Comprehension texts were fresh, the writing tasks were a little jaded., but the candidates left the exam hall smiling
The general theme of the paper was MEMORY, a concept broad enough to embrace all genres of writing and relevant enough to be of interest to all candidates. It was well chosen.
Three texts were offered for reading.
The first, an autobiographical piece by the Canadian writer Margaret Laurence, in which she described her childhood in a small prairie town, was colourful, fascinating and probably a novelty to most candidates. The second, a speech on hunger by former President Mary Robinson, was passionate, engaged and important, and had the added interest for candidates of drawing on quotations from two of this year’s prescribed poets – Eavan Boland and Seamus Heaney – while reflecting on our society’s collective social memory: a thought-provoking piece. The third text was an extract from an unusual travel book by the American Paul Theroux, in which he compared his experiences of two versions of the same journey, thirty-three years apart, and reflected on how memory can both distort and enhance the present.
All three texts were imaginative, challenging, and stimulating.
Unlike last year, when two extracts from works of fiction and all the chosen writers were Irish, this year there was no narrative text and the writers were Canadian, Irish and American. Happily, the paper is no longer predictable and, in recent years, has always seemed fresh.
Though the texts themselves were unusual choices, and therefore challenging and stimulating, the comprehension questions set on them were as expected, without major surprises or shocks. This is by far the best combination for an English examination paper, I believe, allowing candidates to prepare techniques of criticism which they will them confidently use in responding to fresh material. The comprehension questions included standard queries on content, on how the visual and written elements of each text complemented each other, and on the effectiveness of an author’s style with reference to the genre.
By contrast; the Question B tasks, the short exercises in functional writing, were a little flat this year and unlikely to inspire the creative or imaginative writer. Functionality, rather than imagination, dominated. The tasks included a letter to one of the authors, describing your own home place; a proposal to commemorate an event or person; and an article on school outings. In fairness, it should be pointed out that the tasks were well within the range of any well-prepared candidate, there were no surprises, and none of the exercises was more difficult than either of the others. A fair, though somewhat dull, test of a candidate’s ability to use language appropriate to a given task.
The range of Compositions was as expected, with something for everyone. The tasks ranged across personal essays, short stories, and both formal and informal discussions. In terms of genre, no candidate could complain of being excluded or marginalised. The topics were varied and again accessible, although one notices that certain stock themes and characters – the importance of literature, the somewhat rebellious teenager, Ireland’s national identity, the marvellous in today’s world – are beginning to repeat themselves from previous years, giving this year’s tasks a slightly jaded feel to them.