Jim Lusby of the Institute of Education, Dublin said the higher level Paper 1 richly rewarded candidates who read widely, who are sensitive to the power and beauty of language, and who think independently.
“At a time when the Irish education system is being criticised for failing to promote critical thinking in second level education, this paper is the perfect riposte,” he said.
He said the paper’s general theme, Different Worlds, could not have been more contemporary or more urgent.
According to Mr Lusby, the chosen texts continued the welcome trend in recent years of insisting that language and literature are one, that Paper I and Paper 2 are actually separate parts of the same subject.
One of the texts was by the American writer Paul Auster, a second was on the Scottish poet and artist Robert Montgomery, and the third was by the English historian Timothy Garton Ash.
“All were both stimulating and challenging, as were the comprehension questions set on them. The piece on Montgomery was accompanied by splendid images of his often controversial street art," he said.
In the compositions, section, Mr Lusby said there was a “wonderful range of thought-provoking writing tasks, both in the shorter functional writing exercises and in the full-length compositions.”
Read More: Student Diary: The suspense is so bad I even tried (and failed) to make my own fidget spinner as a distraction
A number deserved special mention, he said, “from the fairly standard discursive essay on advertising, through the imaginative descriptive piece entitled Night Scene, to this year’s novelty, a dialogue in dramatic form promoting your invention of the wheel in the Stone Age, which may or may not catch on.”
Mr Lusby described the ordinary level Paper 1, with the theme of School Days, as a “delight” and a “perfect fit” for ordinary level students.
The texts included an article by the contemporary Irish writer Donal Ryan, extracts from the personal story of Nujeen Mustafa, a disabled Syrian refugee, and a combination of written and visual elements exploring school days past and present.
He described the Question B writing tasks as standard, but the framing of the questions was “both thought-provoking and directly relevant to students’ lives.”
Mr Lusby said the compositions presented students with a range of titles, from a reflective personal essay to the rather wacky invitation to write the diary entries of a robot teacher.
Tea and toast were first on the menu for 140 Junior and Leaving Certificate students when they arrived at Dublin’s O’Connells CBS school for the opening paper of the exam season.
A number of teachers were on hand to help calm nerves before the students entered the examination hall, deputy principal, Lynn Kidney said.
Only a few hours later it became apparent that most of the students were generally happy as they emerged from the exam hall.
“It was a good enough paper, although I felt it was a bit more difficult than last year,” repeat student Hannah Farrell said of the honours paper.
She opted to answer questions on Text 2 - an edited extract adapted from Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither - in Section 1 of the paper which she said was “quite alright”.
Her second question, where students were asked to adjudicate posters in a competition promoting a production of Shakespeare’s play, The Comedy of Errors, and then write a speech selling it to a contemporary audience, was more difficult, she found.
Section II came in for some criticism where the nature of the essay topics proved somewhat controversial. “The personal essay didn’t really allow you to be as personal as I would have liked,” Hannah said. “I felt the themes for each part were quite difficult. I didn’t feel that it was a personal topic.”
She said she was “relieved that it is over because I believe that it is one of those subjects that you can practice as much as you want but it comes down to whatever happens on the day”.
The consensus on the Ordinary paper was that there were few surprises.
Repeat student Gerard McCartan said he was nervous ahead of the exams but was relieved there were no surprises .
Sharif Tasmatov said he was very happy with the paper and his performance. “It was great, I felt very confident about it and I think I did very well,” he said.
His favourite part was the essay. “I wrote about forgiveness and generosity...It was great. I could express my feelings.”
Fellow student Simone Timilio said his favourite part was where students were asked to write a personal essay about the pleasures of life’s lazy days.
“I felt I answered well,” he said.
Jaideep Singh also felt he did “pretty well” and was “pretty happy” with the paper.
He said the first section on comprehension was his favourtite.
“When they ask specific questions you have guidelines to follow - (you know) what you have to do, what you have to write, whereas when it comes to Part B of Comprehension you have to make the guidelines and rules up yourself as you go along. I just find things easier to follow when given set targets to do.”
Some 50 Junior Cert students sat the exam. One student, Pierce O’Leary, who also happens to be a boxing champion and recently featured in a television advertisment with Katie Taylor and Paul O’Connell said he was “happy enough” wth the paper.
“I just put my head down and did the work. It’s hard to study and train. I’m representing Ireland in the European Championships in Hungary on the 18th-26th of June and I train twice-a-day,” said Pierce.
Asking almost every student how they got on and how they felt about the exam, Ms Kidney said they seemed happy as went on their way.
“The first one is over-and-done-with - you did very well,” she told one smiling student as he left.