My son was born in the UK. Does he have to study Leaving Certificate Irish?

Ask Brian: Exemptions depend on how long a pupil has been out of Irish education system

Students born outside Ireland are exempt from Irish requirements for entry to National University of Ireland colleges. Photograph: iStock

My son in transition year is eligible to be exempt from Irish for the Leaving Certificate under National University of Ireland rules, given that he was born in the UK (though he has been in primary since the age of six). He has told his school he wants to study business instead, but his principal has refused. This is deeply frustrating. What can we do?

You are correct: while the National University of Ireland – which includes UCD, UCC, NUI Galway, Maynooth University, the RCSI and NCAD – requires a minimum of an O6 grade in Irish for entry to most courses, those born outside the State are exempt. This is based on a historical exclusion going back to the foundation of the NUI in 1906.

At the time when NUI was established, those born outside the State (who at the time comprised mainly children of those administering Irish affairs on behalf of the British government in Ireland) were exempted from the requirement to present a pass grade in Irish if they wished to study in an NUI university.

Your son’s NUI exemption is based on that regulation.


The Government, through its elected representatives, has deemed the study of Irish to be a requirement for all children studying in State-funded schools.

Regulations have been introduced over time to provide children diagnosed with a specific learning disability with an exemption from this requirements. This exemption has also been extended to those students who entered the Irish education system after their eleventh birthday.

As your son meets neither of the above criteria, his school principal is obliged to ensure he is allocated to an Irish class until he completes his second level education. He would be in breach of Department of Education regulations if he were to do otherwise.

There is no point in you considering placing him in another school, as no principal will consciously breach the very clear department regulations on this matter.

The department through its inspection process ensures that schools adhere to these regulations.

Enda Kenny, who is a fluent Irish speaker and has a deep love of the Irish language, raised the possibility some years ago of dropping the requirement on all students to study Irish at the end of compulsory education at age 16. Following widespread opposition, the idea was quietly dropped.

He subsequently appointed Joe McHugh – who like many of us had lost his ability to speak Irish – as Minister for the Gaeltacht.

Mr McHugh subsequently made a commitment on his appointment to work tirelessly to regain his fluency.

Having recently listened to him speak passionately and fluently “as Gaeilge” about his rediscovered love of our native language. I don’t expect he will in his current role as Minister for Education do anything to undermine the status of Irish in our schools.