Minister insists Irish will remain compulsory in school

Draft proposals aim to simplify the way exemptions to native language awarded

Minister for Education Joe McHugh has insisted that Irish will remain a compulsory part of the school curriculum for students.

His comments come at a time of record levels of public interest in a review of rules for exemptions for the study of Irish, which an official report has found are “not fit for purpose”.

More than 2,100 responses were submitted to an online survey prior to Christmas, making it the largest ever response to a consultation of this kind by the Department of Education.

Fine Gael controversially proposed to remove obligatory Irish in advance of the 2011 general election, though the policy was shelved when it entered into coalition government.


Mr McHugh said he disagreed with this approach and the emphasis of policy-makers should instead focus on making Irish more engaging for students.

“Irish will remain a core part of the curriculum and, as far as I’m concerned, it won’t be up for debate,” he told reporters.

“What we can do is look at ways of making it more attractive, to make it more interesting and more relevant to people’s lives.”

He said that when he returned to learning Irish in 2014, it was a dramatically different experience to his 16 years of learning at primary and secondary school.

“It became more relevant, it became more interesting, it became more exciting . . . ” he said.

“It’s part of who we are, it’s our gateway to the past, and our gateway to finding out who we are as a nation and as a people.”

There has been concern, meanwhile, over the integrity of our system for providing exemptions for the study of Irish.

While Irish remains compulsory, exemptions are available on the grounds of disability or being educated outside the State for a period of time.

Latest figures show about 1 per cent of pupils in primary schools (5,350 pupils) and a little over 9 per cent of students in secondary schools (32,480 students) are exempt from Irish.

A report by the department’s inspectorate found that the 20-year-old exemptions system is too complex and lacks transparency.

There has also been controversy over the grounds on which many students have been securing exemptions, with some receiving opt-outs on grounds of anxiety or privately commissioned psychologists’ reports.

Draft proposals aim to simplify the way exemptions are given and align them with latest research on learning difficulties.

Mr McHugh said he was encouraged by the strong public response to his department’s review of exemption rules for the study of Irish.

“It’s an indication of how important an issue the teaching of Irish is for many, many people, and how strongly people of all ages feel about the teaching of our national language,” he said

The survey asks respondents to indicate whether they agree or disagree with several key aspects of the proposals.

The consultation process has been the subject of heavy criticism from the Irish language group Conradh na Gaeilge, which argued that the deadline was too tight and that the format prevented groups from making detailed contributions.

However, Mr McHugh has extended the closing date for submissions by a further week to Friday, January 18th, 2019.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent