Wednesday 13 December 2017

Watch out Béarla, it's the Stepaside Gaeltacht

The number of children learning through Irish has trebled in two decades. Kim Bielenberg reports

Pupils at Gaelscoil Shliabh Rua in Stepaside, Dublin: Peter Lunn Bond, Joe O Hici, Charlie Ó Laoi, Banbha Ni Laoire, James MacAdaim, Jacob Ó Muirheartaigh, Bláthnat Ni Chuinn and Aoibh Mic Cionnaith with principal Conchur Ó Raghallaigh. Ronan Lang
Pupils at Gaelscoil Shliabh Rua in Stepaside, Dublin: Peter Lunn Bond, Joe O Hici, Charlie Ó Laoi, Banbha Ni Laoire, James MacAdaim, Jacob Ó Muirheartaigh, Bláthnat Ni Chuinn and Aoibh Mic Cionnaith with principal Conchur Ó Raghallaigh. Ronan Lang
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

The demand for places at Irish language schools continues to surge, but Gaelscoil- eanna hope Education Minister Ruairi Quinn will shelve plans to change their admission policies.

The number of students taught through the language outside the Gaeltacht has trebled since 1990 and is set to top over 50,000 in the next five years.

In 1990, there were just 15,000 children in Irish language schools.

Now there are over 45,000 children who learn as Gaeilge, according to figures supplied to the Irish Independent.

The language is booming in the suburbs of Dublin and in commuter counties such as Kildare, according to the school patron body An Foras Pátrúnachta.

Areas such as South Dublin, Lucan and Leixlip are now hotbeds of the language, at least in the classroom.

A second Gaelscoil has just opened in the Stepaside area of South Dublin to cope with soaring demand among a new generation of Gaeilgoirs. There is also a third school in nearby Ballinteer.

Conchúr O Raghallaigh, principal of tiny Gaelscoil Shliabh Rua in Stepaside, says: "Many parents grew up with a negative attitude towards the language because of the way it was taught. However, they now feel a sense of regret and really want their children to learn it.

"Irish is a lot more popular because the teaching methods have improved."

A new Gaelscoil in Lucan has had 223 applications for just 56 places in 2014.

Since 1990 the number of Irish medium schools has grown from 79 to 217.

Patron bodies for Irish language schools now hope to take over some primary schools if they are vacated by the Catholic Church.

Caoimhín Ó hEaghra, general secretary of An Foras Pátrúnachta, says: "We would hope to open a Gaelscoil in Birr (Co Offaly) if one of the schools is left vacant, as the local Catholic diocese reconfigures its schools."

One point of controversy for Gaelscoileanna is their admission policies.

Under the current arrangements they give preference to families where the children are brought up through the language, and they may select pupils by interview. This is said to discriminate against immigrant families.

However, as he announced plans to revamp admissions policies earlier this year, Mr Quinn complained about restrictions.

'We now have a large Gaelscoileanna movement across the country. We are building up a network of Gaelcholaiste to enable parents who want to continue their [children's] education right through the second-level stream.

"I would be concerned with restrictive practices for entrance into those schools just as I would be for entrances into other schools," he says.

Recent draft legislation on school admissions stopped short of blocking all-Irish schools from giving preference to children from Irish-speaking households.

However, under the draft bill they would be barred from carrying out interviews with families to check on their Irish language ability.

Gaelscoileanna would also not be allowed give preference to those who attended Irish language pre-schooling.

Mr Ó hEaghra denies the schools discriminate against immigrant families. "If you walk into our classrooms you will see that they reflect the diversity of our population. There are students from all kinds of background."

Mr Ó hEaghra says the schools were established to promote Irish and had a responsibility to support families raising their children through the language.

"Irish-speaking families are a crucial resource for the schools, because they act as a kind of scaffolding for others hoping to learn the language."

Scoil Shliabh Rua opened with just eight pupils in a pre-fab at Palmerstown Rugby near the village of Stepaside in September. A new school is set to be built on a site at nearby Ballyogan and when it is at full capacity it will have 432 pupils.

Mr Ó Raghallaigh says: "People no longer have the fear of the language that they once had. Years ago it was all about learning poetry and grammar.

"Now you have cartoons and game shows on TG4 and Des Bishop has done wonders for the language."

One of the problems for Irish is that it has so far failed to make a breakthrough beyond the classroom and the TV studio.

Students may learn through the medium of Irish but when they go home they still speak English.

"It is very important that parents are also speaking Irish," said Mr Ó Raghallaigh. "That is why some Gaelscoileanna are organising Irish classes for parents."

One of the problems facing parents who send their children to Irish-speaking primary school is that there are fewer options at second-level.

"We now have a lot of parents who want a second-level Gaelcholaiste, but there is none in their area," says Mr Ó hEaghra.

Irish Independent

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