Holly Cairns on her Leaving Cert: ‘I wasn’t an academic student’

‘I never thought in a million years I’d end up in politics as a TD and now leader of a political party’

The Social Democrats leader and TD for Cork South-West attended Schull Community College on the Mizen Peninsula, which she remembers as “an amazing school with a lovely atmosphere”. She sat her Leaving Cert there in 2008 at the age of 18.

What is your most vivid Leaving Cert memory?

My most vivid memory of the Leaving Cert is the end of it. The weather was absolutely stunning and I was so excited to be finishing school. However, because I took agricultural science as a subject, it was one of the last exams and I remember being so eager to finish my Leaving Cert that I almost regretted taking it as so many of my friends had already finished.

Who was your most influential teacher and why?


Ms McMahon, my English teacher. English was my favourite subject and I learned so much from her. I wasn’t particularly academic so looking forward to a class wasn’t something that I experienced very much. She was a brilliant teacher and her class was very structured.

What advice would you give to your Leaving Cert self?

Don’t worry if you don’t know what you want to do. I was definitely one of those students. Many of my friends knew exactly what they wanted to do, and I really envied that. In the end, I actually enjoyed trying lots of different things – like agriculture and working in disability services – and it was quite formative.

In transition year, we did a quiz to see what subject we would end up doing in university or college. After we filled in our responses, everyone got all these cool careers like social worker, teacher, journalist or nurse – I got airport baggage handler. I wouldn’t have minded being a baggage handler, even though I didn’t live near an airport or particularly like heavy lifting. I was at such a loss for what I wanted to do.

What was your most difficult subject?

Maths was my biggest struggle. I found it very hard and did ordinary level. I never had grinds in maths but probably should have.

When I later went on to complete my master’s as a mature student, I was so scared of the statistics module, although I ended up doing really well in it. This shows that even if you feel you’re not good at something, it might just be that you learn it in a different way. My determination to get the results also played a part. I really had to figure out statistics when doing research for my master’s.

And your favourite?

English. I liked all of it, especially analysing novels, plays and films. We did ‘Othello’, ‘The Truman Show’ and ‘Shipwrecks’.

How many points did you get in the Leaving?

I can’t remember but I recall feeling that I didn’t do well and should have done better. I was disappointed but I knew I wasn’t going to do particularly well as I wasn’t an academic student.

I remember feeling that all you are really graded on or valued on at that age is your academic ability in a school setting. I wasn’t somebody who thrived in that environment.

What did you go do after secondary school?

I studied international development in Liverpool. A lot of the course was very geography orientated and I ended up dropping out after a year as I wasn’t interested in it.

I then did a broad health studies course in a further education college in Waterford, which I loved. I went on to do teacher training and was able to teach in a further education college. That’s what brought me into working in disability. From a health studies perspective, it was the part I found most interesting.

I then volunteered in Romania with the Aurelia Trust, a charity set up by an amazing woman in my parish. I also went on to work in disability services in Malta.

Years later, when I was moving home to take on my family farm business, I did a master’s in organic horticulture in UCC. To anyone who isn’t really academic or has ever dropped out of a university course, let me just say that I got first-class honours in my master’s.

It’s great if you are academic and know what you want to do – by all means ride that wave – but it’s not for everyone. There are other pathways so keep trying different things. I never thought in a million years that I’d end up in politics as a councillor or TD and now leader of a political party. It was through trying different things and having different experiences that I found my way here.

What would you change about the Leaving Cert?

I think it desperately needs reform. It’s an environment that really suits some people, but it could be suitable for everyone. There are teachers the length and breadth of the country who are making it more suitable for students like me, but more could be done.

This exam-based memory test is not serving everyone. It restricts who goes into particular professions and doesn’t acknowledge how much that profession may be suited to somebody. Because it’s all about points, it possibly keeps a lot of people who would really be suited to a particular profession out of it.