Is all-Irish really all-good?

As you’ve probably gathered from the article below, I recently attended the Galway regional workshop that took place as part of President Higgins’ Being Young and Irish initiative. Although I’m not sure just how much of a practical impact the contributions are going to make, it was a very empowering day. The President made it clear that he personally has great faith in the voices of young Irish people, and wants to help make those voices heard.

However, one thing that left me feeling slightly uneasy after the workshop was the great emphasis that emerged on Gaelscoileanna and the promotion of the Irish language. ‘Culture and Language’ came out at the very top of the day’s poll on our vision for Ireland’s young people. One particular girl in my group was keen to underline the benefits of all-Irish education, and there are many of them. For example, it has been proven that the easiest time for a child to master a second language is before puberty, and that early bilingualism facilitates improved language skills at all ages. In spite of that, I still had the urge to scream ‘NOOO’ when our facilitator went to write down ‘increase number of national and secondary school Gaelscoileanna’ on our list of suggestions. My feelings may be more indicative of unresolved traumas from my own time in our local Gaelscoil than of any problems on a national level, but I still think that such a fervently negative natural reaction must count for something. The day was supposed to be all about using our voices, but surrounded by a general air of approval for the motion, mine became stuck in my throat. It’s extremely socially unacceptable these days to say anything that may be construed as anti-Gaeilge.

Not all Irish schools may be so bad, but when I look back on it now, the strict all-Irish policy in the one I attended was hard-line at the best of times and counter-productive in its efforts to instil a sense of pride in its students. Excluding three or four who are still fervent ambassadors for the language, most of my old classmates hate Irish as a result of their time in the Gaelscoil, and tell me they would never send their own kids to one in the future.

The school enforced a zero-tolerance punishment regime on speaking English. We were more often forced than encouraged to speak the language, and sent to the ‘Balla Béarla’ for lunch if we were caught breaking the all-Irish rule at any time. Pupils were expected to study all their subjects through Irish, even English and Maths, which were challenging enough for some as it was. And don’t get me started on the ill effects attending a Gaelscoil can have on a child with language difficulties such as dyslexia, especially if they haven’t been diagnosed yet.

I also found that it restricted communication at a time in your upbringing when it is very important to feel safe and confident in expressing yourself. School should be a centre of learning, exploration and growth, not somewhere that you’re afraid to be yourself. Putting restrictions on children like those I was exposed to in the Gaelscoil is contradictory to this ethos. And I can imagine such disciplinary systems would affect self-development and attitudes well past school and into individuals’ lifetimes.

Not only did the school punish children for speaking in the language that comes most naturally to them, but it almost went as far as equating speaking English in school to betraying our heritage. Playground supervisors were enforcers of anti-English laws on top of their main duties. I remember one time in particular when my friends and I got an awful yelling for singing in English while skipping in the yard. As the incident happened to coincide with Seachtain na Gaeilge, we were accused of all sorts of sins against our nation.

Our history classes were zealously republican. I remember being very confused on coming home and finding out that my dad was a Protestant, since the word had become synonymous with ‘evil Englishman who stole our land and language’ in my understanding (and he was a harmless, rather secular Italian). This brand of ‘Irish pride’ isn’t limited to Gaelscoileanna, but to me there seemed to be a direct link between the ideology and Irish, since we were basically taught that our privileged education made us truer citizens than anyone else.

My brother and I were among the only students in the school with any multi-cultural heritage. I was under the impression that we were held up as their prized example of how ‘anyone can excel at the Irish language if they try!’ However, I think it’s slightly racist to reward a child from a foreign background with extra acceptance and brownie points for learning the little-used native language of a new, unfamiliar country. Sure, it shows great incentive and interest in the country’s heritage. The Irish language is a beautiful, wonderful part of our legacy that I hope will never be forgotten or fall out of use. However, you shouldn’t have to be able to speak Irish to be Irish, or to live in this country. Immigrants who settle here should be under no extra impetus to learn the Irish language other than that required by other children starting school at five years old. The chances are that those settling in Ireland from abroad are already on their way to becoming bilingual.

Certain people know that immigrant families aren’t as keen on Gaelscoileanna as other demographic groups, and use that statistic to their advantage.  It doesn’t happen everywhere I’m sure, but my mum has encountered parents who will openly admit that they send their kids to our local Gaelscoil for the lower proportion of foreign nationals and Travellers there. The State may encourage Gaelscoileanna purely on the basis of promoting Irish-language adoption, but it should also be aware that although the concept itself is not racist, Irish schools can become facilitators of racism that exists in our society, and it should take steps to counter-act this effect. I live in a town where women whisper on street corners about the new foreign family in the council house in their estate, where men complain about immigrants taking jobs, where children and teenagers stick in groups based on race as often as taste in music and clothes. I go to college in a city where students won’t get into a taxi if the driver is black, and where proportionally, there seem to be many more white faces around that made it into university than dark ones. I hate the thought that the Irish language could be used as another factor for discrimination, because that’s not what it’s supposed to be about.

Making Irish mandatory up to Leaving Cert level is also a strategy that the State should rethink. It has made learning the language into an academic tool and necessity rather than a life skill, especially given how much our system is driven by points. As well as that, I don’t think it’s fair to prioritise learning Irish to the point that it takes precedence over giving students the best possible chance at succeeding after school. Additionally, compulsory Irish feeds the language into the unfortunately growing trend of parents trying to buy their children a good Leaving Cert, with grinds schools and Irish college summer courses demanding huge fees in return for a promise of exam success. These people, who have the time and money on their hands to prioritise such things, can be similarly attracted to suburban Gaelscoileanna with high waiting lists for entry. I can’t help but think that it is distinctly en mode to be able to say your child is in a Gwailscoil.

The fact that institutions currently continue to view the matter in such a way that they think the Irish language has to be protected from general societal and scholarly apathy says more about the lack of trust in the Irish people than a dedication to the language. Is it really likely that making the subject mandatory for two years less in school will mean the death of the Irish language forever more? Please. Sending teenagers to the Gaeltacht may be the preserve of wealthy families and scholarship students who already have good Irish, but the widespread popularity of these courses among the students themselves goes to show that when approached in the right way, young people care more about the Irish language than anything, even the three weeks of lie-ins and television that they are missing out on at home. And if there are still scholars now, on a global level, who are interested in Irish, who’s to say that there won’t be in this future?

Part of the problem appears to be that whenever someone voices an opinion on the Irish language that isn’t in whole-hearted support of the current methods of promotion, there is an eruption of absolute outrage from many pro-Gaeilge parties. The initial speaker is vilified as a traitor to our nation’s heritage and their argument is lost. However, our country needs to reassess the situation logically and see how best to move the Irish language forwards, because the current approach to it isn’t right.

You can follow a very happy, fulfilled life in Ireland completely through the medium of the English language, and probably to my old school’s horror, I’m grateful for that. English is one of the most spoken languages in the world, and the education systems of most nations are striving to reach the level of English literacy that is now ours from birth. It is a travesty that Irish was commercially and materially disincentivised by policy decisions of the British Imperial state, and that we were punished by the Penal Laws for speaking in our native language. But why should we punish our children in the same way? We are entitled to lament the depopularisation of the Irish language, but we must realise that that was just the way history panned out. Our ancestors had little choice in the matter but to adapt to trading in English. It wasn’t a betrayal on their behalf.

President Higgins’ invited young people around Ireland to share their ideas on the kind of country they want to live in for his Being Young an Irish campaign. I was too afraid of the disagreement I would face to have the courage speak my mind on the day of the regional workshop. On top of that, I had been thinking about it so much I didn’t get to submit anything on time! But I do believe that I make some valid points that need to be put out there. And I would be glad to engage in discussion with anyone who has other ideas on the subject. I’m not here to prove my argument to everyone, but to explore the topic, express myself, listen to others and learn more about it. So here is my vision for Ireland:

In an ideal future, the Irish language will have an appropriate role in our society.

Gaelscoileanna will be available for anyone who wants their children to be educated that way, but they will be positives centres of learning that help young people celebrate the Irish language, not suffer for it. Our language will never be used as a vehicle for latent racism or class/education based snobbery. It won’t be considered a chore or a punishment in school. Irish will be taught in a different, more accessible way, so that after so many years of study, adolescents will be more likely to enjoy it and want to keep it up. It won’t be forced upon everyone to the advanced level that it is now, and especially not for the Leaving Cert, when a student’s future is in the balance.

The people who are currently bad-mouthing their neighbours from diverse backgrounds will recognise, in my vision of Ireland, that our ancestors were spoken about in that way, and that it’s time to treat people the way we would have liked to have been treated during mass Irish emigration. Children will not pick up casual racism, because less people will see the world in that way. The ‘New Irish’ immigrants who settled here in Celtic Tiger years will not be discriminated against. We will consider them as Irish as we are, despite their cultural background, or the language they speak. Tír gan teanga tír gan anam, sé fíor. But who’s to say we can’t have more than one?

It is up to us to decide how to mould the changing position the Irish language holds in the way we lead our lives. And I’m not so sure that dividing children by their levels of language literacy or spending millions every year translating legal documents is really the best use of our cultural resources.

I believe it may be time to rethink our strategy.


One thought on “Is all-Irish really all-good?

  1. johncoyote says:

    Good to speak your home country language. We need to hold on to our heritage. Something are needed to be kept alive for the next generations. School should teach a wide open view on life.

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