Saturday 24 August 2019

Catherine O'Mahony: 'We should offer our rich, melodic language to those who want to learn it - not force it on those who don't'

Classic: But many moaned about the horrors of ‘Peig’. Photo: Daniel MacMonagle
Classic: But many moaned about the horrors of ‘Peig’. Photo: Daniel MacMonagle
Catherine O'Mahony

Catherine O'Mahony

The Irish word for "breakfast" brought me to a state of near-collapse at the age of five.

Back then in the dark ages, when kids started school on their fourth birthdays, our knowledge of Irish was sufficiently advanced by senior infants that we were all expected to have a go at spelling "bricfeasta" in our copy books.

I remember writing the letter B and then bursting into tears, because I didn't know what came next and I dreaded the teacher finding out. Because I had never before missed a spelling.

In retrospect, this incident probably marked my academic peak because I don't remember any subsequent point in my educational career when I dreaded failure quite so much, or when mastering something mattered to me as much as the spelling of bricfeasta.

But one thing that did remain a constant for me and many others of my generation was an awareness of the paramount importance of learning Irish.

My parents regularly spoke and sang to us in Irish from birth. About 50pc of our communication in primary school was as Gaeilge.

I knew how to mumble "An bhfuil cead agam dul go dtí an leithreas?" long before I could spell it.

For years I was under the confusing impression that all my female teachers at school shared the first name of the "Iníon", before someone explained it was the Irish for miss.

We were drilled continually in Irish grammar to the point that at the age of 10, we took what were then known as Inter Cert Irish papers.

The same year I spent three weeks at Irish college. By 11 I could babble as Gaeilge. Later on, I even secretly liked 'Peig'. I still do.

I explain all this by way of context for my delight this week to read that some parents, teachers and many students believe Irish should no longer be a compulsory subject for Leaving Certificate students. This is emerging from the consultation stages of a review by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. Around a quarter of schools that took part in the consultation said they believed no subjects should be compulsory.

As a sadly largely lapsed Irish speaker, I am happy that this topic is on the table. In the 1970s and 1980s, the placement of Irish at centre stage in education made some sense because Irish had serious relevance to our hopes and dreams.

At school our careers teachers steered anyone they deemed halfway capable in the direction of national teaching, or the civil service - areas you actually needed Irish for.

And even then everyone moaned about the horrors of 'Peig'. And, having gone through those educational rigours, many Irish adults have been left a complicated relationship with the Irish language to the point that even those with a strong affection for it are not necessarily all that bothered about speaking it.

And so, outside the Gaeltacht - where daily speaking of Irish is also in quantifiable decline - and the realm of the undeniably excellent Gaelscoileanna, the vast majority of modern children are growing up in a world where Irish is a thing apart from their daily lives.

This may be regrettable, it may be a relic of poor teaching methods, but for many, Irish has become a subject in school not a whole lot more core to their identity than French or geography. Each year thousands of students seek exemptions from Leaving Cert Irish.

Certainly this includes students who suffer from learning difficulties, or who went through primary school overseas, or who genuinely struggle with Irish for another reason. But I think we all suspect that there are some who are just not keen. Whose career aspirations have no relation to Irish. Whose interests simply lie elsewhere.

We need to face up to this.

Obviously we cannot drop Irish from our schools - it would be cultural suicide. But why persist beyond Junior Cert? Why not consider other linguistic options?

Offer them Spanish instead, or Japanese, or Chinese or anything that they want to learn. Why do we not match their passions?

Of course you can argue for preserving the status quo. Defenders of compulsory Irish will cite the ongoing clamour for places each year at the most highly regarded of the Irish colleges, the massive popularity of Gaelscoileanna and even the newish phenomenon of pop-up Irish clubs in our cities.

The interest remains, they will say. There's a basis to preserve what's distinctive about us.

But it's possible to cite these very same facts to argue that there is no risk in making Irish optional at senior cycle level, because those who are interested in it will remain so, regardless.

There will always be those who regard Irish as a cultural must. Who have grown up loving it. Or who must learn it as they want to be teachers. Or diplomats. There will always be individuals for whom all language learning - be it of Italian, French, Swahili or Irish - is a delight and pleasure.

There will be those who take to Irish easily and with joy.

These are the 17-year-olds who need to be pursuing their Irish studies to a higher level.

To this cohort I believe we owe the delivery of a challenging and imaginative secondary school programme of Irish, one that encourages them to converse without inhibition, that moves away from rote learning of essays.

Perhaps there could be optional modules for those more interested in Irish literature, or grammar or poetry? Perhaps there could be oral exams that facilitate free conversation?

Surely the best hope for Irish - gorgeous, melodic, historic Irish - to thrive as part of our society is to deliver it brilliantly to those who have an innate enthusiasm and ability for it, not to inflict it as drudge on the resentful masses.

Can't we find a better way?

Irish Independent

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