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A Pluralist Ireland? Does That Include The 1.7 Million Irish-Speakers?

A new report on the administration of primary schools in Ireland and the teaching of religious studies has been published by the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector, a state advisory group on education. Among its recommendations is the recognition of the high demand for teaching through the Irish language, both in dedicated schools and within the broader educational system. However only 5 pages in the 164 page document is devoted to Irish medium schooling, probably reflecting the already pluralist nature of the Gaelscoileanna movement. The major focus for the group is the system of English medium education Ireland and its close ties to the Roman Catholic Church and other religious denominations. The relevant excerpts for Irish are:

Irish Medium Primary Schools

The Status of the Irish Language

While the provision of Irish medium primary schools, for parents who wish to have their children educated through the medium of Irish, forms part of the diversity of patronage process, there is also a special dimension to the issue. The denominational or religious character of the school is not a cause of concern here, and Irish medium schools exist under a variety of religious patronage arrangements – denominational, multi-denominational and inter-denominational. The distinguishing feature regarding these schools is the significance of the Irish language in Irish society and the desire of some parents that it be the medium of school education.

The Advisory Group notes, and welcomes, that Irish medium schools are included within the remit of the new school patronage arrangements announced by the Minister in June 2011.

To appraise the matter satisfactorily, it is important to note the place of the Irish language in the Constitution, legislative provision and statements of government policy. Article 8 of the Irish Constitution states “The Irish language as the national language is the first official language”.

The Education Act (1998) sets out responsibilities in relation to Irish in the objects of the Act in Section 6:

(i) to contribute to the realisation of national policy and objectives in relation to the extension of bi-lingualism in Irish society and in particular the achievement of a greater use of the Irish language at school and in the community

(j) to contribute to the maintenance of Irish as the primary community language in Gaeltacht areas

(k) to promote the language and cultural needs of students having regard to the choices of their parents

In Section 9 – functions of a school – it notes that a recognised school shall provide education which will:

(f) promote development of the Irish language and traditions, Irish literature, the arts and other cultural matters

(h) in the case of schools located in the Gaeltacht area, contribute to the maintenance of Irish as the primary community language.

The objective of Government policy in relation to the Irish language is to increase the use and knowledge of Irish as a vibrant community language, increasing the number of families who use Irish as a daily means of communication, promoting the use of public services through Irish as a choice for citizens, and providing strong linguistic support for Gaeltacht communities. The “Strategy for the Irish Language 2010-2030”, (2010), is based on a “Government Statement on the Irish language” (2006) and one of its objectives was:

Objective 6 “A high standard of all Irish education will be provided to school students whose parents/ guardians so wish. Gaelscoileanna will continue to be supported at primary level and all Irish provision at post primary level will be developed to meet follow-on demand.”

The Strategy notes that “the education system is one of the critical engines for generating the linguistic ability on which this 20 year strategy is premised”. It highlights the need for “a focus on developing expertise and skills among the teaching profession – given the critical importance of the school in influencing language awareness and behaviour”.

The Programme for Government, “Government for National Recovery 2011-2016” (2011) stated “We will support the 20 Year Strategy for the Irish Language 2010-30 and will deliver on the achievable goals and targets proposed”. The Advisory Group recommends that parental demand for Irish medium schools should form part of the analysis of the 47 areas, recommended in Section IV of this Report.

Teaching through Irish in Primary Schools: the Current Situation

It is clear from the above statements that the concerns of parents for Irish-language medium schooling have very strong official support.

Currently, approximately 8% of primary schools teach through the medium of Irish and this percentage is reflected also in the number of students and classes who study through Irish. It can be seen from Table 15 below that the number of schools in the Gaeltacht where
the language of instruction is Irish has dropped from 153 to 106 between 1975/76 and 2010/11. The number of students has also dropped. In contrast, the number of schools teaching through the medium of Irish outside of the Gaeltacht has risen from
20 to 140 in the same time period. These schools now have almost 30,000 pupils enrolled. Almost all the Irish medium schools are under the patronage of Catholic bishops or An Foras Pátrúnachta na Scoileanna Lán-Ghaeilge Teoranta.

Census Data on People who can Speak Irish

Almost 1.66 million people, aged 3 years and over, were able to speak Irish in 2006 compared with 1.57 million in 2002. (There was an increase of 8% in the total population during that time period). This information was gathered in the 2006 National Census. Further information obtained is provided below and is abstracted from Volume 9 of the 2006 Census of Population – Irish Language (Oct 2007).

In percentage terms, there was a slight decline from 42.8 per cent in 2002 to 41.9 per cent in 2006.

Ability to speak Irish was highest among the school-going population with over two thirds of 10-14 year olds recorded as being able to speak the language. The figure for 15-19 year olds dropped back from 66.3% to 64.7%. Ability declines in the immediate post-education age groups but picks up again for 45-54 year olds. Irish speakers accounted for 70.8% per cent of the population aged 3 years and over in Gaeltacht areas in 2006 – down from 72.6 per cent in 2002. The proportion of Irish speakers varied between Gaeltacht areas. It was highest in County Waterford (79.5%) and lowest in the part of the Galway Gaeltacht located in Galway City (50.7%). All Gaeltacht areas, apart from Meath and Waterford, experienced a decline in the proportion of Irish speakers between 2002 and 2006. Of the near 1.66 million persons who indicated that they could speak Irish, just over 1 million (60%) either never spoke the language or spoke it less frequently than weekly. 485,000 (29.3%) spoke the language on a daily basis within the education system. However, the majority of these (453,000) did not speak the language outside the education system. Just over 72,000 persons, representing 4.4 per cent of all those who could speak Irish, spoke it on a daily basis outside education while one in four of these also spoke it daily within the education system. A total of 36,500 Irish speakers living in the Gaeltacht, representing 56.8 per cent of all Irish speakers in Gaeltacht areas, spoke Irish on a daily basis around the time of the 2006 census. 14,000 (38.3%) of these daily speakers spoke the language within the education system only. Nearly 19,500 (30.3%) of those able to speak Irish in the Gaeltacht either never spoke the language or spoke it less frequently than weekly. The occupational groups with the highest ability to speak Irish were teachers (78%), gardaí (74%) and religious (59%). The higher the educational level attained, the more likely the ability to speak Irish.

Recommendations:

• Accurate information on schooling through an all Irish medium should be made available to all parents, whose school preferences are being solicited, as set out in Section IV.

• It was stressed at the Forum that many all Irish medium schools tend to start out from a small parent base, but subsequently thrive. The Advisory Group recommends that the DES should analyse the pattern of such experience, as a guide towards evaluating future applications for such schools.

• Because of the State’s special commitments with regard to the Irish language, the Advisory Group recommends that the current regulation on flexibility of transport arrangements for parents seeking access to all Irish schools, should be maintained, and enhanced where judged appropriate.

• The DES and the educational partners should explore the possibility of a special category on the teachers’ redeployment panel to facilitate Irish medium schools in recruiting staff appropriately proficient in the Irish language.

• The Advisory Group recommends that the concept of a “Satellite” entity for an emerging school, under the auspices of a well-established Irish medium school, should be piloted.”

Given the recent hostile statements by the Minister for Education and Skills, Labour’s Ruairí Quinn, on the status of the Irish language in the school system and the clear desire of the Fine Oibre coalition to undermine the teaching of Irish in general, one is less than sanguine of any real policy change coming from the present government in relation to Irish medium schools. Inside or outside the Gaeltachtaí.

4 comments on “A Pluralist Ireland? Does That Include The 1.7 Million Irish-Speakers?

  1. the teaching of Irish on the scale its thought is an anachronism. Ireland has moved on beyond one definition of Irishness. The 3rd language of the state is Irish. Polish is the second language. Yet despite this is there no recognition in the state of the cultural heritage of a huge element of our society.
    Why not make a meaningful gesture and turn TG4 into a cross cultural channel with Irish, Polish etc.
    Maybe we are still to narrow minded a country to do a brave thing like that

    • Thanks for the Comment, Cian, but unfortunately you are incorrect. The 2011 Census data is quite clear: the number of Irish-speakers in Ireland outnumbers Polish-speakers by a factor of tens of thousands. The figures have been severely misrepresented by elements of the anglophone media, as a number of writers, statisticians and academics have pointed out.

      Irish remains the second most spoken language in the state. It also, of course, remains constitutionally and legally the national and first official language of the state. English is a second official language of the state.

      The teaching of Irish is currently being copied in Wales which has now introduced obligatory Welsh language classes into all schools, up to the age of 16 (and it is expected to be raised to school leaving age in the next decade). Similar moves have been followed in Catalonia and the Basque country. This matches similar bilingual education systems in a number of other European nations. In fact, in many ways, it is the European norm.

      First and foremost TG4 cannot be turned into a state-funded Polish television channel for one simple reason. This is Ireland, not Poland. Did that really require stating?

      Secondly, TG4 is the only Irish language television channel broadcasting in Ireland. Contrast that with thirteen English language television channels broadcasting in Ireland. And that is only the ones licensed by the Irish state. There is another twenty-one English language television channels based outside the state that broadcast in or into Ireland, carrying localised Irish programming or advertising.

      So with the English language community served by 34 television channels you want to take away the 1 television channel that serves the Irish language community? With all due respect I would call that narrow-minded. To say the least.

  2. Because of the State’s special commitments with regard to the Irish language, the Advisory Group recommends that the current regulation on flexibility of transport arrangements for parents seeking access to all Irish schools, should be maintained, and enhanced where judged appropriate.

    Hm, someone should pass that along to the Sinn Féin education minister in the North.

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