Wednesday, May 21, 2014

A Glance at Paper Two

English Paper Two is 3 hours 20 minutes long, the longest single exam paper you will sit in June. It’s 200 marks in 200 minutes which makes timing answers spectacularly easy: you have 60 minutes for your Single Text, 70 minutes for the Comparative and 70 minutes for your poetry section (20 for Unseen and 50 for the Studied poet). Give yourself these time limits when you practice exam questions as poor time management is the number one reason good students get bad grades.

The most important thing to remember for this paper is answering the question. Not learning off a million Macbeth quotations, not memorising what the textbook said about a particular poet; answering the question. I’d almost write it one last time in italics if I felt it would help…oh to hell with it: ANSWER THE QUESTION!! Please, please, please focus your energies entirely on the question on the paper. Read it ever so carefully and do your best to show the examiner that you are answering it clearly.

Give yourself a few minutes before you start writing each essay to plan a coherent structure for your answer: a clear introduction where you address the question from the very first line, a main body divided into well-defined paragraphs that each deal with a particular point and a conclusion that wraps up all your arguments into a nice neat bow (or at least a solid knot).

Use quotations to back up your points.  Try to integrate them naturally into your points so they don’t interrupt the flow of your writing. For example:
Macbeth, on the other hand, is driven by his ‘o’er vaulting ambition’ to take Duncan’s life and is, therefore, ultimately responsible for his own tragic end. 

If you want to use a slightly longer ‘block’ quotation start on the next line and indent it. It should follow clearly from the previous sentence and on to the one that follows. For example:
The dashes contribute to the rhythm of the poems echoing the natural cadences of human speech.  An example from ‘I taste a liquor never brewed’:
‘Inebriate of Air – am I –
And Debauchee of Dew -
When I read these lines aloud I hear a colloquial effect and a hint of Dickinson’s wry, dry humour.

The Single Text

The Single Text will be the one that you’ve spent most time on, so you will naturally feel the urge to write every last thing you’ve memorised about it onto your exam script. Don’t.  Only use material that is relevant to the question.

Single Text questions for the most part focus on the following areas of study: characters, themes, plot stages, language and imagery.  Most questions ask for your opinion on one or more of these topics so it’s advisable to start formulating your opinions NOW.

For those studying Macbeth for their single text, be able to answer questions like the following: Do you have any sympathy for either Macbeth or Lady Macbeth despite their evil deeds? What do you think the significance of the Witches/Banquo/Macduff is in the play? What makes a good King? Is the play Macbeth still relevant today?

The Comparative Study

The Comparative Study is probably the most challenging part of Leaving Cert English and you need to be well organised to cope with it well.  Know your three texts well but don’t obsess over every little detail like you would for the Single Text – it will actually just slow you down as you attempt to write an essay comparing three different texts. Know your modes of comparison well and practice exam questions for all of them.  For 2014 they are: Theme or Issue, Cultural Context and General Vision & Viewpoint.

Avoid summarising your texts; you should instead be constantly analysing and comparing them ie identifying similarities and differences between them.  Focus on key moments that exemplify the theme/viewpoint/aspect of cultural context. It’s a good idea to prepare some ‘multi-moments’ that serve all the modes of comparison and not just one.

There is no evidence to suggest that students do better on either the single essay type question or the two-part question.  Practice both types to give yourself more question options in the exam.


The Unseen Poem can be an easy 20 marks in your pocket if you’re properly prepared for it. Approach it like a detective hunting for poetic techniques as well as possible meanings.  My students are well used to me barking questions at them as they read a poem for the first time: Does it rhyme? Does it appeal to the senses? What’s your favourite/the most striking image? Is there any figurative language (metaphors/similes) in it? Any alliteration/assonance/sibilance/personification etc.  If you think the meaning of the poem is going over your head focus on the poetic techniques you can spot and the impact they had on you in your answer.

Studied Poetry

In brief, I will advise preparing a minimum of 5 poets well, formulating your own personal reactions and opinions to each poet and memorising as much of the poetry as you can (within reason).

For me recording myself reading the poems onto a cassette tape (I sat my Leaving Cert a long, long time ago) and then listening to them over and over again made memorisation easy. Knowing the lines ‘off by heart’ gave me a sense of ownership over them and meant I didn’t have to waste valuable minutes in the exam trying to remember them.  ‘Rote learning’ gets a bad press in some quarters these days but, in my opinion, we don’t do half enough of it!  Know the poetry for yourself and have faith in your own opinions and instincts on it.

Check out Poetry In Ten Easy Steps for a more detailed look at Studied Poetry.  

Ms E. Dobbyn.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Poetry in Ten Easy Steps

1) Think!
The Leaving Cert English syllabus is strongly focused on getting students to think for themselves and to formulate their own opinions: “Students should be able to develop an awareness of their own responses, affective, imaginative, and intellectual, to aesthetic texts.” That means: don’t just learn a book of notes off by heart and think you’ll get an ‘A’ because you won’t. 
By all means read a range of criticism and analysis of your literary studies but ultimately you need to listen to your instincts and formulate your own opinions.  Do this well in advance of the exam day, as you won’t have much time for pondering your innermost feelings on Heaney in the exam hall.

2) Engage personally. 

Don’t write about the poet or poetry in the passive voice ie “Yeats is considered to be one of the twentieth century’s greatest poets…’ All Leaving Cert poetry questions are addressed directly to YOU and need to be answered by YOU, for example, ‘I found Yeats’ poetry about ageing to be incredibly powerful’ or ‘Heaney’s poem The Call reminded me of when I used to make phone calls home during my summer away…’ A personal example of how you connected with a poem will go a long way towards showing the examiner that you have engaged with the poetry on a personal level rather than simply learning off notes.

3) Talk the Talk

Familiarise yourself with the technical terms of poetry and don’t be afraid to use them e.g. stanza, metre, rhyme, metaphor, simile, onomatopoeia, alliteration, assonance, tone, imagery etc. There are glossaries of terms in a lot of the poetry textbooks or easily available online so there’s no excuse for pleading ignorance.

Only use technical terms, however, if they are relevant to the point you’re making or back up your argument in some way.  Trying to show off knowledge of terms out of context will make you look a little desperate.  A simple rule is to only talk about technique in the context of its effect on the reader.

4) Don’t be a Plath Predictor.
In 2012 every student in the country (or so it seemed) was completely certain that Sylvia Plath was going to be on the exam paper but when it came to that fateful day in June the poetic minx wasn’t there.  You simply cannot count on the one poet you want to come up being there on your exam paper. The State Examinations’ commission is deliberately trying to make the exam less predictable so counting on patterns or predictions is unreliable. 
The only surefire way of being prepared for June is by knowing five poets really well.  The manner of questioning has also become a lot more specific over the past few years so, even if that poet you love does come up, the question might not suit your knowledge of them.  Be a good Girl or Boy Scout and ‘Be Prepared’!
5) Don’t focus too much on Biography

Us teachers spend a lot of time filling students in on the context of a poem being studied; the life of the poet, the history of the era etc. When it comes to the exam question, however, you need to focus entirely on the poems and not on the exciting lives of the poets who wrote them.  It may fascinate us that Yeats knew some of the 1916 Rising leaders or that Emily Dickinson was a bit of a hermit but giving a heap of biographical detail unrelated to the question will earn you zero marks. Biography can help us understand the poems but the examiner is far more interested in what you made of the poetry than how many facts about Kinsella you’ve memorized.

6) Read a wide variety of poetry to prepare for the Unseen Poem

It’s only 20 marks but it might be the 20 marks that brings you up a grade so don’t neglect to prepare for the Unseen Poem.  Your textbook is likely to have an Unseen poetry section with a variety of poems that you can practice on.  If it doesn’t try exploring some of the following websites:, and

Don’t worry if you don’t understand every single word of a poem.  It’s more important to practice describing how a poem makes you feel or what images stay with you after you finish reading it. 

7) Don’t Paraphrase the Poem
The Chief Examiner for English has criticized Leaving Cert English students for being prone to paraphrasing or summarizing both the unseen poem and studied poetry:  “While the majority of answers engaged with the text in a positive way, some merely paraphrased the poem or offered undeveloped responses.”  At Higher Level they expect deeper analysis, criticism and personal engagement. (Starting to see a pattern here?)

8) Read the Question

You could be a professor in Yeats’ studies at Yeats’ University, Yeats-ville and you could still fail the poetry question unless you read the question on the exam paper and then answer that question.  You are being assessed on how you answer that question so make that your focus.

9) Signpost your Answer

READ THE QUESTION! Did I say that already? Read it and then focus all your energy on answering that question and on showing the examiner that you are answering it by signposting clearly.   Don’t signpost it like a botharín in West Kerry with the sign pointing wonkily into a field.  Signpost your answer like you’re on a German Autobahn – clearly, logically and at regular intervals. Mention some aspect of the question in every, single paragraph and drill it in to that examiner that you are a poetry question answering machine.

10) Catch the Heart off Guard

My final message is to enjoy poetry – love it.  99% of you will never study poetry in a formal context again so this is it for you.  These are the poets that will stay with you for life.  The lines that you memorise will haunt you and at the most unexpected of moments you will find words from old poems helping you describe experiences you cannot verbalise yourself. Hazlitt said that ‘Poetry is all that is worth remembering in life’ and as the years roll by you’ll be shocked to realize that all that ‘practical’ stuff you learned in Maths and Biology will be long gone from your memory but lines from Yeats and Heaney will be etched on your heart forever.

Ms E. Dobbyn

Sunday, May 18, 2014

A Look at Emily Dickinson

Soundings has a lot to answer for.  The classic textbook ‘enjoyed’ by generations of Irish Leaving Cert students is notorious for its roll call of dead white male poets and its utter lack of ethnic or gender diversity.  In this sea of testosterone Emily Dickinson was the sole representative of female poetry and the selection of poems by her in the book had a decidedly morbid bent. ‘Because I Could Not Stop for Death’ and ‘I Felt a Funeral in my Brain’ being two of the more popular ones.  As a result it is generally believed by most Irish people that she was a crackpot loner who was obsessed with death and that her poetry is ‘depressing’. I want to strongly emphasise that this attitude is widely off the mark and to say something like that in your exam will do a great disservice to both Emily Dickinson and yourself.  

Her 1800 strong collection of poems is dividedly evenly under the headings ‘Life, Love, Nature, Time and Eternity’ and fortunately the selection of poems on the current Leaving Cert course is a lot more representative of this variety of themes than was delivered in Soundings.  Dickinson, like many poets, tackled the essentials of the human condition, asking the big questions: How does one cope with fear of death? How does one face up to the imponderable eternity that may follow? How can one find any certainty in this world? What makes us happy? She said:  ‘My business is circumference’ meaning her goal was to understand the bigger picture of why we are here and what is important in life: ‘the essentials’.

The most immediately striking aspect of her poetry is, of course, her intransigently individual style. The reader is visually struck by her neat 4 line rhyming stanzas, unusual capitalisations and frequent use of dashes.  As one studies her work the purpose of her unique punctuation becomes apparent.  The capitals give emphasis to certain words, mostly nouns, on which she wishes to shine a spotlight.  Often they are concrete symbols for abstract ideas or emotional states.  In the poem ‘I heard a Fly Buzz’ the capitalised words include: ‘Stillness, Heaves, Storm, Eyes, Breaths,’ creating a hushed, tense atmosphere all by themselves. In ‘I Felt a Funeral in my Brain’ the treading ‘Mourners’ and ‘Service, like a Drum’ are symbols for the mental state she is seeking to describe.

The dashes contribute to the rhythm of the poems echoing the natural cadences of human speech.  An example from ‘I taste a liquor never brewed’:
‘Inebriate of Air – am I –
And Debauchee of Dew -
Read the lines aloud and you will hear the colloquial effect and a hint of Dickinson’s wry, dry humour. Ted Hughes commented that the dashes are ‘an integral part of her method and style, and cannot be translated to commas, semicolons and the rest without deadening the wonderfully naked voltage of the poems’.

It is also immediately striking how important the natural world is to Dickinson.  Her poems are populated by birds, bees, beetles, flies, snakes, butterflies and flowers.  She was clearly a keen observer of plant and animal life and records in minute detail their appearance and movement. From ‘A Bird Came down the Walk’:
‘He glanced with rapid eyes
That hurried all around –
They looked like frightened beads,   
I thought –
He stirred his Velvet head’ 

She also displays a sincere personal enjoyment of the natural world in ‘I could bring You Jewels’ and ‘I taste a liquor never brewed’.  In these poems the beauty of nature is more valuable to her than expensive jewels and more intoxicating than alcohol:
‘Inebriate of Air – am I –
And Debauchee of Dew –
Reeling – thro endless summer days –
From Inns of Molten Blue –

In ‘Hope is the thing with feathers’ she uses a bird to symbolise the abstract concept of hope capturing both its fragility and resilience.
‘And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –‘
Nature is the tool she reached for most often to help explore complex questions and emotions. In ‘The Soul has Bandaged moments’ she describes the polar opposite emotions of ecstasy and despair and uses the image of a bee to depict the ecstasy: ‘The soul has moments of Escape –/When bursting all the doors –/She dances like a Bomb.../ As do the Bee - delirious borne – /Long Dungeoned from his Rose -’ 

She was unafraid to also explore the darker aspects of the human condition including despair, fear and our attitude to death.  She knew both the high and low moments of life and was able to describe these emotions in extraordinarily concrete terms.  Her poetry is always, as Wordsworth put it: ‘felt in the blood and felt along the heart’. From the opening line of ‘I Felt a Funeral in my Brain’ we are brought inside the human mind and given an exploration of mental turmoil. All the elements of a sad funeral: ‘Mourners’, ‘a Service’ and ‘a Box’ are used as metaphors for internal sensations of anxiety and pressure:
                        ‘And when they all were seated,
                        A Service, like a Drum –
                        Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My Mind was going numb - ’
I don’t think there’s a Leaving Cert student out there who has not felt a pounding in their head at some point this year from over-study, (or under-study!), stress or anxiety. What she’s describing isn’t foreign or strange, it’s something we’ve all experienced. She’s just describing it in an unusual way.

The poem can also be read as a meditation on death and whether there is an after-life. She could be imagining remaining conscious after death and being aware of the funeral ritual happening around her. The final stanza of the poem ends abruptly and openly, perhaps leaving the reader to decide for themselves if there is an afterlife or not:
                        ‘And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
                        And I dropped down, and down –
                        And hit a World, at every plunge,
                        And Finished knowing – then – ’

The poem ‘I heard a Fly buzz – when I died’ is a less ambiguous imagining of the moment of death. Here Dickinson depicts a classic Victorian ‘death-bed scene’ with the family gathered in religious solemnity to mark the speaker’s passing:
                        ‘The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
                        And Breaths were gathering firm
                        For that last Onset – when the King
                        Be witnessed – in the Room - ’
Instead of a moment of revelation or redemption, however, we get a moment of anti-climactic annoyance when ‘There interposed a Fly - /With Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz - ’. The seriousness of the scene is completely spoiled by a bumbling Blue Bottle flying erratically ‘Between the light – and me - ’. The poem goes on to end, not with a ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ or a religious vision, but with nothingness: ‘And then the Windows failed – and then/ I could not see to see -’. The open-ended dash at the end leaves what comes after up to the reader’s imagination.  

In any analysis of Dickinson we have to acknowledge the privacy of her writing.  She was not published to any real degree in her lifetime and very much wrote for herself rather than for others.  As a result her poems are often somewhat elusive and open to interpretation – there are no interviews with Dickinson about the meaning of her poems on YouTube! At the core of her poetry, however, are the questions that man has asked himself since the beginning of time.  While some of the language in her poems may now seem a little archaic to us, her themes remain bitingly relevant to this day. It is my firm belief that any Leaving Cert student can reach into her poems and find something there that speaks to their own personal experience. If nothing else ‘Hope’ (the thing with feathers) will be something you can cling to come 4th June!

Ms E. Dobbyn.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Debating Success for Calasanctius!

Two Calasanctius teams competed in the Connacht round of the Matheson Junior Debating Mace competition on 1st March and achieved huge success on the day.  Cathal Connolly won the Best Second Year trophy and two first year students, Laoise Claffey and Laura Finn, won a place in the grand final, coming in the top four teams out of twenty.  All three will advance to the National competition which will be held in UCD on the 5th April. 

Debating club is run by Ms Dobbyn on Mondays at 130pm in Rm 129 and all students are invited to come along and help Cathal, Laoise and Laura practice for the national competition. 

Here's what one of the organizers had to say about them:

Thanks so much for sending your wonderful students to the debate last night. They were all engaging and persuasive speakers: intelligent, insightful and without a shred of arrogance. I was most impressed with how well the girls did overall. Cathal too, is a very accomplished speaker too…an absolute credit to you and your school. 

Monday, February 24, 2014

Sive Reviews

Matchmaker,Thomasheen Sean Rua (Simon O Gorman) and Mena Glavin (Derbhle Crotty) challenge Nanna Glavin (Brid Ni Neachtain) in a scene from Sive.

The Abbey Theatre production of Sive has kicked off and the reviews are out! My Leaving Cert group, who are studying it as part of their Comparative Study, and I are excited to be traveling up to Dublin to see it later in the month.

Here's a taste of what's to come:

Irish Times Review

Irish Independent Review

Irish Examiner Review

Monday, February 17, 2014

Thank your Teachers!

The teachers who inspired me?

Mrs Cooke and Mrs O'Brien of the Dominican College, Taylor's Hill - they made words and literature come alive. They are the reason I'm an English teacher - thank you both ladies.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

New Debate Club

I'm delighted to announce the launch of a new debating club in Calasanctius College meeting every Monday at 1:30pm in Rm 129.

We will start coaching interested students in the skills of debating and public speaking and hopefully have some teams ready to enter some competitions in the autumn.

So whether you want to develop your self-confidence, channel your argumentative side in a 'healthy' way or simply to use logic to thwart your enemies come to the debate club on Monday!

Ms Dobbyn.