Irish celebrities reveal what they got in their Leaving Certificate

Lorraine KeaneLorraine Keane

As the dreaded exams kick off, Andrea Smith asks some well-known faces how they fared

As they glanced over Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken for the final time last night, many anxious students were probably ruefully regretting that they hadn’t taken more of a walk up Study Street over the past year. In the coming fortnight, the sun will shine, birds will sing, and all across the land, teenagers will pile into exam halls, and feverishly scribble down everything they have crammed into their heads until their hands drop off.

Yes, it’s Leaving Cert time, and with it comes the annual stressful battle for points and college places that marks the end of secondary education. Is the Leaving the be-all and end-all though?

I asked some well-known personalities how they fared, and if the exam results affected the path their lives took.


TV Presenter


“I was a dosser in primary school, the class clown, and my dad took me aside in sixth class and said he was disappointed in me. I felt terrible because he rarely got involved in disciplining us, so I was a big swot in secondary school because I wanted to make my parents proud. I got nine honours, all As and Bs, in my Inter Cert and thought I was a genius after that, so I didn’t do enough work for the Leaving, and was a bit disappointed to get five honours and two passes.

“I had applied to do veterinary or architecture, but I didn’t get the points for them. I really wanted to be on stage, so my friend Ali suggested a foundation course in broadcasting at Ballyfermot, which I did and I loved it. I was meant to go to DCU the following year to do communications, but I got the job in AA Roadwatch then so luckily it all worked out well.”


Independent Socialist TD


“There were no points when I did the Leaving (so I’m giving my age away) but I got an A and six Bs. I did study and I tended to be a crammer, which goes against all best practice now, but that was the norm in those days. I was pretty nervous and bottled up a fair amount of stress, but it seemed to work out OK. My best subject was economics, and I got my first choice of accounting and finance at NIHE, now DCU, although I never really used it.

“I found NIHE to be a great college, as there were only about 3,000 students there at that time, and it was sufficiently small to not feel swamped, but large enough not to feel claustrophobic. It was an absolutely incredible experience for my personal development, but if I was to live my life over again, I would choose to study something different.”


Author, The Woman Who Stole My Life


“I was a right swot. I studied like a maniac, by which I mean, I crammed fact after fact into my brain in the hope that I’d remember them on the day, after which I planned to release them all into the wild. I was horrifically nervous during the exams, but I got mostly Bs in honours subjects and I was pleased with that.

“I went to UCD to do law, simply because I got the points for it. I’d no interest in it. Also my education hadn’t really taught me how to think analytically and I had no confidence, so there was no way I’d have ever flourished in that world. But I wouldn’t have done things any differently because eventually I found my right path. Do points matter in the overall scheme of things? Not at all. There’s a big, exciting world out there and many wonderful ways to live our lives.”



“I did very well, and it wasn’t because I was brainy. Everything I achieved was through hard work rather than skill and abililty, even at tennis and basketball. I was nervous about the exams, but I got all honours, except for Irish, which was my weakest subject. I was strongest at maths and the sciences, and while it was suggested that I might do medicine, I was eager to do law at UCD as I was strongly influenced by my uncles.

“I thought school was alright, but I found it a bit boring. I don’t think any kid will say they loved it, if they’re honest. I enjoyed college more because I’m quite disciplined and liked working on my own. There’s a lot of pressure on young people in relation to points these days, and I think they should have continuous assessment instead. If I was employing somebody, how they did in their Leaving would be irrelevant to me, as what they have done with their lives is more important.”




“I didn’t stress myself out as I was well prepared. I had already received my place in Trinity to do the degree in music, so I knew I just had to fulfil particular criteria to get in. I was very good at English, French and music, but I was terrible at maths, and I got six honours – one A in music, four Bs and a C – and a D in pass maths.

“Looking back, I wish I’d pushed myself into doing something really brainy like law or languages, as they would have been more useful. The BMus is very theoretical, so if I went down to the job centre now, what would I do with it? I think the British A Levels may be a more useful system, as you concentrate on three subjects intensively, whereas here you have to do all sorts of things like Irish and religion.”



Former TD

“I was just gone 17 doing the Leaving, and did my studying all in a rush in a short space of time. I hated being at boarding school, and was dreaming of the freedom that would come after the exams. I could picture the sun and going swimming all summer, as nobody thought of career paths back then. The exams went grand, even though the sun was beating down outside and we were stuck in this airless room.

“I got honours in English, botany, Latin and would you believe drawing, even though I can’t draw a straight line. I was no good at maths and only got 40pc in pass – we got told our percentages then. My parents decided that I should go to UCD in Dublin, and I was delighted and thought it would be a great adventure. I did a dose of subjects in first year, and then specialised in English. I was barely 20 graduating, and my parents asked me to come home and help them to run the Hodson Bay hotel. I was very happy as I already had my eye on Enda O’Rourke by then, so I worked at the hotel by day and flew out with him at night.”


Actress, Love/Hate


“I was nervous about my Leaving, like every kid in the country, but I teach drama to kids now and I wasn’t as worried about it as they are today. I see them prepping for months beforehand and their whole lives revolve around it. When I was doing it, I was also doing a film and was involved in singing competitions, and while I hoped I’d do well, my whole life wasn’t depending on it. I was already getting acting work, and the plan was that if it dried up, I’d go to college and study drama.

“Luckily I was kept going, and I also did exams for teaching along the way. I certainly didn’t get all straight As or anywhere near 600 points in the Leaving, but I did well enough for the time and had enough points to do teaching or whatever. I think that it’s good for people to have competition and to work hard at stuff, as everybody needs a goal. There is so much emphasis on the Leaving though, and it seems to be the be-all and end-all for students today.”


Jewellery designer


“I was very artistic, and as somebody who sees things in a visual way, regurgitating information was not my strength. I didn’t like exams as I was a bit of a perfectionist, so I felt the pressure during the Leaving and was nervous about it. The education system isn’t built for everyone as it’s too confined and rigid, but I know that change is on the way and I’m glad about that, as it’s not realistic in terms of building your skillset for real life and a career.

“I got seven honours and the equivalent of 400 points today, and I got into two art colleges as well as getting arts in UCD. My parents would have preferred me to take the arts place, but I deferred and went to Paris for a year. When I came back, I took up the place in UCD, but ran out after three months as it wasn’t for me. I went back to Paris and studied visual communications and advertising, which was a better fit for me. Points don’t define your career, but believing in yourself and knowing that there are other routes to success is far more important.”




“I was pretty nervous to be honest, as I knew I hadn’t done enough study so I got a bit stressed. I was very organised and good at making notes, but I also spent a lot of time looking up past papers trying to find patterns of questions. It worked OK in some subjects, but I would learn things off by heart, go in and make them fit the questions, and then forget them the minute I walked out of the exam hall. I think it’s wrong that students are rated on only one exam.

“I got 400 points, which was OK for not having done not very much work. I was always one of those ‘could do better’ students. I had it in me but didn’t have the discipline. I loved German and maths, but English was my worst subject. I studied German, Italian and business at DIT, Kevin Street, which I think was the right choice for me. I would recommend going to college. The big bad world goes on long enough, so young people should stay in education as long as possible, enjoy it, experiment, travel, and, above all, try and really experience it.”


Presenter, 98FM’s Dublin Talks


“I didn’t study hard for the Leaving. I should have, but I just couldn’t focus. I didn’t enjoy school as I was bullied quite a lot, and lost all interest in 5th year once I got involved in BLB Community Radio in Bray. I was nervous driving in to collect the results, and got five honours Cs and three passes, which wasn’t particularly good. I didn’t really care because I’d already found radio and I loved it.

“It was 1984 and unemployment was very high, and I didn’t want to go to college. I did an AnCO (FÁS) course, which was of no use to me, worked in a record store, and eventually got a paid job in the radio station and became a DJ in a local nightclub. I kind of regret not going to college, because while I’ve learned everything that a journalism/broadcasting course could offer by now, I’d love to have a degree.

“I think it’s so important to do some form of specialised third level course to get you started in a career these days. I happened to be lucky being in the right place at the right time throughout my career, but luck isn’t enough now.” w

Irish Independent


Author: Francis O' Toole

Francis O' Toole is a Educational Psychotherapist & Guidance Counsellor. I set up this blog page to help students gain as much information as possible to be able to make right choices and decisions regarding their career options. I believe that we will be very successful in our careers if we follow what we enjoy.

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