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School's Irish syllabus gets a shot of realism

Peig Sayers has been taken off the Leaving Certificate Irish syllabus and replaced by a novel set in today's Ireland about a young teenager hooked on heroin. Report by Patrick Brennan

Ireland of the 1990s has finally arrived in the curriculum of Irish in our secondary schools. After years of dampening and dulling the imagination of many a fervent youth Peig Sayers has been taken off the Leaving Certificate Irish syllabus and been replaced by a novel bang up to speed with modern Ireland. Re O Laighleis' Gafa is the new prescribed text and it's all about a young teenager hooked on heroin.

Gafa, or Hooked as it's called in the English version, is a huge and dramatic leap from the rural West of Ireland of yesteryear of Peig and her deprived, ascetic peasant habits. Gafa inhabits the world of well-off middle-class Dublin of the 1990s with all its urban angst, moral decay, drug addiction, loneliness, and teen attitudes and problems. Therapy, rock music and extra-marital affairs have replaced Peig's clay pipe and sitting around the fire telling stories.

O' Laighleis' novel is graphic and hard hitting. No doubt some will object to its explicitness. However, its introduction into the secondary school curriculum has been roundly welcomed on the grounds that Irish as a school subject has finally got a dose of reality and is in step with a contemporary beat at last, a move it is hoped will capture the imagination of students. Centred on 17-year-old Alan who has fallen into taking heroin, Gafa explores how a family reacts when it learns Alan's awful secret.

Sallynoggin-born Re O' Laighleis was a primary school teacher in Galway for 12 years before he packed in the day job to concentrate on writing full time. His progress into writing books was entirely accidental but also very significant from the point of view of those who set the Leaving Certificate Irish syllabus.

Not long after he started teaching his fifth and sixth classes in national school he realised that the content of the subjects the children had to learn totally alienated them. His students would chat to him about the joy riders who were in trouble the day before or the Punk they'd seen on their way to school. O' Laighleis threw out his school text books and started creating his own stories, ones that were full of what the pupils saw around them in their own world.

It was his principal at the time who picked up on O' Laighleis' stories and sent them off to various publishers. O' Laighleis writes in both Irish and English. When he was writing Gafa O' Laighleis would one day write a chapter in Irish and the next day write the following chapter in English. He feels equally comfortable in both languages and Gafa has already won a national Oireachtas award in its Irish form. He's also very keen to point out that the book was not written for the Leaving Certificate but for the general reader.

``Iwould never write a novel for the Leaving Certificate and this farcical educational system we have which is really just here to reinforce the status quo rather than produce exceptional, innovative and radical human beings, and put education first,'' says 46-year-old O' Laighleis. ``We have a history of tinkering with the educational system in this country but there's never any plan to totally overhaul it. Something it needs badly.

``The kind of situation we have at the moment is one where if an American multinational came into the country to make round fluffy balls we'd adapt our educational system to produce lots of young people ideal for manufacturing round fluffy balls. I'm afraid I also see talk of creating a league table of the best and worst schools according to their exam results as just another example of the wrong emphasis entirely. Education shouldn't just be used to serve society's material needs.''

As an example of the piecemeal and fragmented way in which we alter our educational system O' Laighleis cites the fact that only the first three chapters of Gafa are being used in the Leaving Certificate. He maintains it's a poor, half-hearted gesture especially as the opening sequences of the novel aren't nearly as disturbing as later chapters. As the book was also written very much as a warning against young people taking heroin he feels they won't get the message by reading only the beginning.

``It would be unthinkable in the English syllabus to do just merely three chapters from To Kill A Mockingbird or just the one act in Hamlet,'' says O' Laighleis. ``It gives the impression that the Irish language itself isn't quite all there or complete. I'm not comparing my book to The Mona Lisa but just studying a few chapters of Gafa is a little like asking children to judge Leonardo da Vinci's great painting my showing them the lips only.''

Neither of Re O' Laighleis' parents spoke Irish but he was lucky that they realised he had an aptitude for it early on and did their best to encourage him. They sent him to the Gaeltacht throughout his teens. He graduated from University College Galway with a BA in Sociology and Irish.

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After that he went from St Patrick's teacher training College in Dublin to Boston College, Massachusetts in which state he is a consultant reading specialist.

``A consultant reading specialist would work with people who have problems with reading and not just slow readers. A block with reading could develop from a particular trauma like a car crash or even child sexual abuse and you have to learn ways of helping people get around that,'' says O' Laighleis. ``Yes, I would say it helps me to write novels that cater both for late teens and adults. The thing is not to come across as patronising.

``I think Gafa will be linguistically challenging to Irish students. They need a vocabulary that articulates their intellectual needs at their age and that hasn't been there thus far in the Leaving Certificate. It's very important to see as well that the book isn't just about the young man who is suffering from heroin addiction. Alan passes from 17 to 19, beyond the age of consent. But the parents' story is equally significant.

``There are three levels of reading. The factual, inferential and critical. I'm afraid that by just using the first three chapters of Gafa all you'll get are factual questions of the nature of who, what, where and when. That would be terrible.''

Among the things that inspired O' Laighleis to write Gafa was his own first hand experience in the early 1980s in Dublin of the suffering of friends and their families from the devastation and death wrought by heroin addiction. Another major motivation, he says, is the authorities' continued inactivity and lack of information about the drug problem in Ireland.

``Just recently a senior Garda admitted for the first time officially that there's a heroin problem outside Dublin,'' says Re O' Laighleis. ``Young people appreciate honesty and we need to become more honest about the drug problem in this country and learn of ways to deal with it. From an educational point of view it's vital that students have topics that drawn from their own real life because that's what engages them and makes them want to learn best of all. I think Gafa does that.''

* The English language version of Gafa, Hooked has just been published by Moinin, £ 5.99.

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