IT TAKES a lot to get mild-mannered RTÉ presenter Des Cahill riled.
But he says it is a “national scandal” that so many Irish people cannot speak our native language.
The sports broadcaster (63) is one of the celebrities appearing on the nostalgia-filled show Réaltaí na Gaeltachta as part of Seachtain na Gaeilge le Energia, which runs until March 17.
In the four-part series, he joins former Miss Ireland Amanda Brunker, comedian Fred Cooke, Mayo footballer turned AFL player Oisín Mullen and TikTokker Lauren Whelan as they spend a week at a Gaeltacht in north Donegal, living with Mná an Tí.
Speaking of the picturesque Coláiste Bhríde at Rann na Feirste, Cahill said his Irish came “flooding back” after a short spell in the Irish-speaking region.
However, he said it was disappointing that so many people felt they could not speak Irish once they left school.
“I was struck by what Amanda said on the show, referring to Peig Sayers and how that put her off Irish, and my wife Caroline said the exact same thing,” he said.
“I am conscious that so many people in the country have no Irish. I cannot fathom how people can do 14 years of it in school and still not have a word.
“Not only do they not have a word of Irish, they hate the language or the subject. And that bothers me. So I think it was taught all wrong.
“I’ve given it a lot of thought, and clearly a lot of intelligent people have sat on committees in the Department of Education and tried to address why the vast majority of people in Ireland have very little Irish.
“People have more French than Irish, and it’s a national scandal. If people spent 14 years learning numbers and came out with the same lack of knowledge, it would be horrendous.”
The former Dancing With The Stars contestant said people should be encouraged to try speaking it on a regular basis without being under pressure about having the grammar correct or being word perfect.
“I just think it needs to be simplified,” he said.
The reason he took part in the series was to brush up on his Irish, which he felt had suffered over the years.
“I have Irish, so I blossom in this series – it’s the opposite to Dancing With The Stars,” he said. “My father came home one day and said I was going to a secondary Gaelscoil called Coláiste Mhuire in Parnell Square as I had no Irish.
“He didn’t send anyone else there, just me. And when I asked him why, he said, ‘I knew you’d be able for it’.
“But I went in there and I hadn’t a clue what was going on at the start. But when you’re immersed in it, within two or three months I knew well what was going on and was comfortable there. But I left school over 40 years ago and was not around people who spoke Irish.
“So when I went to the Gaeltacht, it all came flooding back to me, but I came from a different baseline than the others.”
Being on the show was a “very enjoyable experience”, and he believes it will spark lots of memories for viewers who attended Gaeltachtaí as youngsters.
Cahill, who has been with RTÉ for nearly 40 years, said he hoped to do his own show as Gaeilge in the future as the language enjoys something of a resurgence.
“People are starting to become more conscious of it again,” he said. “The whole Paul Mescal thing was bizarre, that it only takes 40 seconds of Irish from a popular young fella and the whole country starts speaking it. Fair play to him.
“Gaelscoileana are huge now. My grandson Bobby is trying to get into a naíonra [playchool] now – they’ve become very popular and trendy.”
Last October, Cahill announced he was stepping down from the Sunday Game after 15 seasons and taking up a presenting role with RTÉ Radio 1’s Saturday and Sunday Sport.
In terms of the hours, he said very little had actually changed for him.
“We’re doing it from the venues for GAA matches, but the last three weeks it was Armagh, Cork, Galway,” he said. “So you leave at 8.30am to be in Cork, you’re on air from 2pm to 6pm and you’re back in the car at 6.30pm and you’re home at 9.30pm.
“And then everyone’s going, ‘Are you enjoying having your Sundays back?’ But I’m getting to the matches, and that’s great after 15 years stuck in the studio.”
He also backed Jacqui Hurley as an excellent Sunday Game successor.
“She’ll be great. She came to me the day after it was announced she got it and we were going through it and I was telling her how much she’d enjoy it. We were shooting the breeze about it,” he said.
“But I did say to her, ‘In time you will miss not being at matches’.
Réaltaí na Gaeltachta goes out on Tuesdays at 7pm on RTÉ One as part of Seachtain na Gaeilge le Energia