No new Gaelscoil will open in the State this September in a year which has been designated as Bliain na Gaeilge.
That stark fact is not the fault of Bliain na Gaeilge. Such initiatives are hugely positive and welcome but cannot alone transform the fortunes of the Irish language. To save and enhance Irish we need to create new fortresses of the language outside its traditional heartlands through establishing large numbers of new Gaelscoileanna.
In the past, saving the language through education felt like pushing a boulder up a hill. But those days are long gone as the demand for Irish-medium education grows from the ground up. Addressing the demand for it is now not only a necessary action, but would also be a popular one.
There is a lot of catching up to be done: of the 3,000-plus primary schools in the country, only 8.3 per cent are Irish medium, with just 145 gaelscoileanna outside the Gaeltacht.
Economic and Social Research Institute findings in 2015 established that 23 per cent of respondents would choose a local Gaelscoil for their children if one were available, and further surveys which we have conducted all over the country confirm it.
The evidence for that level of demand is also anecdotal: debates about the difficulty of getting into a Gaelscoil occur not because we want to be exclusive – far from it – they happen because we don’t have enough places. As a result gaelscoileanna have long lists of people from all backgrounds wanting to get in.
We provide Catholic and inter-denominational ethos models also, and so can meet diverse needs
At least 200 new gaelscoileanna would be needed over the next five-10 years to even begin to meet this demand. Given the priority, we are told the language is given and all the work which has been to done to revive it, we find ourselves in 2018 with almost one-quarter of parents willing to send their children to a Gaelscoil, and we cannot accommodate them – with not a single new Gaelscoil due to open this year. This level of demand is the most open goal the State has ever seen in its Irish language policy, and yet we cannot puck the sliotar into the empty net.
Ethos and life
How did we get to this point? It has happened for any number of reasons: the slow pace of change in response to parental demand, but also the sense that the only issue about diversity in Ireland relates to ethos. This year is the 25th anniversary of An Foras Pátrúnachta, the largest patron body for Irish-medium schools, and since then we have been establishing schools using a variety of ethos models.
Our first school, established in Cork in 1993, is multidenominational as are all the new schools we have opened in recent years. We provide Catholic and inter-denominational ethos models also, and so can meet diverse needs, and do it as gaeilge, allowing the State to achieve two vital national objectives at once: providing choice of ethos and breathing new life into the language.
Obviously the total number of schools to meet demand cannot be achieved overnight but what we need now is an urgent process
More though is needed: we need not just new gaelscoileanna, but also the transfer to Irish-medium of at least one existing English-medium school in many towns as well as in many areas within our cities to ensure that all parents have the realistic opportunity to send their child to a Gaelscoil, at both primary and post-primary level.
Obviously the total number of schools to meet demand cannot be achieved overnight but what we need now is an urgent process with the stated ambition to establish hundreds of Gaelscoileanna rather than dozens. To do that, we have to think short, medium and long term. Project Ireland 2040 sets ambitious targets for many things – the process surely provides an opportunity to address the deficiency in Irish-medium school places, if someone wishes to seize it.
A vision for Project Ireland 2040 should be that by 2040 at least one-quarter of the children in Ireland would attend a Gaelscoil and speak our native language day to day. We want to see that same portion of parents – from wherever they hail – choosing to educate their children in a multilingual environment, improving their own Irish as they do.
Children can learn multiple languages and are deeply enriched by it educationally. We have recently launched an initiative which sets as its goal that all children in our primary schools will be proficient in three languages when they leave. If you doubt that is possible, visit Switzerland.
This is our vision: a vibrant Irish language spoken by ever-increasing numbers of our young, and the success of the language recognising and celebrating our roots while we embrace a global future through learning in a multilingual context. Isn’t that a vision everyone could unite behind? Would a commitment to do that not be a proper legacy of Bliain na Gaeilge?
Táimid réidh chun ár gcuid a dhéanamh.
Caoimhín Ó hEaghra is ard-rúnaí of An Foras Pátrúnachta, the largest patron of Irish-medium schools