A strange thing happens to young Irish people in the run up to their Junior Certificate. They sit tethered to desks in homogenised spaces daily, and are asked to rote learn dates, names, theorems, themes and trends. Go tobann, they are forced to employ their skills in prose in order to entertain and entice examiners, for almost 20% of their overall grade. Having had the creativity crushed out of them by the removal of play which had been so readily facilitated in primary school, they must now spew out passable passages of personal essay and storytelling on demand.
It’s a pitfall for many. To those not yet masterful in their craft, lapsing into cliché or the done thing is always a risk (indeed, it was the acknowledgement of this truth that underpins our entire zine’s efforts!). We’ve all been guilty of such faux-pas: Thrusting in a trusty “But it was all a dream.” as a hackneyed conclusion when having run out of ideas or time; nicking the plot of a cool movie you recently saw; or cramming in every simile under the sun at the expense of ever actually saying something.
Why we continue to expect feats of creativity from young people in exam setting, despite the education system’s every effort to the contrary elsewhere, we will never understand. That three contributors, all of whom now work in creative fields, felt the need plot prose well in advance of their exams, only to learn it by heart and regurgitate on the day says it all. Whoever thought demanding creativity of youngsters in a pressurised setting was a good idea was not very creative indeed.
Diatribe aside, in remembrance of those darker days, and as an act of solidarity with our younger compatriots preparing for the big day, we asked our writers to go back to those polyester-wool-blend-clad days and air out their skeletons.
David Anthony –
Devotions upon Emergent Occasions
You would be forgiven for thinking that the above title is name of an eighties synth pop supergroup. It is in fact the title of a story I wrote for a school competition as an impressionable eighteen year old. A whopping two and a half A4 pages (size twelve font I’ll have you know) of try-hard Joycean rambling, it is the first person account of a man in a dystopian future, teetering on the edge of madness.
Reading back through it now, it’s hard to put myself into the mind frame I occupied at the time of writing. My final year of school was a strange one, as I struggled to decide whether to put Medicine or English down as first choice on my CAO, which was compounded by an episode of irrational thinking that I would later realise to have been the manic symptoms of Bipolar Disorder. The year was 2008, and Ireland was in the depths of recession, a main source of inspiration for the piece. I sat alone one day in the white elephant that is Phoenix Park train station reading George Orwell’s 1984. Whilst waiting on the Commuter, the inspiration came to me. Here I was, the only person in this unnecessary, tourist trapping (it’s nowhere near the park), an absurdly costly station, a physical representation of why the country was in the hole.
‘Wealth comes at a price, I thought to myself; and in this, a train station whose vast open plan design and pristine architecture symbolized the very essence of the late Celtic Tiger, it seemed only fitting that there should be a lingering sense of “bigger brother”.’
Perhaps I wrote the essay as a test of my own abilities. I knew that if I were seriously considering English I would have to up my writing game. The main thing I can recall from this period is the vast amount of time I spent revising the story. It had gotten to the point where I could recite it by rote, and I ended up spewing the whole thing out as my English paper 1 essay, verbatim. Such was my obsession with trying to find out if my work was in any way decent, that despite getting an A1 in the subject, I insisted on reviewing the paper, solely to see what the examiner had thought of it. I had gone with Medicine as the first choice in the end, but I wonder now whether I should have taken my obsession with the story as a warning sign to do English.
Looking back over “Devotions upon Emergent Occasions”, I cringe. I see the work of a confused young man, but I can also appreciate my efforts. Sure, the bulk of it is overtly complex English smashed into similes and metaphors, but some of it is actually quite good. That whole symbolism about the waves is great; I would be proud to have penned it today! I didn’t win the school essay competition, but I also never got questioned as to whether I, like my antihero, had big plans to shoot up the IFSC, which seems like a fair trade off.
A year later, a friend of mine forsook cramming for a pre-med chemistry exam to pen a poem entitled “The Transitional Period of the Deepest Valley”: An illustrious Iliad, and perhaps the only known example of an ode to the Anterior Cruciate Ligament. It did however result in his failing the exam. Does he regret this? Certainly not. Personal expression through words is a difficult yet rewarding task, and like any skill it is honed with practice. ‘Ain’t no stubble on my shoulders no more.’ That being said, like all skills, prose isn’t for everyone.
Ellen King –
Write Your Own Surrealist Poem
I was at the tail end of my twentieth year when I hurriedly constructed this piece of prose, seemingly out my angst-ridden moody gurl teenage years, and yet said persona lives on in this poem. This poignant piece was written as an assignment for one of my literature modules when I was in my first year of college. The aim was simple: write your own surrealist poem. To me, the surrealist poetry we had been studying and given as template was strange, jarring and nonsensical, so with that viewpoint I set out to create something I would probably never wish to read again.
It’s been nearly 3 and half years since I’ve looked over this poem and I must say that it does (at times hilariously) remind me of where I was at mentally during that point in my life. I had only been in college for several months and had still not totally adjusted. Embarking on an English degree in a small artsy collage had made me quite sure that I would encounter people who shared all my interests. I had visions of immediately striking up friendships with funky girls who wore oversized dungarees and clunky shoes and loved Joni Mitchell and Caitlin Moran just as much as I did. This however was not the case. While academically I was engaged and invigorated, socially I felt out of place and unable to truly connect with my peers.
This poem – despite its unintentional humour and many, many stylistic faults – reminds me of the feelings of disassociation and loneliness I sometimes had during that period. For example the line ‘time time time alone unwelcomed forced’ was probably written in relation to thoughts I had regarding the way in which I felt others viewed me: I was sure that I was un-befriendable, uninteresting and unworthy of most companionship, platonic or otherwise.
When I now read the words ‘place me in a wooden box, keep me safe’ I feel uncomfortable and frankly, pretty creeped out. My past self was someone who was constantly in search of approval and acceptance from everyone, but herself. I was (and to a small degree still am) the archetypical insecure young woman, one of many, and the poem sadly highlights that more than anything.
On a lighter note, there are elements of this poem that do make me chuckle. ‘Crying streams rivers mountains augmenting, undulating’ for one. Oh dear, despite my overzealous efforts Sylvia Plath 2.0 I truly was not! I don’t have any inkling as to what that line was trying to evoke.
The line ‘diamonds glint vindictively’ (lol) was added purely because I had been passionately belting out the immortal lyrics of the mystical pop goddess Rihanna whilst I wrote this monstrosity. If I learned nothing else from this project of self-reflection, it is that ‘Diamonds’ has endured, and remains – unlike this poem – a glittery but powerful piece of work.
In earnest though, unearthing this poem has made me realise that I have reached a stage my life where I kind of like myself. I can now recognize that I do in fact have some appealing qualities (the ability to rap the entirety of ‘None of Your Business’ by Salt-N-Pepa, as case in point). The girl who wrote this poem still exists in a dark little corner of my brain, but I’m happy to say that she pipes up less frequently as the time goes on.
Lie on the floor awake unsure flee fly flow away immobilized
Crying streams Rivers Mountains of fears augmenting undulating.
Reflections what is it that appears unknown personal, ticking ticking
Trying trying grating grating.
Time time time alone, unwelcomed forced
Willing participant, laugh at you who sits before me.. You far form home.
Standing beneath the lead sky swirling peaceful, diamonds glint vindictively.
Dripping endlessly never touching the floor. Inside is a mystery. Rough
culminations boil and simmer, turn away please. Keep me safe; place me in a wooden box. I will sore above fall in flight swim endlessly on on, rough compromising.
I reside in a chasm bright blue shocking thrilling. Dull crumb covered kitchen floor.
Emma Menton –
‘My Stupid Brothers! Private!’ – The Dawson’s Creek Edition
This was written at the tender, turbulent age of twelve. I had newly been allowed to watch Dawson’s Creek, The OC, One Tree Hill and other American TV shows for the first time. My mom felt that the material they aired was “ten years ahead of what we tolerated here in Ireland”, a sentiment she still holds today. American culture suddenly became a novelty, I decided that I should have a diary like any TV cool chick worth her sea-salt sprayed hair. They always seemed to be transcribing their dramatic dealings into decorated journals. Obsessed with the Princess Diaries series and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen in general, I embarked on my own intimate, literary journey. My Dawson’s Creek copybook was the ideal vessel to pour my soul into on this one tragic eve when my little brother kicked me, further injuring the already ‘pulled muscle’ in my wrist.
I’m sure this day was not extraordinary at the time. I was twelve and Jack was eight and we hated each other. There were no further entries in this journal. My enraged literary passion died as quickly as it developed. It would have taken a lot of imagination to find something to write about every day with my life acutely dull in comparison to those of the teens on TV. I wasn’t anything cool – like a princess or a twin. I went to an all-girls primary school and had a functional family. I mean, I didn’t even have my own school locker at this stage. Where could all the drama possibly unfold for me to have the ammunition to fill a worthwhile diary? Only jottings of my own imaginary signatures where my name had swiftly changed to American names like ‘Blair Wilson’ can be found on the remaining pages of this copy – again exemplifying my deluded American enthusiasm.
Nevertheless, this particular incident simply pushed me over the edge to the point that I felt that I had no other option but to write a blasting literary exposé. My use of curse words such as ‘fecker’ and ‘bastards’ plainly exemplified my anger on this devastating September day (though I doubt that Mary-Kate nor Ashley would have used those exact words).
I expect my initial aspiration was that my parents would actually find this and that it would jerk an outstanding epiphany that they have been neglectful parents. It also would have meant that I could have thrown a punchy one-liner like “MOM, THAT WAS MEANT TO BE PRIVATE!”, just to round off the fantasy.
While I begged for people to understand me, I think it suited me fine to feel misunderstood for dramatic purposes at this stage. I can only assure those that do not know me that my evident emotional temper and drama-seeking disposition did subside in the years following this journal entry.
I hate Jack and Cathal. They’re little bastards. So how’s this fair, Jack starts kicking me, kicks me in the mouth and kicks me in the wrist where I have a pulled muscle. So I give Jack a push as he runs from the seen of the crime.
Jack falls and Cathal runs to tell Mom. Of course as usual Mom totally forgets that I’m hurt too and tells me that just because Jack kicked me doesn’t mean that I can kick that little fecker off the couch. I didn’t even push him that hard but of course Jack makes a seen and tells me he’s paralized as if I’ve broken every bone in his body. God I’d like to though.
Why can’t my family get along and understand me? EVERYONE!
Isn’t Jack so proud now I’m in trouble and Cathal is on his side?
God I HATE them!
Ok Jack is singing and talking to himself (again). I’d love to embarrass him!
Sarah Moloney –
Two third year students take to the stage. Christina Aguilera’s Beautiful. Beautiful indeed. Applause and whispers from the crowd “I love that song”. A sixth year sits on the piano stool. Classical music. Applause. Teachers smiling. A dance troupe of 12 first year students in complimentary neon hip-hop gear swarm the stage. I’m not sure what song that is. Applause. Principal standing at edge of the room with stern face. I’m 17. It’s 2005. St. Anne’s girls convent school Inaugural Talent Show.
Two weeks previously myself and my friend audition. The music teacher asks us to prepare a few more songs. We recruit a few more singers, we form a band. I’m on guitar. I’m channelling Nick Zinner, John Frusciante, and Kim Deal.
We can wear whatever we want for the performance. We wear our uniforms because that’s punk, right? Elaine sings the Pixies’ ‘Hey!’. There are two eighty year old nuns in the hall. She doesn’t enunciate the word “whore” all that much when it appears. Sinéad sings ‘Losing my Religion’. It’s ok, we can’t see the nuns from the stage anyway, they are lost in the crowd.
We end our set with an original, penned collaboratively by myself and my neighbour Maria (who refuses to sing it in front of 300 faces). I compose the music, meaning I compile four chords, which are repeated. We call it ‘Fat Baby’. Mags takes the microphone.
The crowd goes wild.
Afterwards a classmate asks me which band was that a cover from. It was in that moment I knew we had created something special.
Jack Gibson –
Sometime late in the Leaving Cert maelstrom, I took the notion I would study Law. It seemed akin to English, and had no small amount of prestige. Both aspects appealed: the former my interests, the latter to my ego. By studying Law, there was also a chance I was going to be able to help those less fortunate than myself, so that surely negated any snobbery which may have coloured my choice?
In between bouts of sitting on my backstep in the early summer sun, studying cross-references of instances involving Wuthering Heights’ youths with the themes of “Nature”, “Deception”, “The Occult”, I would bolt to our family Dell and compile ideas for possible English Paper 1 pieces. One story in particular took over, and unbeknownst to myself I poured some hidden hopes and insecurities I had about my future into it.
Punningly-titled “The Suit”, the tale followed a young man and his moral and physical journey to return a tuxedo he had borrowed throughout his first year at Law School in Columbia University, New York. It began with a quote, Mark Twain’s “The finest clothing made is a person’s skin, but, of course, society demands something more than this.” If ending a Junior Cert essay with “but it was all a dream” is le premier faux-pas, kicking off fiction with a weighty, wistful quote is it’s clichéd older cousin.
Writing it consumed me. I remember googling exactly how long it would take to ride the bus from Columbia to Sunnyside, and preening every sentence into perfection. I didn’t consciously put myself in the story, yet reading back on it now, the tales seems to have been rendered retrospectively foretelling. He’s a scholarship kid, a fish out of water. For my own part, in college I turned out to be the openly gay guy, who was fresh from a public school on the Northside – definitely a minority.
The trouble I find with the story now is it’s casual misogyny. Early spectres of women are referred to as “husband-hungry” and “fabulously pretty, but dull”. The only female character is a elderly black woman on a bus, whom our hero is surprised by for having read Moby Dick. Sorry Bechdel.
There’s also hint of homoeroticism throughout which amuses me now to no end. The hero’s pal “Sol” and he share his secret of being a scholarship kid, and Sol organises the tux as a lend. There’s even a reference to campus-hero wrestlers and rowers at one point, no doubt inspired by my fondness for googling such specimens.
Rereading it years later, I’m impressed mostly with my stabs at the vernacular. The restaurant where the starry-eyed kiddo worked before enrolling was “only a few blocks down” from a major courthouse, strategically chosen in the hopes of rubbing shoulders with bigwigs. The suit rental shop who’d loaned him the tux free of charge burned to the ground due to some “crummy gas mains.”
In a more meta-reference, To Kill a Mockingbird is cited as having given our hero a “dramatic and romantic” vision of the law, a work which I think it endeavours to warmly echo. The piece reads like a sepia photograph, and I’m oddly proud of it still.
I handed a draft to my English teacher who gave it an enthusiastic thumbs up. I learned it word for word, and made a bold move for my English Paper 1. Shoehorning it into a composition question about modern fairytales, I scribbled out all eight A4 pages of it and the risk paid off. In a sentimental way, I liked to think that that story, much like my hero’s tux, was what counted as a ticket to my eventual destination.
Emma Gleeson –
Old Mr Nugison from Stirabout Lane, Doesn’t Like sunshine and doesn’t like rain
I wrote this essay when I was in 6th year in Secondary School. It chronicles my feelings about the death of my Grandfather and how confused and guilty I felt that I was not upset by his passing. So pleased was I with it, that I memorised it and wrote it in my English Leaving Cert Exam. I got an A1. My father was so proud that he made copies for my uncles. Rereading it now I am struck by my use of a poem which my Grandfather used to recite as a structural device. It’s pretty cringe now but I was so smug about it at the time. I thought I was the Queen of Pathos. The essay depicts me reciting the poem at the post-funeral drinks to an older cousin in what I thought at the time to be a glorious climax to my story. This, in fact, never happened. It is interesting to observe that my sense of artistic license was strong, even back then.
This essay also represents the anxiety I suffered from during my final year in school. The fact that I could not trust myself to write a decent essay in the exam but instead took the trouble to learn one off is indicative of my long-standing lack of confidence, despite consistent academic success and relaxed, supportive parents. 10 years later I am finally allowing myself to enjoy writing again. And although it comes laden with strange memories, I am proud of this little essay and will always treasure it.
Roisín McVeigh –
My First Song: If Only
Authoring many cringey poems and meandering short stories for school throughout my adolescence, I unfortunately never tucked any of them away for a rainy, nostalgic day. I vaguely remember one essay which told the tale of a woman whose new love has suddenly gone missing. As the story unravels we find out the year is 1916 and – shock – the man of her dreams is Padraig Pearse. If nothing else, the first person narrative is a clear indication that I did always dwell a little too long on that dreamy side profile of his in our history book.
But that’s it. Nothing else. No physical or mental mementos of my classroom ramblings exist. What I do have are seven personal notebooks dating back to 2009. On the pages my erratic thoughts are recorded in varying formats from diary entries and song lyrics to disjointed and nonsensical notes on Susan Sontag’s Reborn (yes, really). Amongst these notebooks I unearthed some early iterations of the first song I ever wrote, aged sixteen.
‘If Only’ was written at the peak of my teenage angst. Reading On the Road and lusting to be one of the mad ones “desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles.” It’s ambitious. It’s a song about questioning society and wanting to kick back from it, to “go against the grain”, to take “The Road Less Travelled”. Had I been born a few years later, the song might of been called ‘YOLO’. At a time when I had no way to rebel, putting my pen to paper behind the safety of my bedroom door, was my attempt at writing the suburban answer to Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’. I also think I might have just seen Fight Club for the first time and been hit hard by that Tyler Durden “Fuck Martha Stewart” speech.
One verse, soaked in double entendres lamenting the confines of the education system reads “They hand you The Book and they say these are the rules / now don’t you go breaking them or you’ll be schooled. / Well I’ve been schooled and what did I learn but how to be just like everyone else.” A subtle biblical reference to “The Book” was intended as a stab at the church’s hand in education and it’s general control over society. This may have been a result of my lingering spite over the countless hours wasted colouring in Jesus-by-numbers’ in an Alive–O, taking painstaking care to stay inside the lines.
The bridge of the song goes on to reference Ireland’s tendency to use alcohol as an emotional crutch: “Well, we’re sick of excuses / Drunk on lies to ourselves, living in a stupor of contentedness / Is this happiness? Are you fulfilled or will you be lying on your deathbed wondering what if?” It’s a hilariously naive and predictable generalisation of the Irish people. That deathbed cliff hanger is also totally depressing.
As for the chorus, it’s literally me just singing “I never want to say ‘if only’” over and over again.
Despite all of it’s flaws, I kind of love this song. It’s a time capsule, which when I sing it, instantly transports me back to my former self. At the time, I harboured an all-consuming worry that I would one day look back and wish I had done things differently. My biggest fear: letting the years roll by and allowing myself to hurtle into the abyss instead of chasing dreams. The premise of ‘If Only’ is still something that still resonates with me today, albeit perhaps now viewing it from a more positive outlook. For reasons in the same vein as Obama’s professed favouritism of Jay Z’s ‘My First Song‘ during the 2012 United States Presidential Election: at the very least ‘If Only’ reminds me to “always stay hungry.”
Illustration: Sarah Moloney