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Teaching Council to review application fees amid complaints over cost and delays

February 2, 2015

The Teaching Council says it is reviewing the fees it charges young graduates seeking to enter the profession amid mounting complaints over costs and bureaucracy.
Since last year, anyone working in teaching has to be registered with the council at an initial cost of €90, but fees are a multiple of this if the applicant graduated overseas or outside of traditional teacher training colleges.
To have your qualifications assessed, the council charges €200 and an additional €100 for each post-primary subject.
A number of graduates, including some who studied in the UK, have complained to The Irish Times not only about the cost and delays involved in the application process but also the added burden of meeting more stringent qualification requirements.
The one-year Professional Diploma in Education (PDE), what used to be the Hdip, has been replaced with a two-year Professional Master of Education (PME). This has doubled the cost of education for trainees, and those wishing to teach subjects to Junior Cert or Leaving Cert level may have to accumulate extra course credits on top of this.
Council director Tomás Ó Ruairc said, “The qualifications assessment process is designed to ensure that those who qualify in other countries to become a teacher meet the same standards as those who qualified in Ireland. This is only fair and proper.”
He said teachers can apply with the Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE), the UK equivalent of the Hdip “but they will have conditions applied relating to the shortfall in their qualifications which must be fulfilled within three years.
“In light of the recent changes whereby all post-graduate routes to teaching in Ireland are now two years in duration, these shortfalls are likely to be significant.”
Asked about a complaint from one student who had been waiting six months for her application to be processed, during which time she couldn’t work, he said he couldn’t discuss individual cases.
But he pointed out that a teacher could seek employment while awaiting recognition for a second or third subject so long as they met initial registration standards.
He added the council reviewed its schedule of fees on an annual basis and always listened to feedback on issues of this nature.
A number of complaints have emerged from graduates in science and humanities who had planned to go into teaching but discovered the coursework from their primary degrees didn’t tally with the council’s curriculum requirements.
Mr O Ruairc said the new criteria for teaching post-primary subjects had been on the council’s website since September 2013, and were disseminated widely at that time to higher education institutions, career guidance bodies and others.


Coláiste Eoin row: Schools need to respond on parents’ concerns

January 29, 2015

Coláiste Eoin in Stillorgan, Dublin, is accustomed to grabbing headlines for topping school league tables, and picking up awards in science and GAA. Its alumni include Abbey Theatre director Fiach Mac Conghail, High Court judge Colm Mac Eochaidh and comedian Dara Ó Briain. But in the last 24 hours it has found itself at the centre of a very negative social media storm.

Its postponement of a workshop for students aimed at combating homophobic bullying has drawn much criticism, including from Ó Briain, who said on Twitter shortly after the story broke on Tuesday: “It looks pretty clumsy and ill-judged. A pity, since I gather they had been doing well on issues like this.”

The LGBT awareness group ShoutOut said one of its workshop leaders had been told the event had been called off “because the board of management had decided that both sides of the argument should be given”.

However, a new complexion has since been put on the story with the issuing of a statement by the school. It said the board of management had received “written communications from a number of parents outlining their concerns regarding the workshop”. In this context “it was incumbent on the board to address all issues and to seek the advice available from Catholic management representative bodies available to secondary schools”.

In short, the postponement was triggered by parents and not the board, and the school had little choice but to respond to these concerns.

No strict guidelines

There are no strict guidelines for managing external speakers in schools but best practice decrees parents would be informed in advance.

According to experienced principals, problems can arise if a teacher invites in a speaker without informing management. But ShoutOut said it had given similar workshops in this school in previous years.

There have been occasional controversies about schools inviting speakers showing graphic anti-abortion images or advocating unorthodox sex education against parents’ wishes.

The Joint Managerial Body, which represents two-thirds of voluntary secondary schools, runs annual workshops for boards of management.

Experienced principals said it was rare for boards to seek outside advice on external visitors and generally this related to workshops’ quality.

However, they said sometimes speakers would be advised to “tone down” or adapt presentations where there was a potential conflict with parental values.

Under departmental rules, a school board “must uphold the characteristic spirit [ethos] of the school and is accountable to the patron for so doing”.

From a management perspective, the key thing is to “avoid surprises”, according to one official. “You want to know well in advance who is coming in and what exactly the presentation is about.”


Limerick school principal describes strike action as ‘absolute disgrace’

January 23, 2015

Limerick secondary school principal has described strike action as a “draconian measure” as schools around the country remain closed for the second time in two months.

Donncha Ó Treasaigh of Gaelcholáiste Luimnigh said pupils, who will have no experience of the new Junior Cert cycle, are suffering the loss of school days because of the strike action.

Teachers say they are protesting over Department plans to make teachers assess 40 per cent of the work of their own students.

“Strike action is a very draconian measure. Closing a school is a really serious issue for parents and for school bodies and for management organisations, and the teachers themselves because they are losing a day’s pay.”

“I believe fundamentally that strike days are an absolute disgrace really in this current climate,” Mr O’Treasaigh said.

Teachers at many of the picket lines in Limerick were reluctant to talk today however their union spokesman Peter Quinn insisted his colleagues do not wish to inconvenience parents and students, in particular leaving cert pupils.

“This is all about reform of the Junior Cert. It’s for the long run, we don’t wish to inconvenience anyone. Teachers are adamant they do not wish to assess their own students for state exams,” said Mr Quinn, who teaches at St Flannan’s Secondary School in Ennis.

Sean Kelly, the TUI rep for Limerick and Kerry, insisted today’s action would not delay the Leaving Cert as feared by some parents.

“This action does not affect the Leaving cert whatsoever. The dedicated Leaving Cert Students are taking advantage of the day to do some revision at home and many of them are happy to do that.

“The real issue here is in protecting the Junior Cert and that there is a Junior Cert of integrity and quality going forward and unfortunately the Minister is trying to undermine that Junior Cert and damage its reliability as an assessment of a students ability at that time in their education.”

At Sacred Heart Secondary School in Clonakilty, teachers have been on the picket line since 8.30am.

Wrapped in hats, scarves and gloves, the teachers, who are losing a day’s pay in order to protest, clutch cups of warm coffee and wave as cars pass by, signalling support with a beep of the horn.

Between 30 and 40 staff members teach a student population of 539 at the west Corkschool.

Science and Biology teacher Liz O’Sullivan said transparency is key in the assessment process.

“We need independent assessment because this is a very small country. Beyond Dublin, we live in a small community. The way it is, the system is absolutely fair and independently assessed, there is no question or doubt in anybody’s mind.

“I think for the students as they get older, to be independently assessed is far more fair,” she said.

Helen Shanahan teaches Maths and Biology at the school. She says the problem is not continuous assessment, it’s about teachers assessing students whom they have built up relationships with.

“It’s the person that they have a relationship with that is now going to be giving them the grade, the A, B, C or D. That’s my problem with it. I just think it will be so different if I am the one grading them and giving them a state cert.

“I enjoy teaching the students and I think that will suffer and that is to the detriment of the students. We are in a way, a kind of role model to them. You want to teach them values. You are teaching them a subject but it’s holistic, you teach them far beyond just the subject,” she said.


22 Eanáir 2015

Primary literacy and numeracy rise for first time since 1980

January 13, 2015

A study on literacy and numeracy in primary schools has identified the first “statistically significant” rise in standards in over 30 years.

The 2014 national assessments of English reading and mathematics showed a major improvement in students’ performance at second and sixth class, compared to the last study in 2009.

However the researchers found that despite an overall progress there has been “no real reduction in the gap” between pupils in disadvantaged urban schools and pupils in other school types.

The Educational Research Centre study cited particular concern over “the large proportion of very low achievers in reading” in the most disadvantaged schools, namely those falling into Deis (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools) band 1.

The agency, which carries out the assessments for the Department of Education at five year intervals, said it was the first time since 1980 that increases in performance had been recorded.

While it cautioned against putting too much store in a single set of results, it pointed to the impact of improved teacher training and professional development, including the use of new methodology, as well as spending more time on literacy and numeracy in class.

Progress in vocabulary and comprehension was found to be well ahead of a target set in 2011 National Literacy and Numeracy Strategy. Progress in algebra and data analysis was also found to be ahead of target but to a lesser degree.

The study showed girls are still better readers than boys but the gap has narrowed since 2009, from 14 points to 7 points among second class pupils, on a 250-point baseline for the tests.

Reading skills among second class pupils in Deis band 1 schools rose by 14 points compared to 2009 but the improvement was greater (27 points) in Deis band 2 schools (these are schools deemed less disadvantaged than band 1). The latter also saw a significant increase in maths scores (up by 29 points) whereas there no significant change in band 1 schools.

The most disadvantaged schools also saw no significant increase in reading at sixth class whereas band 2 schools saw a 14 point increase in scores, deemed as “substantive important”.

In reading, the mean score for Deis band 1 sixth class pupils was 233. This compared to 246 for Deis band 2 schools and 263 for all schools. In maths, the mean score for Deis band 1 was 233 compared to 241 for Deis band 2 and 262 for all schools.

Minister for Education and Skills Jan O’Sullivan welcomed the upward trend overall, acknowledging the work of teachers, parents and students in improving standards.

Cautioning against complacency she said:“The results leave scope for improvements, especially in maths and in Deis schools”. She has asked for a review of the strategy to be brought forward to this year from 2016.

An additional €6 million had been provided for the implementation of the strategy in Budget 2015, bringing the annual budget to €13.8 million and further measures would be considered, she added.

One proposal mooted by her predecessor Ruairí Quinn was for Leaving Cert honours maths to be made a requirement for entry into teacher training. Asked whether or not she would support such a measure, Ms O’Sullivan said she was awaiting advice from the Teaching Council. “We can be generally fairly sure as of now that the qualifications of people going into teaching are very high,” she said.

The primary teachers’ union, the INTO, also welcomed the test results. General secretary Sheila Nunan said they were probably the result of several different factors including supports for disadvantaged schools, changes to teacher education, improvements in learning support allocations to schools and an increased focus on literacy and numeracy.

However she singled out the fact that only qualified teachers were now licensed to teach in primary schools. Research by the organisation a decade ago showed more than 1,400 primary classes were taught by people who had no teaching qualifications.


‘Catholic first’ school admissions policies may be illegal

January 5, 2015

Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan aims to speed up process of switching patronage

School admissions policies run on a “Catholic first” basis may be in breach of both equality legislation and the Constitution, the State’s equality watchdog has been told.

A report commissioned by the Equality Authority – now part of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) – argues that article 44.2.4 of the Constitution puts an onus on Catholic schools to demonstrate exactly why positive discrimination in admissions is necessary to maintain their ethos.

The report, authored by Fergus Ryan, a lecturer in law at DIT, says: “In relation to the Catholic First policy, there is certainly at the very least a case to be answered that in its potential application to schools in receipt of state funding, the policy may be in breach of the Constitution . . . by excluding children from state-funded schools on the basis that they intend to exercise a constitutional right not to attend religious instruction therein.”
The report stops short, however, of recommending the authority take a test case on the issue.

Article 44.2.4 states that “legislation providing State aid for schools shall not discriminate between schools . . . nor be such as to affect prejudicially the right of any child to attend a school receiving public money”.

Protecting ethos

This is countered by section 7 of the Equal Status Act 2000, which gives religious-run schools the right to administer admissions policies which protect their ethos.

Mr Ryan says the key point of law is that each school patron, or board of management, must show that it “is not merely desirable [in the eyes of the Catholic Church] but that it is essential to discriminate in order to maintain the school’s ethos”.

Fr Michael Drumm, chairman of Catholic Schools Partnership, the bishops’ education wing, said any suggestion that its admissions policies were unconstitutional were “speculation” in the absence of a test case.

He pointed in turn to constitutional protections allowing faith-based organisations to run their own affairs.

The IHREC said it was awaiting the outcome of a Supreme Court case on alleged discrimination against a Traveller at a Christian Brothers’ school in Clonmel, Co Tipperary before bringing further legal challenges on admissions policies. The Supreme Court is due to deliver its ruling this year on the case, which could have far reaching implications for the Equal Status Act.

Patronage issue

The legality of “Catholic first” admissions policies has come into sharper focus due to the lack of progress in divesting school patronage.

Speaking to The Irish Times in a personal capacity, the chairman of the forum on patronage and pluralism Prof John Coolahan said “there needs to be a carrot and a stick” to deliver change. Asked what sort of stick could be used, he suggested that grants might be cut in locations where schools refused to change patronage.

The Department of Education carried out surveys in 43 areas following the forum’s report in April 2012 and identified parental demand for change in 28 of them.

To date just one school – a Church of Ireland primary school in Co Mayo – has transferred to another patron, although two Catholic schools merged in Dublin 8 to create a vacant building for Educate Together.

Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan is seeking to accelerate the divestment process. She also wants clearer guidelines on how “standalone” Catholic schools – those in areas where there is no parental alternative – intend to accommodate children of other faiths and none.

It is been suggested, for example, that religious instruction might be timetabled either at the start or at the end of the school day to allow non-Catholic pupils to opt out with little fuss.

Fr Drumm said the church would early this year publish “a statement that will guide schools in best practice”. While he wouldn’t be drawn on the contents, he said it was due for publication in the spring, and he stressed that Catholic schools were already inclusive in nature.


Forum head calls on church to speed up schools handover

January 5, 2015

The Department of Education needs to wield a “stick” against the Catholic Church if it wants to make progress on the divestment of schools to other patrons, according to the chairman of the forum on patronage and pluralism.

Prof John Coolahan says the church’s refusal to take “a proactive stance” in promoting the divestment of schools undermined the process from the outset, and he suggests cuts in school funding might be considered to concentrate minds.

UN human rights monitors have criticised “the slow progress in increasing access to secular education” in Ireland and are warning the Government it faces fresh censure in the absence of reform.

Former minister for education Ruairí Quinn once talked about removing half of the State’s 3,100 primary schools from Catholic Church control to create a more diverse and inclusive system.

To date, however, the church has yet to hand over a single primary school to another patron, although it did merge two Catholic schools to create a vacant property for Educate Together.

One Church of Ireland school has transferred to Educate Together, the multidenominational patron which has also opened nine new primary schools in areas of growing populations.

Prof Coolahan said: “There needs to be a carrot and a stick and I think the stick wasn’t much applied as time went on.

“If there was no movement at all then I do think that you could say schools in this area – though this might be a bit crude – would have reduced capitation,” he added.

Educate Together

Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan has said she hopes to be able to announce this month plans for “three to four” further Educate Together schools, including in Tuam and New Ross.

These are two of 28 areas that have been earmarked for change on foot of parental surveys in select locations.

Prof Coolahan, who oversaw the forum’s main report in April 2012 and has contributed to subsequent update reports, suggests it was a mistake to leave the Catholic bishops, as patrons, to drive the reforms.

While they arranged for boards of management to meet parents and to discuss the merits of changing patronage, he said, “they rarely turned up themselves.

“They didn’t explain, ‘look, we would like this to happen, we think this should happen because we have concern for the public good – love your neighbour’.

“They have never taken a proactive, direct stance, using their offices to open people’s minds. They have done it at a distance.

“It was never going to happen if you were just going to leave it open like that. It always needed church and State to use their good offices at local level where there was a legitimacy of moving.”

Phasing out

In its latest report, the UN committee overseeing the implementation of the covenant on civil and political rights said it was concerned about the slow progress, not only in divesting patronage but also in creating non-denominational schools and in phasing out integrated religious curriculums in State schools.

Rapporteur for Ireland Yuval Shany told The Irish Times: “We do not have the power to sanction states but we would contend the State is under a legal obligation to take on board the recommendations in good faith.

“The way the Government undertakes these reforms is really up to the Government but it should go towards a system which offers the student options.”


16 extra schools to benefit from expanded building programme

December 19, 2014

Some 16 school building projects have been added to the Department of Education’s infrastructural programme for 2015.

The extra projects include a new primary school building for Gaelscoil de hÍde in Fermoy, Co Cork, which has been engaged in a long-running campaign to accommodate its expanding student population.

Also benefitting is St Patrick’s Cathedral Grammar School, which abandoned fees for its pupils earlier this year so it could qualify for building grants and other supports under the Free Education Scheme.

The 450-year-old school, one of the country’s oldest, had been campaigning unsuccessfully since 2000 for the new building, which will encompass a derelict site on Kevin Street.

The 16 projects, which will replace inadequate educational infrastructure, are part of 70 building projects scheduled to proceed to construction next year.

The projects are part of a €2.2 billion five-year capital investment programme launched in March 2012, aimed at meeting demographic demand for new schools and facilities.

44 new primary schools

The 70 projects scheduled to begin next year comprise 44 new schools at primary level, 11 extensions at primary level, five new schools at second level, eight extensions at second-level and two new special schools.

Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan said that together with school projects ongoing from 2014, this meant that a total of 196 major school projects would be on site next year. She said further building projects would be announced next year.

Ms O’Sullivan acknowledged that some schools had campaigned for years to get new buildings but there was “no intention to delay” on the part of the Government or the department.

“Inevitably some of these are very large projects. Some of them do run into difficulties that delay them. But as Minister I want to move them forward as quickly as possible.”

She also said the department was monitoring claims of exploitation of labourers in school building projects. The trade union Unite has claimed that workers are earning less than €5 per hour in some projects due to sub-contracting arrangements.

The Minister said there was an auditing system in the department “and anything that is untoward is reported to the relevant authorities” be it Revenue, the Department of Social Protection or the National Employment Rights Authority.

She noted that there were difficulties from the striking down in court of some of the protections for workers but her colleague Ged Nash, Minister of State at the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, was making “significant progress” in addressing these.

Construction industry

“This programme brings a very large number of jobs to an industry that has been pretty much on its knees for several years now. So it’s a very important element of the revival of the construction industry, which is a priority for Government,” Ms O’Sullivan said. l The full list of building projects approved can be found at education.ie.


Divestment ‘not progressing as quickly as hoped’

September 1, 2014

The Minister for Education has accepted that plans to divest primary schools from the Catholic Church to other patrons are not progressing as quickly as hoped.

Today will see only the second change of patronage under the scheme when Newtownwhite National School outside Ballina, Co Mayo, transfers from the Church of Ireland to Educate Together in a ceremony due to be attended by Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

According to a report in today’s Irish Times, the process is being hindered by unexpected legal complications, including an absence of paperwork between the sState and religious authorities over title to land.

Paul Rowe of Educate Together: says there have been unexpected hold-ups due to “real estate” problems, including that many schools earmarked for transfer were owned by religious trusts or foundationsLack of paperwork hindering school divestment programme

Breda O’Brien of the Iona Institute said the report appeared to strike the right balance between making denominational schools more genuinely inclusive while also respecting the ethos and identity of those schools.

Speaking in Limerick this morning, Jan O’Sullivan stressed divestment can only be achieved through a process of consultation.

“Clearly, there are ownership rights and property rights and so on, that are involved but I would like to move it as quickly as possible,” she said.

“I think there are 28 parts of the country where there has already been some surveys carried out and where there is an expressed view that parents want other options. I want to see those [views] developed,” she added.

The Minister insisted divestment was not just a matter of paperwork.

“It’s around actually working out an agreement whereby a school that currently has ownership or patronage of a school is willing to engage in terms of changing, so it is a process of consultation and collaboration and I would certainly hope to drive it.”

Cyber bullying

The Minister for Education also said today that her Department is engaged in discussions with education partners to see how they can “actively address” the scourge of cyber bullying.

Her remarks follows calls from school principals for a dedicated classroom module on cyber bullying to be introduced to tackle growing concerns at junior and senior levels .

“It is something that concerns me greatly. Children are very vulnerable to cyber bullying they obviously have access to all technology now and are very engaged and it’s a very insidious form of bullying. It’s much easier to deal with physical bullying in a school situation but we certainly need to address it.”

Irish Times

More is more as number of students taking Irish and science increase

August 13, 2014

During her term as minister for education, Mary Hanafin increased the percentage grade for the oral component of Irish to 40 per cent, aiming to increase the overall numbers taking Irish and the uptake at higher level. This change was flagged in advance over a five year period, so Hanafin was long gone from the DES when the results of her initiative began to emerge in the past few years.

Evidence from the higher level Irish results for 2012-2014 show the increase in the oral component to 40 per cent has led to an increase in the actual numbers taking Irish in the Leaving at higher level. As a proportion of those sitting English, the number who actually sit Irish at all three levels has increased over the past three years from 42,964 (85.17%) to 43,651 (85.83%) to 45,268 (86.6%). The number taking Irish at higher level has increased from 15,937 (37%) to 18,134 (40%). The success rate of these students in securing a C or higher (88.8%) is by far the highest of the mainstream subjects; the failure rate is just 0.6%. At ordinary level failure is a modest 4.1%.

Compared to the numbers taking English, which is indicative of the total numbers of school-based full-time Leaving Cert students, over 13.4% of full-time Leaving Cert students at second level do not sit Irish in the Leaving. Many of them are exempted because of a disability or having moved to Ireland late in primary school. Apart from these, a significant number registered as studying Irish, as non-exempted students are required to do, have effectively abandoned the subject, and fail to even turn up to sit the exams in the Leaving. These numbers highlight the question of whether Irish should remain compulsory for all students not exempted up to Leaving Cert level.

Teacher unions are concerned about the capacity of schools to continue offering the full range of Leaving Cert subjects given staff cutbacks. This is not reflected in the numbers taking the wide range of optional subjects. Spanish is now taken by 5,340 or 10% of Leaving Cert students. The numbers taking higher level Spanish, having increased by 17% last year, went up by a further 10% in 2014, to 3,378. This is welcome given the ongoing dominance of French (26,496 students or half of Leaving Cert students), and, to a lesser extent, German (6,858 or 13%).

The message that there are career advantages in science has been taken on board by students, as seen by the increase in the numbers taking science subjects. Across biology, chemistry, physics, agricultural science and physics/chemistry, 57,141 papers were taken by approximately 54,000 students.

The Leaving Cert student numbers increased by 2.9% this year, but the percentage increase at higher level science subjects is 4.3% in biology, 6.4% in agricultural science, 7% in chemistry and 12% in physics. The numbers for applied maths increased again this year to 1,569 at higher (over 28% got an A).

There is an increase again for non-curricular EU languages – from 1,470 in 2013 to 1,485 in 2014. Polish was taken by 50% of students who took a non-curricular EU language. Croatian was offered for the first time this year, with 23 candidates taking the examination. Other languages taken in 2014 included Japanese (298 students) and Arabic (108 students, all at higher level).

By far the most successful students in the 2014 Leaving Cert, as in 2013, are those who sat Russian. All 292 took the subject at higher level, and 97.5% got a C or higher, with 82.5% getting an A.


The girls are home from the Gaeltacht

August 1, 2014

The girls are home from the Gaeltacht. Iníon a hAon and Iníon a Dó got good weather, talked for Ireland, did a bit of surfing (there was no surfing in my day) and now are tweeting and texting people who, when I was young, would have sent you a postcard or a letter. (You remember getting those, don’t you?)

It was nice to see them home from Donegal after three weeks and a day. Still, they were playing it cool when daddy arrived to pick them up from the bus. I noticed – not without a little jealousy – one teenage boy giving his dad a big hug. No chance of a PDA from my cailíní, however. They just put the bags in the car and waved goodbye to their friends – “Slán! Slán!” – and off we went.

They had their stories about who did what, about everyone crying at the Céilí Mór – “even na buachaillí” – about what people were wearing at the Fancy Dress Céilí – some of the “buachaillí” were dressed as girls – about watching the World Cup with the “buachaillí” and all the girls supporting Argentina because it was easier to wear blue and white than to match Germany’s colours. In short, they had fun – which is how it should be – and learnt a bit more Irish. (They certainly know the word “buachaillí”.)

Like many parents who speak Irish, you hope your children take an interest but worry that you might put them off if you are too strident. (Contrary to what the Irish haters think, I, like so many other parents, am raising children, not Storm Troopers of the Irregular Verbs Division.) In fact, my little corner of the planet is not well know for Irish – the language died out around the beginning of 1800 – but I speak to the girls and they are learning it at school. It’s something rather than nothing and that, I am afraid, is my approach to these things. To read the comments that accompany the never-ending language debate in Ireland, one would think that Irish-speaking parents send them children over the top in a mad futile charge against the pill-boxes of English, irrespective of the cost.

Not so. I suspect most of us are happy with something rather than nothing when it comes to the language. Any little encouragement gives us a chance to say: “Look, children, did you hear that Brad and Angelina are going to Oideas Gael to research their next film about how a cell of Gaeilgeoirí plot to take over the world? They are calling the movie, Mr and Mrs Mac Gabhann.”

Something rather than nothing. That is why many people get so annoyed with smug Government statements about the language; about how ministers of state are a bit rusty but can be sent off on a course to begin their journey to enlightenment. We know all about courses – we are on that journey and are paying for that journey and saving up for the next journey. (What mugs, eh? Practising what we preach and actually paying for it out of our own pocket! A career in politics does not beckon!)

Our children speak English – we just want them to have the chance to speak a bit of Irish and to know that speaking that bit of Irish is a “good thing”. We want them to have an active cultural life as well as the one that involves twitter, downloads and dancing to MTV. They have all that already. We just want to give them something extra, to show them a little corner of Ireland that still exists, just about, in An Ghaeltacht.

Anyone who visits the Gaeltacht knows that the physical sign that marks the border between Gaeltacht and Galltacht is misleading. Passing those famous “An Ghaeltacht” markers does not mean that you have crossed into a linguistic territory in the way in which you might cross from France to Germany. No, the Gaeltacht is altogether more porous. You will find native speakers but it might take you a bit of time. They are there, however, out in the fields and hidden up little roads and, if you are lucky, you make an acquaintance or two that stands you in good stead for the rest of your life.

That said, I was not sending the girls to the Gaeltacht with orders to put a GPS tracer on every native speaker they met. Yes, there is the linguistic element – that they hear something rather than nothing. And they did and they learnt something. One got her Silver Fáinne and is “tots sásta” and one got a couple of gold stars for effort and is happy with that for the moment. They enjoyed the course, made new friends and met people from places as far away as Dublin. (Dubliners in the Donegal Gaeltacht sounds like a Paul Durcan poem.) They are both using more Irish than they did before they left and are, at the time of writing, happy to go back next year.

Something rather than nothing.

I know that 30 years ago when I began to learn Irish seriously I had to go to the Gaeltacht. I am glad I had the chance. I am glad that my children have had the chance. I would like to think that in another 30 years – if the good Lord spares me – there might still be a Gaeltacht. I would like to think that there will be another generation of buachaillí and cailíní who get to know the kindness of a bean an tí; who get to dress up at a Céilí Bréagéadaí; who get to dance Tonntaí Thoraí in the sight of the island itself; who cry at the Céilí Mór; who walk home with friends in the dark night with all the stars shining in the sky.

Many of us have been on the journey that Joe McHugh is beginning. No one would wish him anything but good luck. Let us hope he gets something rather than nothing out of it – but let the Government remember also that we are not the ones letting them down by not speaking Irish, they are the ones letting us down.


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