At Réalt na Mara national school in Skerries, Irish isn't just another subject on the curriculum. In this English-medium primary school, Irish is woven into the very fabric of the school day and beyond.
Teachers communicate in Irish to the students during the school day, as do the special needs assistants (SNAs), school secretary and caretaker.
Principal Máire Ní Odhráin says these opportunities to use the language daily, outside regular class, are helping students become competent Irish speakers.
“‘Dia duit’, that’s the first thing the junior infants hear when they come into our school,” says Ní Odhráin. “It starts from junior infants and by the time they get to sixth class, I would rarely speak English to them.
“To acquire a language, you have to have the opportunities to communicate in it. If it’s just a subject, you’re not exposed enough to it. It has to be part of their whole day to become part of their life at primary school; they have to be able to hear the language and that it’s living.”
Ní Odhráin also includes parents in the conversation. Ahead of junior infants, they are told about the schools’ approach to using the languages and how their children will “pick it up without realising it.”
She also addresses any concerns parents may have about Irish based on their own experience of the language at school.
“I would explain to parents that it’s not like the Irish that they learned in school,” says Ní Odhráin.
“It’s not a subject at Réalt na Mara, it’s just part of the building and parents love it, they would often greet us outside school in Irish.”
The most recent chief inspector’s report published by the Department of Education highlighted concerns around the teaching and learning of Irish in English-medium primary schools.
The report stated that, while Irish had suffered disproportionately due to Covid, in English-medium schools there was an over-reliance on translation from Irish into English and that students needed more opportunities to speak Irish in a sustained manner.
For some school leaders, a key issue is the quality of Irish among teachers. Adrian Breathnach, principal at Geailscoil Pheig Sayers in Cork city, believes more needs to be done in teacher training colleges.
“The standard of Irish for most primary-school teachers coming out of the teacher-training colleges is terrible, in my own opinion,” says Breathnach. “Some can’t even string a sentence together.”
Breathnach believes Irish is not a priority in the initial stages of teacher training, which is has a knock-on effect for the teachers going into schools.
Marino Institute of Education, in Dublin, is helping to address these concerns by offering a Bachelor of Education through the medium of Irish.
They should be teaching subjects like PE, art, music or drama, subjects that children would enjoy, through Irish
Aodán Mac Suibhne, principal lecturer at the college, said it is the first Irish-speaking bachelor's degree in education in the history of the State.
“The aim of the degree is to increase the provision of teachers with a high standard of Irish,” says Mac Suibhne.
“The most distinctive feature of the degree is that students study all the primary curriculum subjects and how to teach them, through the medium of Irish. That would be in keeping with a desire in the primary education sector in general that, even in English-medium schools, some subjects would be taught through the medium of Irish. Subjects such as physical education, music and the visual arts.”
Clare Mullins, a final year student at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick, says she found the standard of training she received in relation to Irish to be good.
“They really focus on the integration approach and it is good, it does work in the classroom,” says Mullins.
She believes there needs to be more focus on how to promote the language in the senior years and would like to see a module dedicated to strategies that help teachers develop an interest and motivation for the language.
Teaching other subjects through Irish will help students see the relevance of the language, outside of the Irish lesson.
“I think subjects like history should definitely be taught in the classroom through Irish, as a way of showing that it can be used the same as English and they can see how it’s applied to another aspect of their life,” she says.
Breathnach, meanwhile, believes all teachers should be trained to teach non-academic subjects through Irish.
“They should be teaching subjects like PE, art, music or drama, subjects that children would enjoy, through Irish,” he says.
Melíosa Walshe, a teacher at Scoil Mhuire gan Smál in Carlow, is doing this already: she has been using music to promote greater use of Irish at the school.
The school tapped into the already existing talents of their school orchestra and translated popular hits into Irish to get the school singing as Gaeilge. During the Covid restrictions they found ways to keep the singing going.
“We had them all outside in their hats, coats and gloves just to make sure they don’t lose all those old songs that have been passed down through the years,” says Walshe. “Music is a huge tool in terms of making Irish enjoyable for them.”
She has also organised cooking clubs and taught playground games to the children through the medium of Irish, she says.
“The children don’t know if they’re speaking Irish or English. They’re just having fun,” says Walshe. “It would just do your heart good to see them playing.”
She has also found that giving the senior students a more active roll in deciding what activities to run or helping with the junior classes increases their interest in and motivation towards the language.
The school has now received its Gaelbhratach flag – an initiative that encourages schools to promote the Irish language – and Walshe advises any school hoping to increase the use of Irish in the school to start small and give the students a voice.
They found that giving the students a role in one small activity had a huge impact on sparking interest in the language.
“Allowing the children to speak Irish on the intercom was such a big deal for them,” says Walshe. “They could hear other children speaking Irish as opposed to the principal on the intercom.”
This simple activity helped transform the Irish language in the school from the language of the teachers to the language of the children and everyone wanted a turn.
Fáilte! Five ways to boost Irish in schools
Gaelbhratach is an initiative that aims to support schools who wish to promote increased use of the Irish language throughout the school day.
Deirdre Nic Gabhann, co-ordinator of the primary school scheme, has some advice and tips for schools looking to promote the use of the language:
1. Welcome committee: “Have welcome committees where they speak to children as a coming into the school in the morning.”
2. Print it: “Make sure there is plenty of Irish print in the environment.”
3. Is féidir linn: A digital resource with songs and phrases for parents to listen to at home. “We would encourage parents to use this in the home, particularly with younger children.”
4. Beyond the classroom: “It’s really important that it is a community initiative – there is a lot of really good teaching going on in schools and the children really do need opportunities for them to use their Irish beyond the classroom.”
5. Paired reading: Bring the senior students into the junior classes. “Older classes are reading aloud to younger classes.” An opportunity for younger classes to hear the language and the senior classes to read for an audience.
More information is available on gaelbhratach.ie