Diarmaid Ferriter on his Leaving Cert: ‘I smoked far too much. My bedroom windowsill was black with ash’

UCD historian says too many Leaving Cert high-fliers cannot construct sentences

Diarmaid Ferriter, a historian, broadcaster and university professor, sat his Leaving Cert at St Benildus College, Kilmacud, Dublin, in 1989

What is your most vivid Leaving Cert memory?

Not sleeping enough and smoking far too much; my bedroom windowsill was black with ash. I remember the physical and mental relief when walking out of the sweaty school hall in St Benildus College, Kilmacud, a fine school, after the last exam in June 1989. It was a warm month. I also recall being cross that there was a general election that month and I was not allowed to vote as I was 17.

Who was your most influential teacher and why?


It would be unfair to single out one. All my teachers were influential, for good or ill. I grew up with parents who were teachers, so I have been surrounded by teachers all my life, at home and outside of it, and some of my most important lessons came from a combination of both. I’m also conscious of important lessons from friends and siblings.

What advice would you give to your Leaving Cert self?

None. Advice from older to younger self is not advice, it’s just cheating. We are guided by the lights of our time. If pushed, maybe I’d opt for “stop smoking, you clown”.

What was your most difficult subject?

For a long time it was maths, but because I did pass ordinary level all the way, it became more manageable and I concluded that if I could add, subtract, multiply and divide, to hell with the rest of it.

I have met some brilliant mathematicians in my time in academia who have convinced me of its poetry and essential connection to everything, but I decided life was too short for algebra and theorems (are they the same thing?). I found French tough. I love the language but struggled to master it in any way. There wasn’t enough emphasis on the speaking of it.

And your favourite?

Ah here, what do you think?

How many points did you get in the Leaving?

I got, I think, 24 points under the old CAO system. 2 As, 2 Bs and 2 Cs. I’m open to correction on that, for obvious reasons alluded to above. History and English were my strongest.

What did you go on to do after the secondary school?

I did Arts at UCD; we had three subjects to choose in first year and I did history, English and Greek and Roman civilisation, after which I focused on history. I’m still studying that. 1989 was such an interesting year to be analysing the past given the transformations and transitions that year as some old certainties crumbled.

What would you change about the Leaving Cert?

I would like to see all students studying climate change, financial literacy, food and nutrition and more attention given, across all subjects, to the essential importance of basic literacy. I have witnessed too many Leaving Cert high-fliers at UCD who cannot construct sentences.

I also think there is too much snobbery about points and post-Leaving Cert options; crafts and trades and presentations should be given much more prominence, particularly with the threat of AI looming over so much.

If classroom-based assessments are to be incorporated into State exams they should be properly resourced and fully managed in the classroom. Private schools educating Leaving Cert students should not receive a cent of public money.