I recently completed the Leaving Certificate English Honours paper 5th and 6th June 2013. I am a mature student but was using the occasion to revive my interest in literature. I was kindly allowed to sit in class with the students and learn about Macbeth and poets and two novels and a play. The experience in the class was very pleasant, the students initially thought I was the inspector!
I was dismayed though with some of the content in the course as the material was very depressing and dark. Two of the poets on the course were particularly upsetting with their images and language and I began to feel for the students who had to learn these off by heart and regurgitate them back in the exams. Sylvia Plath was a brilliant poet tormented in life. Derek Mahon has some brutal images in “As it should be” and “Rathlin”. These are just the tip of the poets on the course but, even as a middle aged adult, I found them upsetting. Then we had to deal with Sive by John B Keane where the main character commits suicide in a bog hole. The play was depressing full of conflict and poverty. The novel How Many Mile To Babylon by Jennifer Johnston was concerned with family conflict and war and maiming and screaming and murder/suicide in the end. None of these texts had even a faint light of relief. At the end of the whole experience, I asked myself what impact all this is having on the young students in the class. An experienced retired teacher said to me “it washes over them” but I’m not so sure. Is this in any way a contributory factor to young people committing suicide? If your mental health is good and you have your act together as they say then these texts would “wash over you” but if you are not well or in a bad place at the moment, then your English classes will certainly not help. I hope to write to the Department of Education and see who sets out the courses and are there any alternatives. The current syllabus carries too high a risk.