Irish language: not just a Gaeltacht issue
Is Fine Gael’s proposal to make Irish an optional Leaving Cert subject a liberation from schoolroom misery or a fast track to oblivion for the national language? Either way, it provokes strong viewsIF FINE Gael’s proposals for the Irish language have done nothing else, they have at least caused a temporary diversion from the endless debates about roasting the bondholders. The idea of ending Irish as a compulsory Leaving Certificate subject provokes strong views. For those who carry vague, if dreaded, memories of swotting up on the modh coinníollach the proposal sounds like a liberation from years of unnecessary misery. But for others the Fine Gael policy would bring about the certain extinction of the national language. In Galway, for example, the prevalence of Gaeltacht areas and the tradition of the Irish summer schools have led to a belief that such a policy would have disastrous consequences.
“Enda Kenny’s position was very clear in the original interview: that they would make Irish optional no matter what research was carried out afterwards,” says Caitlin Neachtain of Concos, the co-ordinating body for summer schools. “It was a shocking bulldozing of one policy which may sit well with some people. It will be detrimental to the language. It is as simple as this: if you don’t have to do a subject for your Leaving Cert, you aren’t going to study it. And Irish is a subject where some parents can’t help.
“So the language is going to suffer. This is not solely a Gaeltacht issue. People look at the economic implications, the 672 houses in the country, but Irish has a huge economic impact: the colleges bring €60 million per annum into one of the most economically deprived areas in the country. And it supports a way of living in the country. We do feel that this is central to our own national identity. A lot of people who come to the Gaeltacht are very enthusiastic about the language. We call them ‘repeat offenders’. But most of these kids come with a real grá for the language from home. Gaeltacht kids come there for the summer, too.”
It is such an emotive issue that Fine Gael candidates in Galway West have agreed to ask Kenny to meet representatives from concerned organisations. Wednesday’s TG4 leaders’ debate was instantly acknowledged as one of the surprise highlights of the election campaign to date. All three main party leaders spoke Irish with clarity and, in a welcome departure from normal practice, did not cut across one another.
When Caitlin Neachtain watched the debate she was struck by the irony that the three potential taoisigh were debating the flaws of Irish in schools while speaking excellent Irish that they had been taught at school, “so it can’t be a total failure”. But there is a growing acknowledgement that the teaching methodology for Irish has left large sections of the population with negative feelings about the language. Furthermore, recent studies suggest that the language is declining in the very Gaeltacht areas where it supposedly flourishes.
Pádraic Breathnach is well known as an actor in both Irish- and English-language productions. Raised in Carna, Breathnach recognises the importance of Irish but has become fed up with what he sees as the preservation of a system that does not work.
“I find myself half agreeing with the Fine Gael proposals because we have to stop paying lip service to the Irish language,” he says. “I think I would be a lot happier if people learned it because they liked to learn it rather than being forced to learn it. There is a lot of hypocrisy and cant associated with the Irish language. There are a lot of articles saying it would threaten jobs and industry in Connemara, that it would affect the Irish colleges. There is significant benefit to the private companies that run these schools and get public facilities at a cheap price. And it negates a proper development of tourism infrastructure because they are all geared up to the colleges and catering to bourgeois children from Dublin.”
Breathnach points out that he has two small children living in Brussels, and that he and his partner talk to them in French and Irish. He was told by local teachers that his children spoke Irish as well, if not better, than local kids, a view which reinforced his belief that the Gaeltacht system of summer colleges just doesn’t work.
“The Irish language is doomed, because even people in the Gaeltacht areas don’t speak it,” he says. “Any sensible person will agree on that. Kids living there can speak passable Irish but they use English diction and pick up words from television. So I think we need immediate help for Irish in the Gaeltacht areas.”
Do the summer colleges work? And is learning Irish even the main goal for students who go there? Máire Denvir has taught Irish in several towns in Co Galway and now works at Coláiste Chamuis in Ros a’ Mhil. As part of a thesis she wrote four years ago she charted the progress of a group of students during a three-
week programme of total immersion. Their Irish ranged from weak to reasonably good.
“If I had a group of Europeans or Americans coming here, it wouldn’t have been possible to do the study,” she says. “Irish students come here with a degree of residual knowledge of the language that they learned at school. The summer college develops that. What it gave them was the confidence to go back and face the subject. And the time they spent speaking the language for those weeks with us was the equivalent of a full year at school.”
Caitlin Neachtain, also an experienced teacher, agrees that the schools work. “By the end of week one, most kids said they were dreaming in Irish,” she says.
The Gaeltacht community clearly fears that making Irish optional will fast-track the language into academic insignificance and will mean that parents and students no longer see the point of attending Gaeltacht colleges. As it is, a 2007 linguistic study for the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs found that once the proportion of Irish spoken in the area falls below 67 per cent, “Irish as a community language becomes unsustainable.”
The report also found the number of Gaeltacht families raising their children through Irish to be “very low”. Even in households where this was attempted, children became vulnerable, as they moved from primary to post-primary school, to “the pervasive English language-oriented socialisation process occurring in the education system in the Gaeltacht in general”.
The flipside was that the report found very positive attitudes towards the language to be intact. Neachtain believes this is one of the key elements in approaching the teaching of Irish. Having taught the language to adults, she is constantly surprised by the number of people who realise in their 40s and 50s that they want to “come back” to the language.
In the meantime the move to lighten and refresh the Irish-language syllabus has already taken place. “There can be no doubt that there were problems with the course,” Maire Denvir says. “It was hard to follow and too broad. But it has become easier. And the new syllabus which comes in next year has 10 poems to study and 22 pages of literature. I showed it to some Irish teachers and they wondered where the rest of it was.
“I think a key to promoting Irish, if they are serious about it, is to reintroduce an oral exam for primary-school teaching. Irish should be of a certain standard at that level, and that will set the foundation.”
It will take five years before the results of the new syllabus come in. Opponents of the Fine Gael strategy wonder why the party can’t at least wait that long to see if the situation is improving. Neachtain felt that Enda Kenny was ambivalent about this matter in the television debate.
“He seemed to suggest that the party would do more research into the issue before anything was decided,” she says. “I thought he looked uncomfortable and it was difficult to make out what he was saying. But not because of his Irish – that was very good.”
What the main parties say
Says strong commitment to language is key policy cornerstone. Claims removal of compulsion at Leaving Cert would be disastrous
Committed to overhauling the way Irish is taught at primary and second levels of education. Removal of Irish as a compulsory Leaving Cert subject will apply only following consultations on curriculum and teaching methods.
Committed to the retention of Irish as core compulsory subject for the Leaving Cert. Believes the teaching of Irish “needs significant reform” and students leaving school should be able to hold a conversation in Irish.