Out of the mouths of babes comes wisdom – of a sort! For thirty years I spent my summers correcting Leaving Cert English scripts and it never failed to amaze me the chances chancers will take when rote learning hits the cold reality of the North face of The Eiger! I began my work with the Department in June 1978 and I corrected Junior Cert Geography that year. I learnt that the name of the shipyard in Belfast was called Harland and Wolf Tone and that along with cheese and butter and yoghurt (which had just arrived on the shop shelves) milk of magnesia was also a dairy product!
English, however, was the gift that kept on giving! Shakespeare usually threw up numerous gems of lucidity and erudition. I learnt, for the first time, that Othello, ‘although his exterior may be black he is pure and good on the inside’. Desdemona is very forgiving also, to the point where ‘she shows great love for Othello even after he has suffocated her’. King Lear suffered because, ‘he wanted to keep his revenue and all his followers’. Also, ‘in those days you didn’t divide your kingdom – you left a will’. In a moment of weakness Lear is overheard talking to The Fool on the Heath: ‘Go in man you’ll catch your death out here’. Whereas Hamlet, ‘is the victim of exaggerated procrastination complex’ and as well as that he suffered from ‘an anti disposition’ and then later ‘an antique disposition’. I can visualise vividly in my mind’s eye harried teachers on cold winter’s mornings explaining what an arras was only for that information to be completely corrupted by June: ‘He killed Polonius through the arse’ and in another script sponsored by Toyota, ‘Hamlet stabbed Polonius behind the Yaris’. Also Hamlet was only mad North North West so therefore according to the mathematicians, he ‘was only one sixteenth mad’.
Yeats always yielded up a great variety of hoary old chestnuts. Indeed I was reliably informed that in that great poem Among School Children, ‘the chestnut tree may not be called the bole, blossom or the branch – it is all three.’ Everybody also seemed to know that, ‘he stalked Maud Gonne, proposing to her many times’. Elsewhere in a rather revealing Freudian (or Faustian) slip Maud Gonne is referred to as, ‘Mad Gun McBride’. The poem Sailing to Byzantium can apparently, ‘be summed up in four words: ‘perne in a gyre’. The poem The Fisherman is about, ‘a man in Connemara clothes living in a shed on the top of a hill’. In this great poem Yeats apparently is struggling to reconcile the opposing images, trying to describe, ‘the ideal man versus the reel man’. One candidate suggested that Yeats was a sad case because, ‘he was plagued with immortality and involved in politics.’
O’Casey’s plays also provided rich seams of unintended humour, double entendres and other heaven sent certainties. One candidate mentioned the fact that, ‘Johnny is no longer able to work because of an accident where he lost an arm and now he walks with a limp’ and continued to dig a deep hole by saying, ‘a job on a building site wouldn’t strain his arms because it’s not his legs he’s mixing it with.’ Captain Boyle was not understood at all, ‘there is nothing attractive or endearing about Captain Boyle, he is literally a boyle on the butt of humanity’. It is also suggested that, ‘he attends drinking seminars in a local pub’. Summing up Juno and the Paycock one candidate suggests that, ‘Joxer is the parasite and Boyle is the dope (sic)’. Bessy Burgess in The Plough and the Stars is described as, ‘a pearl containing oyster of a woman’! She has a sharp tongue in her head and she says, ‘that Mrs. Gogan’s wedding vowels are not valid’. Christy Mahon in The Playboy of the Western World is beautifully described as having. ‘small feet which is a sign of great breathing’. These candidates may not have gone down in English – most of them anyway! – but they will definitely go down in history!
Lord of the Flies by William Golding always gave rise to unexpected surprises. The boys, ‘find they are on an island inhabited by pigs and bugs’ and, ‘they have to defend for themselves’ and then we discover that, ‘any pigment of control is lost when Piggy dies’.
Personal essays also provided an amazing array of views on the vagaries of teenage life: the following are some of the many gems which brought a smile to my face.
- Summer holidays from school are great – your only worry is have you put enough sun screen on your nose.
- Life is like meeting the man of your dreams and then meeting his beautiful wife!
- It was a buzzing party so there were no straight people there…..
- In Second Year there were thirty-one of us in our class – I was the one!!
- Waiting for the school bus is a mating ritual…..
- The mood is electrical…..
- There was a climatic moment as the aria was played……..
- Dreaming is actually one of the things I’m good at…..
- The internet is a gateway to child pornography and a perverse culture used by losers and sad cases….
I could go on and on but suffice it to say that all these slips of the pen brightened up my hazy July days and needless to say they were all – well nearly all! – rewarded accordingly! I will give the final word to one young statistician who summed up our national predicament quite succinctly: ‘We are a 100 per cent white, 95 per cent Catholic and 110 per cent naïve country’. Out of the mouths of babes…….
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