp or some seminal teenage film in a heartbeat, things as lacking in their universality as the LC, without any thought of qualification. Be grateful that Maria acknowledged your existence. Heheh.


Andrew Hammel 06.21.05 at 4:58 pm

Hey, I was just in Brussels, and visited a friend in Scharbeek, in the Mahonillanlaan (to use the Flemish designation).

It’s not rough at all; there are fabulous markets on the weekend with plenty of velvety Belgian strawberries and delightfully smelly Belgian cheese. I saw no rifles or dog attacks (not that I have anything against such harmless pursuits). In fact, Schaerbeek is rapidly gentrifying.

A visit to delightful Brussels is not complete without a stroll through Schaerbeek!


des von bladet 06.21.05 at 5:05 pm

Aidan, m’dear, my complaint was motivated (and in a previous draft explicitly so) by the realisation that your fellow ex-(?)-country-persons were still capable of acknowledging this such absurdity. (My major, although far from impetulant, complaint about one Ted, of this ‘bladet, is precisely the tendency to which you refer or allude.)

Eszter: an anxious internation awaits your many reflections, if you ever choose to publically have any, although possibly none more eagerly than I. (I have developed something of a something about Hungaria, I admit it freely and openly, if not necessarily especially salubriously.)


William Sjostrom 06.21.05 at 6:55 pm

I confess I am baffled by the near obsession with the Irish leaving cert. When I first applied for a position at UCC, I was in my mid-thirties, I had been out of grad school for several years, and I had a publication list. But I was asked about my leaving cert results. Did I mention my CV said all my training was American? When I pointed out that I had never taken the leaving cert, the questioner seemed at a loss to know what to say next. All very bizarre.


Urinated State of America 06.22.05 at 11:35 am

“Dervala has the most beautiful, true and hair-raisingly universal (if you’re Irish) essay on the Leaving Cert, the quintessentially Irish right of passage, the Murder Machine, or, as I knew it at the time, The High Jump.”

O-levels were similar for me; thinking I’d fucked up my O-levels really badly, I took a walk to think about what I was going to with my life with the chance of college severly diminished. after half-an-hour it dawned on me I was walking around my college campus and that I’d just had a four-year delayed anxiety dream.

Mind you, my A-levels were a remarkably relaxed affair; ‘cos I’d gotten into Cambridge on their exam* (after trying and failing to get an A-level based offer), all I had to do was to at least 2 Es. So while my colleagues were sweating to get ABB’s, etc., I could relax and enjoy crunching numbers in the exam for the sheer fun of it.

*Which was one of the few fun exams to do; had one of the best written exam questions I’d ever read; gave you three postulates, and then asked you to derive the age of the universe. Pretty damn cool.


David Flood 06.22.05 at 6:56 pm

Cringing at the thought of the Leaving all those years ago myself, I actually went onto the “Ratemyteachers” site (I know) to see who’s still around, after a decade…

p.s. anyone know who originated the “Murder Machine” epithet? I know Pearse popularised the term, but was he the first to use it?

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