These are exciting times for Irish language studies

 

Ireland has changed much and the way we teach Irish at third level must change also, argues Liam Mac Mathúna

Irish universities face many challenges, including the expansion of undergraduate places to cater for 40 per cent of school-leavers, the doubling of PhD student numbers and highly competitive bidding for new research funding.

When these external pressures are combined with the need to ensure that internal structures can meet the level of accountability and flexibility now demanded by funding agencies, it is no surprise that this should be a period of major adjustment in academia. And of course Irish society is changing right before our eyes.

Inevitably in this environment, the roles of university disciplines are being questioned and require fresh responses and articulation for a new generation.

In the past large-scale social change has often undermined Irish language and culture. However, the expansion of Irish-medium education, the success of TG4, the Official Languages Act and the according of official status to Irish in the EU, have come together to effect a growing normalisation of the use of Irish in the media and in society generally. Given the range of its disciplines and programmes, the UCD School of Irish, Celtic Studies, Irish Folklore and Linguistics is particularly well-placed to play a dynamic role in enhancing the academic engagement of the Irish language.

In addressing this new agenda, the school is determined to build on its strengths and expertise in the earlier periods of the Irish language, in textual transmission, in the study of linguistic and literary development and in Irish folklore, within the wider context of Celtic studies and linguistic analysis. But the school recognises that there are also new needs and opportunities, which can inspire fresh approaches.

Modern Irish is already providing for students from varied linguistic backgrounds. The part-time Dioplóma sa Ghaeilge Fheidhmeach (Diploma in Applied Irish) has been aligned with the BA and is recognised by the Department of Education and Science as meeting the Irish entry requirement for postgraduate courses for primary teaching. Ab initio Irish is offered to international students, and courses at a supplementary level will soon facilitate other students who wish to join mainstream Irish-medium lectures in second year.

The unique multi-disciplinary nature of the school allows us to provide a new, more supportive environment for the teaching of Early Irish, both by strengthening its links with Modern Irish and by the introduction of the study of Celtic Civilisation, which is currently being extended to BA degree level. Celtic Civilisation provides students with insights into the riches of the language, literature and culture inheritance of early and medieval Ireland and Wales.

It is already attracting one hundred first year students. New modules on offer next year will include "The woman's voice in Celtic literature" and "The Celts and the natural world". The school recently decided to extend the range and content of language options to be offered in tandem with Celtic Civilisation: Early Irish and Welsh will form significant language strands, and will be available as structured options to BA degree level. The graduate diplomas in both Early Irish and Welsh will enable students to proceed to undertake MLitt and PhD research degrees in these subjects.

The school is planning to introduce a denominated degree in Celtic Studies, through which Early Irish provision will be enhanced in line with student interest and resources.

The feasibility of linking this new degree to exchanges with universities abroad is also being actively explored. The school continues to welcome students who wish to follow its well-established MLitt and PhD research graduate programmes in Early Irish and Welsh.

As we embrace modern technology and the demands of an information-based society, the school is involved in digitising Cnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann (National Folklore Collection) and Cartlann na gCanúintí (Modern Irish Dialect Archive). The Early Irish web-based Thesaurus of the Irish Language (www/ucd.ie/tlh) with $200,000 external funding includes texts from the Franciscan manuscripts now held at UCD. Within the school, synergies are being developed by the vibrant area of linguistics with Irish and Welsh. Modern Irish is working to enhance its specialist areas such as Classical Irish, manuscript and heritage studies, modern literature, Scottish Gaelic and Irish dialect studies, while at the same time developing programmes in areas such as media studies and literary criticism, and the school is exploring ways of co-operating with historians and scholars of Hiberno-English.

These are exciting, if challenging, times for Léann na Gaeilge (Irish language studies) and there is much to be positive about. The area is enjoying a renewed popularity among undergraduate and graduate students.

The growing media presence and newly-affirmed official status of Irish are underpinning their appreciation of accurate and idiomatic language. Always strong on primary scholarship, scholars of Irish now face the challenge of contextualising their subject anew. Recent seminars on Léann na Gaeilge in the Royal Irish Academy and on the interface of Irish Studies and Celtic Studies in UCD form part of the ongoing academic discourse. Lively intellectual debate, complemented by dialogue with policymakers, should help establish medium-term goals for Irish language studies and generate a climate of consensus in which all periods of Irish can thrive academically, supported by the wider community. The UCD School of Irish, Celtic Studies, Irish Folklore and Linguistics is fully committed to this collaborative venture.

Prof Liam Mac Mathúna is head of the School of Irish, Celtic Studies, Irish Folklore and Linguistics at UCD