It’s St. Patrick’s Day, and I’m interested to see that it’s Féile Pádraig that’s trending on Twitter, rather than its title in English (including the variations St. Pat’s, Paddy’s Day, etc.). I’m also reminded of an article I read recently in the Irish Times on a new proposal for the language from Fine Gael, the party that came into power in Ireland after elections in mid-February. Enda Kenny’s party are proposing to make Irish optional after the Junior Cert (roughly equivalent to GCSEs, state examinations taken around the age of 15). So maybe Irish is not doing so well after all…
Irish, also known as Gaeilge, is the national and first official language of the Republic of Ireland. Today, it is spoken as a first language only by a small minority of people in Ireland, and as a second language by a larger minority. However, it is widely considered to be an important part of our (yes, if you haven’t guessed by now, I’m Irish) culture and heritage. It is also an official language of the European Union and an officially recognised minority language in Northern Ireland. And for all of the above reasons, but mostly for cultural/heritage reasons I suspect (rather than the language’s practical uses), several hundred students staged a silent sit-down protest at Dáil Éireann (the Irish Parliament) before making their way to the party’s headquarters to deliver a petition with more than 15,000 signatories opposed to the proposal.
St. Patrick on a 3p stamp
As readers of this blog will know, I’m often at two minds about how we artificially preserve languages, or resurrect them as in the case of Modern Hebrew, and to what extent we shrug our shoulders and allow the natural ebb and flow of languages to take their course.
The reasons for Fine Gael’s proposal are not articulated in the Irish Times piece, however the comments from the protesters give some telling clues, and having been through the Irish education system myself, I can see where they are coming from. Comments refer “to a problem that has been brewing for years”, “Fine Gael […] avoiding the issue” and “it’s a lot easier in the short term to just do away with it and not have to deal with what the difficulties in teaching Irish are.”
Irish is a language that was actively revived in the 19th and 20th centuries after the English occupation of the country as part of a Gaelic revival. However, it seems that the school curriculum has changed little since, and I interpret the comments above as references to this fact. Those who do well at the language in school seem to do so, to a large extent, on account of summers spent in Irish schools in the Gaeltacht parts of the country, i.e. Irish-speaking regions located in the west of the island. These schools are part of the lore of an Irish upbringing where success is generally measured – on the part of the pubescent students at least, rather than the parents who forked out the money – by the number of members of the opposite sex one kisses, as opposed to the number of new additions to one’s Irish vocabulary.
Those who don’t, suffer unabated years of reading and writing short stories of idyllic (or deadly boring) picnics on sunny days (?) where ceapairí (sandwiches), milseáin (sweets) and cáca milis (cake) abound. However, joking aside, the immersive nature of these schools, where a full sentence in English could see you sent back to Dublin in shackles, or at least disgrace, are a far cry from the sterile Irish classes I experienced.
My friend Philip just asked me if I honestly think that the proposal, if implemented, would make any difference, positive or negative, to the language. I always contrast my 10+ years of learning Irish to the 5 years I spent learning Spanish: I received an A+ in Spanish at ‘Honours level’ in the Leaving Certificate – my highest mark – yet struggled to pass the ‘Pass level’ Irish exam. True, this is anecdotal evidence, and true, a term abroad in Murcia did wonders for my Spanish, but I feel that my learning there was supported by the curriculum, not deadened by it. So Philip, if you’re reading – I doubt the number of fluent Irish language speakers will ever tip the balance. And while it continues to be an obligatory subject, Irish will continue to plod along.
However, with Irish threatened by becoming optional after 15, and the curriculum staying as it is, a decline must surely ensue. But how about a scenario where teaching methods are updated, textbooks are revitalised, and terms in Irish schools are incorporated into the curriculum? Maybe we’ll master the language by 15 and can then choose fairly whether to continue or not.
Anyway, Happy Paddy’s Day to one and all, I’m off for a gargle (not Gaelic but Hiberno-English – a whole other language!).