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Irish: if we really care about it, let’s stop the pretence

February 14, 2011

Six out of 10 parents, according to new research, think children should be tortured daily. Or forced to learn Irish up until Leaving Cert, to give the practice its official name. The survey? Oh, that was carried out on behalf of Comhar na Muinteoiri Gaeilge, a support organisation for Irish language teachers.

That's a bit like using a survey by the Babar Institute to claim that six out of 10 people who visit the zoo think elephants should be given more sticky buns.

As it happens, I don't believe a word of it. That is, I believe 61 per cent of parents claim to want Irish to remain compulsory, in the same way that people, if asked by pollsters, would express a desire for less rain, or for Dart carriages to smell of hollyhocks and freshly baked bread. I just don't believe that so many parents actually care that much about the subject, since, if they did, they could make a greater effort to use Irish with their children in their own daily lives.

In fact, I'd go further. If you're not making the effort to speak Irish regularly, then your advocacy of the language carries no more weight than the views of a deaf man on how loud the juke box should be played in bars. It's just another example of the tendency to heft responsibility for doing the right thing on to other people's shoulders whilst carrying none of the burden oneself.

Same goes for Irish teachers. If the maintenance of Irish as a compulsory core subject is so dear to their little Gaelic hearts, then they should start teaching it better. That way, it might come to be seen as something worth fighting to preserve, rather than a drain on a curriculum already weighed down with pointless distractions.

The battle is definitely on. Fine Gael has already committed itself at the national level to ending compulsory Irish at Leaving Cert — a policy which hasn't gone down well in the Gaeltacht, where they've been raking it in for decades making children miserable in their wretched summer schools. Labour's never exactly been keen on the language either, perhaps in revenge for the fact that culchies still refuse to vote for it in the same numbers as Dublin 4 metrosexuals.

If the defenders of Irish language teaching want to keep the gravy train going, they'll have to fight back with something more robust than a poxy survey and a few pious platitudes. Fail, however, and they'll only have themselves to blame.

There certainly can be no other subject which is so badly taught. (OK, maybe maths, but let's not go there right now.) Most of the adult population of this country spent five hours a week learning Irish from the moment they first stepped through the gate in primary school, to the moment they fell out of a nightclub, drunk, on Leeson Street after celebrating their Leaving Cert results, and afterwards it all simply vanished from their heads in a puff of indifference. If German lessons were made compulsory for one single week at the age of 14, more Irish adults in their 20s and 30s would still know what gesundheit and apfelkuchen meant than would be able to follow an episode of Ros Na Run without peeking at the subtitles.

Partly this is to do with the manic obsession in the education system with written, as opposed to spoken, Irish, which means that a child who gets her spellings right is valued by the examining authorities more highly than one who speaks fluently but keeps dropping all those pesky fadas.

They've had Irish the wrong way up from the start. The only thing that matters to the survival of a language is an ability to speak it to a certain level of fluency. Once that happens, spellings and fadas and grammar all fall into place — and even if they don't, the gain is still greater than the loss.

Everyone knows this. A couple of years ago, comedian Des Bishop spent some months in the Gaeltacht, immersing himself in the language to perform a stand-up routine. He came back to Dublin, fired with enthusiasm about pepping up the teaching of Irish. Watching him being given a patronising brush off by Mary Hanafin, then Minister for Education and a former teacher herself, was excruciatingly embarrassing.

This is what happens to anyone who has new ideas in Irish education. They either get so frustrated at the slow pace of change that they flee in despair, or else they succumb to complacency like all the others. Teachers never want to change. Even now, with the survival of Irish as a core subject under serious threat, they're still taking refuge behind the great Twenty-Year Plan which is supposedly going to transform teaching as Gaeilge in the next generation — presumably in the same way that Stalin's Five- Year Plans transformed Soviet farming, ie by making things worse.

It's only delaying the inevitable. The country's problems are so severe that any incoming government is going to have to make radical changes in education sooner rather than later, or watch impotently as Ireland drops further behind the rest of the world. We've smugly lied to ourselves for years about having a widely envied education system, but the recession has brutally exposed all our institutions as unfit for purpose — the bloated public sector, of which our schools form a major part, not least. If we don't change fast, we're sunk. Simple as that.

Meanwhile, here's looking forward to a survey asking parents what they think of those endless holidays and Mickey Mouse staff training days off enjoyed by teachers. Bet Irish teachers won't be so keen to publicise the results of that survey.

Eilis O'Hanlon, Sunday Independent