Compulsory Irish? Ná bí ag magadh!

With the general election looming, the candidates are taking every opportunity possible to preach their message and try to win over undecided voters. One such opportunity arose last night, in the form of a three way leaders debate (1), through the language of Irish. While the topics discussed were quite diverse, one topic in particular seems to have garnered a great deal of interest – Fine Gael’s plans to remove Irish as a compulsory subject for the Leaving Cert exam.

For any readers who have not had the distinct pleasure of sitting a Leaving Cert, it is educationally roughly equivalent to the British style A-Level exams, or the American high school diploma, or GED. Its main purpose is to allow you to get a place in some form of third level education, and it is taken by almost all students before leaving school. Generally you must take a minimum of 6 subjects, and while I have always maintained that this helps to ensure a rounded education before leaving school, it’s not without its flaws. Of course, the big flaw in question relates to subjects which are mandatory. In a country that prides itself on excellent technical ability, highly skilled graduates, and a workforce which can rival any, we list just one subject as mandatory: Irish. In reality, virtually every school will also require that you sit exams in Maths and English also, leaving the rest of the subjects open to choice, but it is only Irish that requires special state exemptions to avoid examination.

The Irish language represents a connection to the culture and history of Ireland. For most of our recorded history, it was the primary language of the people here. It is recognised by our constitution as the first official language of the country, and it is the language of our national anthem. And, as far as I’m concerned, the sooner it is removed as compulsory, the better.

Like most Irish people of my generation, I sat my Leaving Cert exam before entering university. When I did, I took the Irish exam at the Honours level, and as I recall, passed with a respectable grade, having demonstrated my proficiency in conjugating verbs, writing discursive essays on the much-maligned Celtic Tiger and the youth of Ireland, critiquing Irish poetry, plays, and novels, and even discussing the history of the language, its dialects, and its gradual modernisation.  Yet, were you to ask me to hold a conversation in Irish today, even a basic one, I’m sorry to say that I would be at a loss. While I can remember some phrases, and can certainly read it aloud from a text, I would need a dictionary, and a lot of time, to do anything more complex than asking for something to be given to me, and thanking the giver afterwards. In this respect, I am by no means unique. The truth is that the number of Irish people who are fluent, or even comfortably conversational, in Irish is pitiful, and most people can simply manage cúpla focail when pushed.

It’s easy to blame the learners, and say that they have just forgotten all that they took in during school, but they are simply a product of the environment in which we live. Language, any language, must be used to be retained, and opportunities to use the Irish language in day-to-day life are far and few between. With no one to speak to in Irish, and few opportunities to turn the conversation to Irish, it’s hardly surprising that the knowledge we once had atrophies and dies, leaving us barely able to string together a sentence. I have believed, since before my own Leaving Cert exam, that the fault lies primarily with the Department of Education in Ireland, and its unrealistic ideas about the Irish language.

As young children, we are taught the Irish language as if it is something completely foreign to us. Teachers help us stumble through those first words until, at age 12, we can name things around us, put together sentences, and conjugate simple verbs with the best of them. In short, upon leaving primary school, most of us are well on the road to having a good grasp of the Irish language. So where does it all go wrong?

The disconnect occurs when we reach secondary school, and embark upon a curriculum that seems to consider Irish as the primary language for students. No longer is it enough to be able to “function” in Irish, now you must analyse, write essays, read novels, etc; to be blunt, you must now do the equivalent of an English exam, in Irish!

It’s time to stop kidding ourselves – Irish is not the primary language of Ireland. True, there are areas where it is spoken on a daily basis, but those areas are few and far between. In the 2006 Census, the most recent data available, 1.6 million people indicated that they could speak Irish. The breakdown of these figures tells a different story; of those, almost half a million speak Irish only within the educational system. Those who indicated that they speak Irish also outside the education system number a mere 31605. In total, just under 55000 people indicated that they speak Irish on a daily basis. In contrast, ~581000 people indicated that they used Irish less often than weekly, and over 400000 indicated that they never used Irish outside of education. This, if nothing else, should make it clear that the majority of people speak Irish only because they are afforded no choice by the educational system, and that once they have completed their Leaving Cert, they no longer use Irish at all. (2) Lest I am misunderstood, I don’t think that we should stop teaching Irish to school children. I don’t believe that we should remove Irish from all aspects of our life. I do however, firmly believe that if we’re not realistic about our expectations and limitations with regard to speaking Irish, that maintaining it as a compulsory subject will surely be the death of the language.

Learning Irish can be interesting, fun, and enriching (as can any language), but it will only be this way if we radically change the way it is taught and examined. It may not be a popular opinion, but I believe that, if we are to be honest with ourselves, Irish is as foreign a language to us as French, German, or any other world language. If children are taught the language as if it were something that is new and alien to them (as they are with other European languages which they may take exams in), then those students who enjoy the language, but who would in the past have been left behind by the phenomenal (and ridiculous) jump in skill required for the Junior and Leaving Cert exams, may well continue to study it, even if it is not compulsory. If the focus shifts towards functional language use (conversation, reading and writing, and communication in general) instead of stuffy literary critique, then people won’t find themselves unable to order a pint in Irish, while simultaneously being able to regurgitate a 4 page essay on how the youth of today are on the pig’s back.

If we are realistic about the level of Irish language comprehension in Ireland today, and about what people really need to learn in order to use the language, then we can actually change the way people think and feel about the language. If we continue to force it on people, maintaining that Irish really is an teanga beo, and imagining that each and every one of us is Peig Sayers in disguise, then we are doomed to failure, one compulsory examination at a time.

  1. Leaders Debate (TG4)
  2. Irish Census Data 2006
  3. Peig Sayers
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