“24 hours in An Ghaeltacht” is a very positive story from Úna Mullally in the Irish Times on the “rites of passage” journey for thousands of young Irish people represented by the annual summer trips to the rural Gaeltachtaí or Irish-speaking communities of the west coast of Ireland:
“ONE OF THE unwavering constants in Irish life, admissions to Irish college in Gaeltacht areas have taken a hit over the past few years as parents struggle to come up with fees. But for thousands of secondary-school students, those few summer weeks in the Gaeltacht haven’t really changed in decades. Language immersion, romance, céilís, making friends and having the edge when exam time comes are what continue to draw teenagers to the west of Ireland and elsewhere year in year out.”
The article contains one very important point on the sense of identity and empowerment given to the students by their long stays in the Gaeltacht, and one that demands action:
“Their enthusiasm for the language feels at odds with how Leaving Cert students outside of Gaeltacht areas talk about Irish during the exam year, dismissing its value and questioning the coursework, and how, historically, generation after generation of Irish school-leavers berates the way the language is taught. It’s something the teachers at Coláiste Uí Chadhain are only too aware of. It begs the question: if the Gaeltacht summer school experiment has been so successful at teaching young people Irish for decades, why do none of its teachings bleed back into course work?
“Absolutely,” says Aoife Ní Raincín, a teacher from Galway city, after the morning lessons have ended. “The education system we have now is all based on rote learning. There’s not enough conversation. What we do here is invaluable for all kids, and they should be doing what we do here in secondary schools. They benefit so much from it. When the class is interactive, it’s more effective. It’s also good for their communication skills.”
Her colleague, Darragh Mac Unfraidh from Balbriggan, says the intensity of the immersion adds a huge amount to students’ learning. “I suppose one thing that really struck me was one day an inspector came and he just wanted to speak to the kids after they were finished their day’s work here. And he was saying that they were doing four, 40-minute classes a day, six times a week, so by the time he worked it out over the weeks and the intensity of it, it was more or less the same as an extra school year of Irish. So that became apparent to me how effective it can be for anyone who’s engaging with it.”
Provide a positive and welcoming environment in which Irish people can learn and engage in their indigenous language and they will do so. Take that away and you have… well what we have now. Tens of thousands of Irish students learning Irish year after year but being denied the opportunities to use it outside of an educational setting, and when doing so often facing ridicule or discrimination from an extreme minority of Anglophone supremacists. A situation made worse by the visible hostility of the present Fine Gael – Labour coalition government towards its Irish-speaking citizens and its apparent determination to destroy a decade’s worth of civil rights legislation for Irish-speakers and their standing in wider society.
If families are unable to afford the expense of the annual Gaeltacht visits then it is up to the Irish State to fulfil its constitutional duties and step in, providing suitable grants and subsidies (as the Israelis did in the past with the kibbutz movement of the 1950s and ‘60s to the benefit of all involved). Equally private individuals or companies should be coming together to provide sponsorship programs for those from economically straitened backgrounds to experience total immersion in the Irish language and culture, a form of charitable contribution with positive effects for wider Irish society. Here, certainly, is a role for the GAA in light of its cultural ethos and recent pledges to improve its commitment to the Irish language. The provision of the GAA organisation and facilities to manage such efforts would have an enormous effect, as would the staging of Irish language day or weekend camps in the larger GAA grounds. And here is an idea. Croke Park given over to a vast, fortnight-long open air encampment for hundreds of students. An annual urban Gaeltacht camp to celebrate the language and culture through the auspices and sponsorship of Cumann Lúthchleas Gael in the heart of Dublin city.