Why do so many Leaving Cert students skip the Irish exam?

Is it fear or loathing that made 9,500 students sit out the test in 2016 – and does it matter?

The Leaving Cert higher level Irish paper

This week it emerged that several thousand students are opting not to sit the Leaving Cert Irish exam each year.

So why are so many students opting not to sit it? And are they shooting themselves in the foot by shutting off access to third-level colleges or professions where Irish is mandatory?

While the study of Irish is compulsory at second level (with some exemptions), and schools are legally required to teach the subject up to the end of sixth year, there is no obligation on students to sit the actual exam.

Latest figures show that almost 9,500 students did not take the Leaving Cert Irish exam out of a total of 58,500 Leaving Cert students in 2016.


Many of those who did not sit the exam – about 6,500 – had Department of Education-recognised exemptions for the study of Irish on grounds of special needs or being educated outside the State for a period of time.

This leaves more than 3,000 students without official exemptions who decided not to sit the exam.

Irish teachers say some of these students are disengaged from the subject, have a history of poor academic performance in the language, and do not have any expectation that their result will boost their final CAO points tally.

Irish has always been a challenge for a sizeable proportion of students who have tussled with the modh coinníollach or slogged their way through the novel, Peig.

In fact, surveys among pupils consistently show it is regarded as the most difficult of all Leaving Cert subjects (even if, statistically, it one of the most generously marked).

Rather than an act of civil disobedience towards mandatory Irish, many teachers say it is simply a calculated decision by students to improve their points tally by focusing their study in other subjects.

Students in some cases have been quietly permitted by their schools to study subjects other than Irish, according to teachers (though to admit this would be a breach of Department of Education funding rules).

Another likely factor behind the high numbers not sitting the exam is some students may have secured Irish exemptions from the National University of Ireland (NUI).

College entry

Irish remains mandatory for access to NUI colleges – such as University College Dublin, University College Cork, NUI Galway, Maynooth University, Royal College of Surgeons Ireland and NCAD – though it operates a separate system of opt-outs from the department. University exemptions are more generous: for example, the NUI provides automatic opt-outs for any pupil born outside the State no matter how long they have spent in the Irish education system. By contrast, to get a Department of Education-sanctioned exemption eligible students have to have been educated outside the State up to age 11.)

But are students without exemptions who opt not to sit the exam blocking off their access to third level or key professions where Irish is required?

It depends on what course a student hopes to pursue. While a pass in Irish is required for entry to NUI colleges, it isn’t needed for other universities (such as Trinity, Dublin City University, University of Limerick and TU Dublin – formerly DIT). Nor is Irish required for institutes of technology, post-Leaving Cert colleges or apprenticeships.

While Irish is required for primary teaching, it is not needed for second-level teaching, and the language isn’t required any longer for civil service jobs, unless they are specifically posts which deal with the Irish language.

There is also the question whether the number of students opting not to sit the Irish exam is a reflection on the quality of Irish tuition.

A Department of Education inspector’s report last year, for example, found the quality of learning in Irish was “unsatisfactory” in more than one-in-four lessons at primary level. At second level, it found challenges persisted, although the quality of students’ learning in Irish showed some improvement since the last inspector’s report in 2013.

The question of whether Irish should remain compulsory at second level is another issue likely to flare up again.

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

The party's then leader Enda Kenny argued that Irish should be made an optional subject after the Junior Cert. The former taoiseach, a fluent Irish speaker, said the policy of compulsion had led to a "pervasive, negative association" with the language among many young people.

In more recent times, Minister for Education Joe McHugh has firmly ruled out such a move, saying “Irish will remain a core part of the curriculum and, as far as I’m concerned, it won’t be up for debate”.

“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.”