Irish and education
The situation in education reflects the concern of public bodies to further the cause of the Irish language, despite the difficulties attached to the use of the language in contemporary Irish society. School children in Ireland learn Irish from the beginning of primary school to the end of secondary school and take it as a subject in their leaving certificate (final school examination). The quality of this teaching depends very much on the proficiency of the teachers in the language. Where this is low, the motivation of pupils is correspondingly low, often because they see no practical benefit in later life from acquiring a good knowledge of the language.
Irish exists in three main dialect forms which differ considerably from each other, not least in pronunciation. None of these is accepted as the standard [It is significant that the grammar published as An Caighdeán Oifigiúil by the Government of Ireland in 1958 contains no reference to pronunciation]. This means that schools use one of the three main dialects during instruction through the medium of Irish. Normally, the dialect used is determined by region, e.g. Irish-medium schools in the north of the country use northern Irish, those in the south generally favour southern Irish and in the broad central region there is a tendency towards western Irish though this often depends on individual teachers, perhaps also on school policy.
Educational books and teaching material for Irish either avoid the issue of dialect by not treating pronunciation at all, e.g. schools grammars (Christian Brothers 1960, 1977), or by coming down in favour of a particular dialect, e.g. Ó Sé and Sheils (2001) for Munster Irish or Ó Siadhail (1980) for Connemara Irish.
A development of recent decades which will doubtlessly affect the way Irish is spoken and transmitted in the future is the spread of Irish-medium primary and post-primary schools, called Gaelscoileanna ‘Irish schools’. These are found outside of the Gaeltacht areas throughout the entire country, especially in the larger cities, including those in Northern Ireland (MacPóilín 1997), and have becoming particularly popular of late. In all there are about 200 such schools servicing over 30,000 pupils in both primary and secondary schools.
The reasons for the popularity of the Gaelscoileanna are not all derived from a commitment to Irish. Many parents send their children to Irish-medium schools because the results in the final school examinations are generally better. The teacher to pupil ratio tends to be more favourable and the schools are often better equipped then their English-medium counterparts.
The standard of Irish taught in these schools varies greatly. In those cases where native speakers from the Gaeltacht are employed as teachers the standard is obviously high. However, there are not anything like enough native speakers to service the ever increasing number of Irish-medium schools so that the quality depends on language awareness and commitment on the part of the non-native teachers.
To provide support for the Irish-medium schools a voluntary national organisation was established in 1973 as Coiste Náisiúnta na Scoileanna LánGhaeilge (the National Committee of Irish-medium Schools) and is now simply called Gaelscoileanna. In its own words, ‘Gaelscoileanna acts as an intermediary between Irish-medium schools and the Department of Education. Gaelscoileanna works regularly with committees and parents who wish to establish Irish-medium schools’ (see the website at www.gaelscoileanna.ie).
There is also an institution entitled Foras Pátrúnachta na Scoileanna Lán-Ghaeilge ‘The Patronage Foundation of Irish-Medium Schools’ (website: www.foras.ie), founded in 1993 and offering alternative patronage to the government for Irish-medium schools. It is an independent body but which receives state aid for its work.
Non-native speakers of Irish
In the current context it should be mentioned that there are many language enthusiasts throughout Ireland who put much effort into maintaining the language outside the historically continuous Irish-speaking areas. These speakers are concentrated in urban centres, chiefly in Dublin, but also in Belfast (de Brún 2006). They are not native speakers, but their dedication to the language makes it most likely that this group will be that which will survive among coming generations and carry the language forward (Ó Murchú 1999). This dedication often carries political overtones, especially in Northern Ireland where the republican party Sinn Féin offers active support to the Irish speakers in largely Catholic West Belfast. Indeed they have been pressing for official recognition of a ‘Gaeltacht Quarter’ in this part of the city.
There are clear linguistic consequences from the survival of non-native varieties of Irish and the demise of the remaining communities of native speakers. Both the sound system and the grammar of Irish are affected by the first language of non-native speakers, viz. English. Enthusiastic but poor speakers of Irish neglect many distinctions of the language, such as the application of the initial mutations, the distinction between palatal and non-palatal sounds and the observation of grammatical gender, not to mention the syntactic patterns characteristic of native-speaker Irish.
There are a number of institutions which have been formed with the explicit intention of furthering the cause of the Irish language in Ireland. Among the oldest of these is The Gaelic League (Irish: Conradh na Gaeilge, website: www.cnag.ie), an organisation which was founded in 1893 with the specific intention of furthering the revival of the Irish language. It was led initially by such figures of Dublin intellectual life as Douglas Hyde and Eoin MacNeill. The League had its greatest support from intellectuals who entertained a vision of an Irish-speaking society and hence the league had little if any effect on the remaining native speakers. It is still active today, promoting the Irish language on all levels society. Its centre is in Dublin (with an Irish-language bookshop) but it has offices in Galway, Limerick and Derry as well.
Another institution from the end of the 19th century is Cumann Lúthchleas Gael, ‘Gaelic Athletic Association’ (website: www.gaa.ie), founded in 1884, which organised sporting fixtures and social events dedicated to specifically Irish games, such as hurling and Gaelic football. The organisation exists to this day and is found throughout the country and is still an important force in Irish sporting life. Its activities involve both Irish and English.
Údarás na Gaeltachta ‘The Gaeltacht authority’ (website: www.udaras.ie) was founded in 1980 to succeed the earlier Gaeltarra Éireann (1957-1979). It is a regional state agency dedicated to the improvement of commerical and social life in the Gaeltacht. It main offices are in Furbo (Na Forbacha), Connemara with further offices in the Irish-speaking regions of Donegal, Mayo, Kerry and Cork. It is run by a board of 17 elected members with a further three appointed by the Minister of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs.
Comhdháil Náisiúnta na Gaeilge, ‘National congress for Irish’ (website: www.gaelport.com), founded in 1943, is a further institution dedicated to supporting and empowering the Irish language across a broad front. It has many member organisation (23 at present, 2007) and is affiliated to many other organisations, especially in the commerical sector with a view to furthering the cause of Irish.
Glór na nGael, ‘The voice of the Irish’ (website: www.glornagael.ie), founded around 1960, aims to promote the use and to foster good knowledge of the language wherever possible, usually by supporting local groups and committees. It produces much promotional material for the language and organises events offering information about Irish to the general public.
Gael Linn, lit. ‘Irish pool’[This name derives from football pools, a type of sports lottery popular in Britain which the founders tried to emulate in Ireland. The name has no such reference today but it has been kept for reasons of continuity.], (website: www.gael-linn.ie), founded in 1953, is a further organisation concerned with the promotion of Irish through music, sport and through courses in the language. For the latter it arranges stays in the Irish-speaking areas for English speakers. This serves the important function of exposing the latter to the community of native speakers of Irish.
A number of smaller institutions exist which offer active support to Irish, e.g. by providing material and courses in the language. Oideas Gael ‘Irish instruction’ (website: www.oideas-gael.com) is a good example of this, maintaining an internet mail order service for Irish books as well as an internet journal Beo! (‘Alive!’). There is also a Belfast-based charity Taca ‘Support’, founded in 1990, which raises funds to promote the Irish language and support it in schools (website: www.taca.ie).
Apart from the above-mentioned institutions there are, of course, departments of Irish in all the universities throughout Ireland (or sections for the language at the University of Limerick and at Dublin City University). Some have particular units for the practical support of Irish, e.g. Fiontar ‘Enterprise’ (website: www.dcu.ie/fiontar) in Dublin City University which works across the various disciplines and tries in particular to link Irish with the economics sector, e.g. by offering degrees in combinations of Irish and a further subject such as business studies.
Lastly, one should mention the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, a research institute established in 1940 by Éamonn de Valera, a former president of Ireland. This contains The School of Celtic Studies (website: www.celt.dias.ie) and has a permanent staff of Irish scholars. It also houses an important library for Irish studies and provides facilities for visiting academics, especially from abroad.