From Malin Head to Mizen Head, East Wall to Galway Bay, thousands of students are waking up to find out how they got in the Leaving Cert today, and heaven knows a fair few of them will make newspaper and TV news headlines for nabbing an endless number of A1s.
I can still vividly remember that day in August 2008, when I set foot in Pobalscoil Neasain to collect the precious piece of paper. I could tell by the smiles on my teachers’ faces that they’d already sneaked a peek: “G’wan, open it, and well done”, my principal gushed, before I fled to the safety of my rang Gaeilge to see how I’d fared.
“Here she is now, Miss 600” one of the lads in the year yelled as I walked through the car park just minutes later. “I didn’t quite make it that far now” I replied, before celebrating with my then best friend’s mother who was screaming “You got 500” down the phone to her in France. For those of you who are wondering, I nabbed a rather respectable 520, the same as I’d achieved in the mocks. Would you believe, as I went out to celebrate, I was actually a little bit disappointed?
The morning after the night before we couldn’t help but flick through the statistics in the newspapers on a friend’s living room floor. Smiling faces stared out at us from the front pages as the media went mental for the kids who’d done the impossible, and left the rest of choking on their dust. Don’t get me wrong, they worked hard, and certainly deserved a great big pat on the back for their achievements, but was a score of 520 not worth celebrating? Or even a 365?
If there’s one thing I can promise every Leaving Cert student out there, it’s that there is more to life than those desperately sought after 600 points, and there are plenty of rather successful people who are more than willing to back me up on that one.
Ever heard of Rick O’Shea? His 2fm radio show is one of the most listened to in Ireland, and he’s the current holder of our very own Celebrity Mastermind title. He didn’t have to score 600 points to prove he was a ‘Salmon of Knowledge’. In fact, he didn’t even get enough Leaving Cert points to get into the course he wanted.
“I wanted to do Communications in DCU, maybe even in DIT (at the time in Rathmines, this is a million years ago) but failed on both”, he explains. “It’s not that I had a crap Leaving (I got an A, B and 3 higher Cs and a pass A and B), just not enough that year. My careers advice tutor said a ‘good general arts degree’ would be a good idea, and despite that advice, here I am – a “success” in my mother’s eyes anyway…”
Then there’s Spin 103.8’s Ryan Phillips, co-host of the station’s breakfast show Fully Charged. He started DJ-ing when he was still at school, but his guidance counsellor had loftier goals. “I was quite lucky that the Leaving Cert suited me” he says, “I was good at remembering stuff, so I picked subjects that played to my strengths of ‘learn it and write it back’ (History, Geography and Biology) and got a good Leaving.” He completed a degree and worked for 3 years, but ultimately ended up coming full circle.
“I don’t regret working hard, getting a good Leaving and getting my degree” he admits, “I would probably do the same again, but did I need to do it to do the job I do now? Nope. There’s many paths to your dream job, usually energy, enthusiasm and passion are more helpful than a sheet of results that add up to ‘x’ points.”
The lads aren’t the only ones who prove that those 600 points aren’t the only marker for success. Dubliner Laura Feeney did her exams back in 2007 and was “absolutely over the moon” to get 465 points, because she’d worked damn hard to get them. “All I wanted was to do my best, not fail Maths and hopefully get enough points to get the course I wanted, Science in NUI Maynooth” she explains. Now, almost 6 years later, Laura’s got that coveted BSc in the bag, and is just about to finish a Masters in Animal Behaviour and Welfare at Queens University Belfast.
She’s joined by the likes of Eoghan O’Braonain, whose CAO offers didn’t quite go to plan. “I dropped 60 points from my mocks to my Leaving Cert due to both over confidence, and bad luck” the young Claremorris man admits. “With all of my top choices within 20-30 points of each other, I ended up taking my seventh choice on the CAO. It was the best mistake I ever made.” It’s not hard to believe either, considering the fact that he’s been working as a Trade and Development Executive for Enterprise Ireland in Toronto, Canada this past year.
Tom McCarthy says his hiccup was the “turning point” in his life. “I had picked Law as the top billing on my CAO in 2004, determined not to be seduced by any other course, almost to the point of not putting back-up options down”, he says. “I did in the end, if only to appease the cries of indignation from my poor mother, but lo and behold I just missed the bar by a cruel 15 points. An appeal returned the same verdict and I was sentenced to my next choice, Public Health and Health Promotion in UCC.”
Tom wasn’t quite sure what to make of the situation at the time, given that the course was a new one back then. “Most people said ‘So you’re a nurse in training yeah?’, but once the shock of realising I would not be donning a wig and gown in the near future wore off, I actually began to look forward to a life free from the family tradition” he laughs. “I went on to do a Master’s in the same area” he adds, “but just to prove how life can change yet again, I abandoned it all for a career in journalism, and did a Masters in the area at the Cork Institute of Technology. I currently write freelance and work full-time in the PR sector and I don’t regret my choices”.
And then there are those who have excelled in the arts, like Baldoyle-born David Yates. Back in 2007 he had no idea what career he wanted to pursue, so while he didn’t do too badly in the exams, he really couldn’t have been bothered to study. “I had no drive or want to pursue my education” he says, but after two years working in full time jobs that made him somewhat miserable, he decided to give something else a go.
“A friend of mine had been looking into drama schools and courses and I thought why not try it, see if its for me”, he explains. “After 3 years of study inside and outside of college, and everything from Method Acting to Shakespearian Acting classes, I now have a FETAC award, a Higher National Diploma. It’s given me the opportunity to work as an assistant director and stage manager, act on stage and in film. I finally have a big smile on my face because I’m doing what I love.”
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not telling these stories in order to try and take away from those students who’ve worked hard for their A1s: As I’ve said already, that’s some achievement and they deserve nothing but praise for it. It’s just that I believe everyone who works hard for their respective results is just as worthy of those front page headlines. I kicked myself for getting 520 once and when I look back now I have to laugh, because I’m in a job I love and I couldn’t be happier. It may seem rich coming from a ‘swot’, but I really do believe there’s nothing you can’t do if you put your mind to it, and no points system will ever be able to change the fact that there is ALWAYS an alternative.
“I got 360 points. Did it change my life? Yes. As you know 360 is just about enough to scrape a place for an Arts degree” says Ryan Cullen. “It wasn’t what I hoped for but I didn’t care. I knew that, regardless, I could make it on my own, maybe become a basket weaver or even join the circus.” Ryan eventually went on to become a stand up comedian and, believe it or not, the world didn’t end.
“They had threatened me with the orphanage beforehand, and said that if i didn’t get in I would have to reimburse my grandmother for the money she spent on candles at the local parish church” he adds. “Did it really affect where I ended up today? No. I did my degree (scraped it) but I haven’t used it in any way. It was the extra stuff I did during my years in college that made the difference” he maintains.
“While getting 600 is outstanding, and fair play to anyone who does it, I really don’t think it means much”, Laura says. “At the end of the day finding something, a course, a job or anything, that you love is all that matters, not how many A1s you got.” She’s not alone in her thinking either. “There are countless successful people in this world who did incredibly well in life and who either never set foot in college, or decided to push on after finding it wasn’t to their tastes” Tom points out, “like Graham Norton, Cillian Murphy, Lady Gaga and Michael J Fox to name but a few.”
It doesn’t matter if you’re headed for Cambridge or Colaiste Dhulaigh, DCU, Trinity, UCC, NUIG or UCD. Celebrate your achievements and release that little fame monster you’ve been dying to set free.