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Dr Hannon by David O'Doherty

Life at school for the Perrier Award-winning comedian was no barrel of laughs. But he rose above the rote learning of the Irish system with the help of a free-thinking history teacher

Life at school for the Perrier Award-winning comedian was no barrel of laughs. But he rose above the rote learning of the Irish system with the help of a free-thinking history teacher

The Irish education system is different from the UK's in that the whole thing is channelled towards taking eight, three-hour exams when you're 18 years old.

It may have changed now, to be fair, but back then there was no marking as you went along - it was rote learning; learning by mnemonics. So the question might be: what are the eight reasons why the European Union was founded? And the mnemonic answer would be SAUSAGES, with each letter prompting a reason. To this day, these things pop into my head a lot, but it's an awful, awful system. It took its toll on teachers too, who had to deliver the same lessons in the same way, year after year, for decades.

Charles Hannon, my history teacher, hated it. For him, it was like going to cookery school for years and then having a food fight at the end of it. He'd be trying to educate us as best he could, but at the end of it all there was absolutely no finesse. Just stuff that had stuck to you through rote.

The thing that would kill Dr Hannon, and it happened a lot, would be when a kid stuck his hand up and asked: "Sir, do we need to know this for the exam?" It would drive him mad. He was so passionate about teaching the subject, but kids would be hedging their bets on whether they needed to learn this stuff. It would be something like: "Bismarck came up last year so there's no way it'll be in this year's exam." Dr Hannon's view was that the exams didn't matter. He didn't give a monkey's about them. The exams were incidental to telling us what the hell had happened in the years that came before us. At the time I didn't get why the system infuriated him so much but now I totally do.

Irish history was really interesting. Contemporary Irish history is so recent - it was happening around us - and most of the books documenting it were written with a nationalist, Catholic bent. Dr Hannon - and I don't want to get all Dead Poets Society on you here - was the master of reading a paragraph from a textbook, looking up, closing the book slowly and saying: "Gentlemen, that was utter bollocks." He brought a critical faculty to what we were reading and no other teacher did that.

This was an all-boys' school and I don't think any kid ever really gets over going to one of those. People always argue that boys and girls do better in exams if they're kept apart. Dr Hannon would say: "What's more important - knowing the causes of glaciation or being able to relate to 50 per cent of the world's population in a non-misogynistic way?"

This was a country that was predominantly white Catholic, a monocultural Ireland, and Dr Hannon was able to see past that and realise how ridiculous it was. He put things into an international context. What I liked about him was his total bafflement towards the system, to the point where he'd say: "You know what, if you're not interested, go to the library. It really is fine." And that, in a way, is what would interest people who weren't interested.

Dr Hannon was a university-style teacher, I guess, teaching in a secondary school. I went on to study philosophy at uni, but my passion was and is history. And that was because of him.

He taught the imperfections of the subject, you know? He said to me once: "If history teaches us anything, it's that history teaches us nothing." I found that fascinating.

David O'Doherty was speaking to Tom Cullen. Danger is STILL Everywhere, written by O'Doherty and illustrated by Chris Judge, is published by Puffin on 6 August

Laughter lines

David O'Doherty

Born 18 December 1975, Dublin, Ireland

Education St Michael's College, Dublin

Career Award-winning stand-up comedian, writer and regular guest on television shows such as QI, Have I Got News for You, Would I Lie to You and 8 Out of 10 Cats. He has also written two theatre shows for children

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