It’s never too late to have a happy childhood, and the Irish Government proved its willingness to help its citizens do just that recently when it dispatched an emissary to New York to award author Malachy McCourt a “Primary Cert” — the official scrap of paper once given to every elementary school child who passed a basic exam in reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmatic.
The presentation of the irrelevant, redundant and long-forgotten diploma took place in the Irish Consulate on Park Avenue last summer. There, the then Irish Ambassador to the U.S., Sean O’Huiginn, handed over a framed certificate with his distinctive brand of diplomatic panache.
O’Huiginn explained that the historic decision to award the “cert” to Malachy had been reached after the Irish Minister for Education, Michael Woods — on a trip to see Rod Paige, his counterpart in Washington — had a chance meeting with members of the McCourt family. The parties, who were staying in the same D.C. hotel, got together and, during a long festive evening began discussing, among other things, their miserable childhoods — “like getting just an orange for Christmas…and the same one you got last year…that sort of thing,” O’Huiginn deadpanned.
“Of course,” the diplomat continued drolly, “talking about misery with a McCourt is a little like playing softball against Mark McGwire — you soon find you’re totally outclassed.”
O’Huiginn said that by the time Malachy got around to telling Woods about his trials and tribulations with the Irish education system, and how he had sat for and failed the Primary Cert exam twice, “there wasn’t a dry eye — or maybe I should say seat — in the house.”
It was then Minister Woods had an epiphany. “Whereas most of Malachy’s miseries — like having a brother like Frank — were beyond solving,” O’Huiginn said, “there was one that could be turned back, and he had the constitutional power to do it.” When the Minister got back to Ireland, he immediately called a meeting of the Primary Cert board of examiners — “a rejuvenating experience for them, since they had last met in 1966.” The board decided, on the strength of two books written by McCourt — in lieu of an oral exam — to break with precedent and, for the first time ever, award the precious document to someone older than a young teen. “If this presentation has a serious purpose,” O’Huiginn said, “and it better have or the government won’t pay my expenses for coming here, it’s that there’s life after a certificate missed.”
McCourt, in his valedictorian speech, noted that the certificate was of grave importance to him since his wife Diana had recently got her M.B.A. and was “sick and tired of sleeping with her academic inferior.”
On a more serious note, McCourt blamed his lack of early academic achievement on the British who, during their spirit-mauling occupation of Ireland, had replaced the ancient Irish love of “fostering knowledge” with a bean counter system that made success and failure in exams the be-all and end-all of learning. McCourt said he was so traumatized by his early education it was as if he experienced his classes from “behind a Plexiglas wall.” ♦