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The Ghettoization Of The Irish Language

The ghettoization of the Irish language in English-medium schools has been the most successful policy of the anglophone Irish state since the winning of independence in the 1920s. It has reduced the indigenous language of Ireland to the status of a "foreign" classroom subject
The ghettoization of the Irish language in English-medium schools has been the most successful policy of the anglophone Irish state since the winning of independence in the 1920s. It has reduced the indigenous language of Ireland to the status of a “foreign” classroom subject

That perennial red herring, the manner in which the official national language of the nation-state of Ireland is taught in its education system, is raised yet again in the Irish Times newspaper:

“Why, with 13 or 14 years of instruction and learning in Irish, does research show standards continue to fall? A 2006 report by Dr John Harris from Trinity College found a sharp fall in the standard of Irish among sixth-class students between 1985 and 2002. It also found a quarter of Irish primary school teachers believed their own standard of Irish to be “weak”.

Last November, the chief inspector’s report said students’ learning was “less than satisfactory in almost a quarter of Irish lessons in primary schools and almost a third of Irish lessons in post-primary schools”. The report was also concerned about language competence of teachers in a “small but significant number of classrooms”.

At primary level a new integrated language curriculum is due for junior classes this September. It’s not before time. The curriculum in place since 1999 intended to encourage a communicative, task-based approach, but while the document itself is wonderfully child-centred and idealistic, it seems to ignore the fact that for most children, and indeed, teachers, Irish is a second language and needs to be learned rather than absorbed.

The new curriculum, which will be introduced to junior classes (up to second class) in September 2014, will give teachers far more support in terms of what to teach and how to teach it. It will include a step-by-step guide about how to achieve particular curricular objectives. The curriculum will be published online to enable teachers to click through to the material and supports. Making an English-language version of the document would certainly help teachers, but some people involved in teacher-training acknowledge that such a move would be met with hostility from Irish language groups.

Pádraig Ó Duibhir of St Patrick’s College Drumcondra, with his colleague Prof Jim Cummins of the University of Toronto, has conducted a review for the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) of strategies proven to work for language learning in the lead up to this upcoming curriculum review.

“Part of the issue is the system of 30 or 40 minutes a day for Irish in primary school,” says Ó Duibhir. “That drip drip approach has not been successful for Welsh in Wales or French in Canada. Schools achieving good results here have children using Irish outside the Irish class. One school, for example has had great success with a Lá na Gaeilge where everyone makes an effort to speak Irish on one day each week. The children have a need to use it. In practising it, they experience success, which further motivates them.”

An approach to language learning that takes the language outside of the language class has been successful. In Cordoba in Spain teachers are encouraged to teach one subject apart from English, through English. “PE and art are easy ways into that sort of approach. Science could work too,” Ó Duibhir says.

“We need to ask ourselves, are we teaching Irish for cultural reasons, or for it to be used?” says Dr Muiris Ó Laoire, a lecturer and researcher on multi-lingualism in IT Tralee. “If we want it to be used, we need to rethink what we’re doing. How are we going to provide meaningful opportunities for use? It can be done but it is a challenge.””

What few are willing to acknowledge is that the historic devaluing of the Irish language through its status as simply another classroom subject has long been a policy of the state itself. Over 90% of all Irish schools and at all levels function through the medium of the English language. This is not just a reflection of society at large but a deliberate mechanism by which the Irish language is rendered alien, “foreign”, in the eyes of faculty and students alike. With schools in majority Irish-speaking regions under pressure to teach through English and Irish-medium schools or gaelscoileanna in majority English-speaking regions “blacklisted” through the hostility of the Department of Education even those parents and children who regard the language as their own are being prevented from using it. The ghettoization of the Irish language in English-medium schools has in fact been the most successful policy of the Irish state since the winning of independence in the 1920s. It has reduced those who speak the language to a despised and hated minority, an under-class of citizenry.

It allows, for instance, bigoted conspiracy theories like these below not just to exist but to flourish:

JamesTScott: There you go, the unfair advantage. Do you think the gael speakers want anything to change? The less people speaking the language the better for them. Notice how quick the curriculum changed to make it easier to learn. Who do you think writes it.

Why do you think Irish was taught in a way that only a few could learn it? Think about it, we all remember Peig and compare that to your French book, what a difference. For one thing it suited the people that could speak it, notable the people living in the gaeltachs, or people coming from advantaged areas, private schools, afford to send their children to the gaeltach every year. 30 years ago this was a massive advantage/competitive edge.

In the west of ireland there are still big advantages for speaking Irish. It’s their private club and they have a lot to gain by keeping the numbers down. It’s not something that is talked about, but it is understood among the speakers.

gav22332: Have to agree with the other comments with regard to nepotism with Irish speakers. Its a small group of people who understand how the system works and only a small percentage of people are wealthy enough to make use of it. And that group will always get their own kids into the Gaeltach every year for private lessons. Teachers. Garda, public service all full of people whose parents were able to play the system. Unfair to every one else.”

Anyone who has experienced the hostility of Anglophone supremacists at first hand will find these allegations wearily familiar. Yet they are not just the opinions of an extremist minority amongst the general public but are held to be true by many in the news media too. As we have seen.

[With thanks to An Lorcánach for the original link]

11 comments on “The Ghettoization Of The Irish Language

  1. michaeleverson932

    When the State achieved its independence, Irish should have been made the language Dáil Éireann.


    • Mathew Staunton

      At that point, Irish was already no more than a meaningless item on the checklist of “proofs” of national identity. The Gaelic League had already failed in the most miserable way to revive the language. After independence, Nationalists (who could barely speak the language) acted as if Irish was innate and didn’t bother developing effective pedagogy. Shame on them. The Irish Times has nothing to do with the historical shambles that is the Irish education system.You can blame the founders of the state for that.


      • @Mathew, I disagree. The Gaelic League was the seed from which the Irish Revolution sprouted. Unfortunately civil war poisoned that growth and no attempt was made to reseed thereafter. Instead those in power, little different from those that came before under British rule, simply dumped the language into the education system and left it there while denying most people the right or desire to use it outside of that environment. I don’t blame anyone but those who benefited under the rule of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Labour and the rest of the Neo-Ascendency.


        • Mathew Staunton

          We are pretty much on the same page here, Séamas. The League had already admitted defeat before independence. The 1911 census returns were a bitter disppointment. Those who benefited from independence the most, the Neo-Ascendency you identify above, had little genuine interest in the language and set about dismantling much of what had been achieved as soon as they took up office. Those who did care don’t appear to have had much pedagogy or vision. Those who lost out – the people – were given no choice.


          • @Mathew, yes I don’t disagree on that. The old Irish Parliamentary Party was characterized by either indifference or hostility to the Irish language and Irish-speakers for much of its history. FG and FF inherited that political culture.


    • @Michael, Agreed. After a certain point blaming the legacy of British colonialism in Ireland is no longer enough. No one expected to undo 800 years of linguicide in 80 but to have achieved so little so far? After nearly a century the blame is entirely domestic. We have seen what has happened in Continental Europe, the various language restorations of the last four decades, to prove that we are not unique nor is our situation. We are just hypocritical.


  2. an lorcánach

    long road ahead, sionnach: unfortunately i’m not optimistic as too few people or not enough are willing to advocate in the language’s favour – doubtless the permanent administration on merrion street derive a lascivious gratification in the slow death of a language – la petite mort (d’une langue)!


  3. All very well raking over your country’s history, but the foundation of the Irish state, the civil war and so on were all 90 years ago, effectively beyond living memory. The issue is surely what are you going to do now and in the future?


    • Marconatrix, agreed but we still need to understand the history of how we arrived where we are rather than the simply accepting the populist Anglophone myths that substitute for history. If we are to plan a future it must be on the basis of facts. Unfortunately the facts are ones that the Irish state and various Hibernophobe lobbies would rather stay hidden.

      It’s easier to regurgitate the same old tired excuses rather than accept that Irish-speaking communities are in the parlous state they are in due to the actions of the very nation that claims sovereignty over them. That, perhaps, is the problem…


      • Well yes, that’s indeed the problem. In Ireland the State adopted the language and then it seems tried to stangle the child, or at least slowly starve it to death. Killed by ‘kindness’ in a way. For instance you can’t get ECRML recognition because it’s offically the state language, oh the irony!
        So it’s probably a waste of time trying to work through state and other ‘official’ institutions, since they’ve had nearly a century to learn how to dodge the issues. Your Commissioner said it all really.

        So short of some kind of widespread activist grassroots movement I don’t know how you will ever change things. Is there really a younger generation that cares enough to actually own the language/culture and do something about it. I watch with interest …


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