Does The Irish Language Have A Place In Modern Irish Society?
‘GIRLS, if the future of the Irish language is asked as an essay question on the Irish paper, don’t DREAM of saying that you’d like Irish to be made compulsory – the correctors won’t like that,” said my Irish teacher in a pre leaving cert pep talk three years ago, dashing any intentions any of my class might have had about using the Irish essay question as an opportunity to air our honest views about the Irish language.
Certainly, when I studied Honours Irish for my Leaving Certificate, I ironically found myself more than capable of writing an answer about a story based on a woman stuck in a tree, yet unable to string a coherent sentence together. While I rushed to Google Translate, I took comfort in the fact that I certainly wasn’t alone in my plight. However, three years on, I’m still finding it difficult to find the place for the Irish language within the increasingly-modern Ireland of today – and I don’t think that the state of Irish language is primarily due to the poor teaching of the subject.
Certainly, the education system has attempted to address the flaws in the teaching of the Irish language. The introduction of a new course, that increases focus on the oral aspect of the course and less on the literature aspect, aimed to increase the level of Irish spoken in the country. While the new course is undoubtedly an improvement on the previous course, where over half the marks accounted for Irish literature and the dreaded ‘Stair na Gaeilge’, the paper, at its core, still fails to acknowledge the poor standard of basic grammar held by many Irish language students, despite having been taught the language since the first year of primary school.
Critics of the education system blame the poor standard of Irish on the teaching of the subject. As I have mentioned above, efforts have been made to acknowledge this, but realistically, the poor standard of Irish language remains, rendering it one of the most dreaded Leaving Certificate subjects for thousands of students. Ideally, the language would be taught in the same manner that languages are taught in foreign countries such as Germany, where instead of teaching Irish through the medium of English, Irish would be only taught through the language itself, a move that would ultimately guarantee a good standard of Irish. But even if this was the case, where fluency in the language was almost ensured, would this be enough to change the deteriorating status of Irish language in today’s increasingly modern society? Is fluency completely necessary in language use?
If Fine Gael were to enforce their proposed policy of making Irish optional, the Irish language would have been still an option for the Leaving Certificate, while giving students the choice to choose another subject to study instead. While the introduction of a compulsory Irish language system would undoubtedly financially damage Gaeltacht areas and summer schools, where students descend annually in an attempt to improve their Irish, making the subject optional, or abolishing it altogether, offers various benefits for Ireland. The potential subject replacements for Irish could give Ireland the opportunity to increase its reputation worldwide, for example, within the technology and science field. Furthermore, had Irish language been replaced by a foreign language such as Chinese, Irish students would be given an upper hand to compete in business fields where oriental languages are a distinct advantage. While the financial losses that would be encountered in Gaeltacht areas would certainly be a blow, is it enough to compromise the opportunity to improve Ireland’s education reputation globally? If Ruairi Quinn is serious in his attempt to achieve the ‘“world class education system that we need to have,’ he must recognise that the current compulsory Irish language subject will not achieve this.
Certainly, Irish language activists will argue that the language itself has experienced a huge revival in recent years. This is true to an extent – the presence of adult Irish classes, Irish language television shows and Gaelscoils is more widespread than ever. However, is this ‘revival’ enough to merit a compulsory school subject? There are certainly more Gaelscoileanna than ever today, both at primary and secondary level. However, to assume that the increase in Gaelscoil attendances is an attribute to the love of Irish language itself is a naive assumption; many teenagers are lured by the prospect of getting rewarded with extra exam marks for doing an exam through Irish – certainly a huge factor to be considered. Furthermore, in my town of Monaghan, the arrival of a brand new Gaelscoil has certainly attracted many students – but how much of this should be attested to the brand new school with many modern facilities that the other, much older public schools in the town cannot compete against? While I certainly do not intend to belittle the obviously impressive increase, accounting this increase as a sole result of the importance of Irish language without taking other factors into account would be rather naive.
Does the Irish language, seemingly the ‘backbone of our heritage’, really hold as much interest for our tourists in 21st century Ireland as one may be led to believe? While the launch of ‘gaelsaoire,’ an initiative created to increase Gaeltacht areas as a holiday destination has somewhat improved the status of the language to tourists, no activities involving Irish language featured on the list of Ireland’s 20 most popular tourist attractions of 2013. Where other elements of Irish heritage have obviously stood the test of modernity, for example, with the Cliffs of Moher and an introduction to Gaelic Games featuring high on the list, nothing involving the Irish language itself was present. It is telling that while the Irish language is considered to be heavily linked to the GAA, who claim to have endorsing the language within its main interests, not a word of the language was spoken by Stephen Cluxton in his speech as he lifted the coveted Sam Maguire last September.
And finally, is the Irish language still as much of a component of our ‘identity’ in 2013 as it would have been years ago? The most recent survey of Irish speakers collected in 2011 states that 41.4% of the Irish population having the ability to speak the language. If the arguments of Irish language enthusiasts are to be believed, this remaining 58.6% cannot be considered true ‘Irish people’, given that they lack this seemingly vital component to our Irish heritage. I daresay that this 58.6% of our population would not consider their Irish identity to be somewhat compromised by their disregarding of the language, the same applying for the thousands of students who get exemptions from studying the Irish language for one reason or another. To assume that a knowledge of the Irish language is essential for ones Irish ‘identity’ is particularly irrelevant today. Certainly, if the current status of the Irish language is to be considered, a loss of Irish ‘identity’ would probably be more relevant for somebody who didn’t understand the concept of a solo run or recognise Ray D’Arcy.
If the Irish language is going to have a serious place in modern Irish society, it must prove its status so sooner rather than later. Tús maith leath na hoibre….
Photos c/o irishcentral.com, lunakos.com