Opinion | Elite origin of the Irish language revival is hindering learning

John Hoey

On the 25 November 1892, when Douglas Hyde – he who later became the first president of the Irish Republic – spoke to the Irish National Literary Society on “The Necessity of De–Anglicising the Irish”, he laid the foundation stone for the formation of the Gaelic league (Conradh na Gaeilge), whose aim was the promotion of the Irish language (Gaeilge), during a time of its rapid decline.

It is worth considering who he spoke to that evening. Did he speak to the nearly 26,000 families living in Dublin’s slums, then the worst living conditions in the British Empire? Did he speak to the impoverished small farmers who had spent the latter part of the 19th century fighting a Land War to demand better, fairer, living conditions; those still reeling from the loss of their leader and spokesman C.S. Parnell, one year prior? Or did he speak to the women who staffed Dublin’s Monto district, then the largest red light area in Europe?

What I’m really asking is did Hyde’s message truly resonate with the majority of people who populated the Ireland of the 1890s? It is hard to imagine the issue of the Irish language being anything more than a footnote to their busy day to day existence, something they had little interest in considering while eking out an existence.

The reality is that Douglas Hyde spoke to a collection of scholars; educated men with the time and capacity for interest in such matters; the likes of Eoin MacNeill, co-founder of the Gaelic League, later head of the Irish Volunteers, as well as the first professor to the Chair of Early Irish History at University College Dublin. These were educated men and women – including Lady Gregory and Lady Esmonde – not of the ‘lower’ classes in their society. As such the movement for the revival of the Irish language has its origins in a top-down, scholarly, educated philosophy; one which seeks to convince the disinterested masses of the “necessity” mentioned above.
In the 125 years since, they have failed to do so.

My aim here, however, is not to lessen or diminish either their sincerity or the value of their cause; it is to give an honest account of the failure of Irish language compulsion in the education system. It is the opinion of this writer that the key to understanding this failure lies in understanding the context described above. The revival of the Irish language was never a movement of the masses to regain the language which they felt they had lost: Gaeilge was abandoned by the Irish people because it was no longer fit for purpose. That is, communicating with those in power in Ireland, or in the far flung lands where some four million Irish emigrants called home, required the use of English.

“As it was 125 years ago, it remains the vanguard, the educated, the scholars, the policy makers who fly the flag for the language”

The current situation is that Irish is the “first official language” of Éire (Ireland) according to the state’s constitution. Parliamentary laws, official documents, and road signs must be available in both languages. Irish is an official working language of the European Union, and a compulsory subject for all school children, from infants through primary and secondary school (from age four to eighteen). It is a compulsory subject on the Leaving Certificate and must be passed to achieve access to many third level institutions.

Despite this apparently comprehensive official state support, just 33% of Irish people told the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) in their examination of “attitudes to Irish” that they use Irish sometimes, with numbers dropping as low as 13% using the language on a weekly basis. Those, who populate the 13% are the success stories of the revival movement and compulsory Irish. The elephant in the survey is that 87% rarely, if ever, use Irish. How can such a system ever change when those who do succeed have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo i.e. it worked for them. Invariably, therefore, it is those who succeed in the current system that end up at the ‘top’ as decision makers, teachers, policy formers and curriculum authors, all the while lacking the empathy necessary to understand the failure experienced by most, thus perpetuating the cycle.

But rather than blindly criticise those who do succeed in acquiring fluency against the odds, perhaps we would do well to question how and why they do succeed. Have they some advantage over the majority, or is it merely a case of superior ability? Consider that every summer some 28,000 second level students attend Gaeltacht summer courses. These are 3 week home-stay immersion programmes run by private organisations where students stay with native Irish speaking host families, mainly in the west of Ireland. Students attend a local school by day for morning classes and afternoon/evening activities (sport, kayaking, quizzes, games, disco, etc). This is something which has a proven effect on language learning, and fluency. As a percentage of the some 372,000 second level students registered in the republic, however, they represent less than 8% and are the offspring of parents who can afford the €700 – €1000 price tag.

We would also do well to consider the experience of children attending the Gaelscoilleanna (Irish speaking immersion primary schools). Often seen, with justification, as success stories in the Irish education system, they account for only 187 of the total 3,305 primary schools in the Republic. Given that demand for places in many, especially in Dublin, is so high, many have interviews that require candidates to demonstrate pre-existing language proficiency and enrollment policies that favour cultural and social capital such as preference given to children of alumni. While the success of these schools in producing fluent, bi-lingual, well educated children cannot be disputed, the existence of such privilege in our education system reflects the nature of the origins of the revival movement.

As it was 125 years ago, it remains the vanguard, the educated, the scholars, the policy makers who fly the flag for the language. While those privileged to attend Gaeltacht courses and Gaelscoileanna engage in a meaningful way with the language, the reality for the remainder is a mixture of resentment, painful memory, feelings of failure, apathy and paradoxically; a desire based on hindsight to have learned more.

“It is surely time to step away from the culture of superiority and privilege surrounding the teaching and learning of Irish in schools”

We surely cannot continue to stand over an education system that produces such gross failures. This leaves us with a number of choices: firstly, to continue blindly as we are with failure and inequality; secondly, to remove compulsory Irish from the curriculum and allow those 13% who wish to continue as they are, whilst admitting failure for the majority; or finally, to radically re-think our approach to the language teaching-learning experience in Ireland.

Since no reasoned argument can be made for the choice to continue on the same path that we have been on for the past 125 years, we are left with the choice of removal or rethink. As one of the 13% mentioned above, it is (not surprisingly), my opinion that before we admit failure we must first try to give every child in the country a real opportunity to learn the language. This means radically rethinking our current approach.

It is surely time to step away from the culture of superiority and privilege surrounding the teaching and learning of Irish in schools. As a scholar of medieval and early Christian Irish myself, the value of this language is not lost on me, nor is its importance as one of the oldest written languages in the world. These instrumental motivations to learn a language, or keep it alive, have proven to fall on the deaf and pre-occupied ears of the majority of our nation’s youth and adolescents for most of the last century.

If we wish to keep Irish alive as a language of relevance, then it must be allowed to evolve in the truest Darwinian sense. No amount of special privilege or state protection can hold back this tide. Language can only evolve when we pass it on to our children alive, not as a codified set of dated rules and grammars that have no place in their lives. In order to do this we must move away from Instrumental motivation (the desire to achieve proficiency in a language for utilitarian or practical reasons i.e. passing an exam) and towards integrative motivation i.e. the desire to be like valued members of the community that speak the language (peer to peer learning in an immersion environment).

“The question is not why we should change, but rather why the vast majority of the children of the nation are being denied this gift of bilingualism”

If we wish to maintain Irish as a language of relevance then what we must do is follow the example of the success stories. The only way to properly embed and establish a language in a learner is to mirror the same motivation that led us all to learn our first language. If we create an immersion environment for the first five years of every child’s schooling at primary level then we would pass on the gift of bilingualism to every child of the nation equally. Within twenty years the demons of the current machine would be excised and the language given an opportunity to succeed, fail, or more likely as has happened with every modern language, evolve.

Every year in September a new cohort of four to five year olds make their way to the gates of the 187 Gaelscoilleanna around the country. Most will have good grasp of English, some will have a ‘cupla focal’ of Gaeilge, while some may be proficient in both languages. In line with best practice for immersion education they will neither hear nor read English, in school, until midway through their second school year. During their remaining six years of primary schooling they will follow the same curriculum as every other five to twelve year old outside of the Gaelscoilleanna, save for one major difference: the language of its delivery. The question is not why we should change, but rather why the vast majority of the children of the nation are being denied this gift of bilingualism.

“The Necessity of De–Anglicising the Irish” may seem overstated in our interconnected, globalised world. We cannot now, nor should we seek to, drive back the tide and replace the English language in Ireland. However 125 years ago Douglas Hyde and his comrades recognised the need to preserve something of the language they saw dying around them.

This language, like all others, evolved to represent vocally the desires, needs, wants, thoughts, concerns, dreams, plans, and day to day mundaneness and idiosyncrasies of the ancients peoples who lived, loved and eked out an existence on this weather beaten Atlantic island they called home. Though they are consigned to history, and we live in a world far removed from theirs, our shared experience has the opportunity to live through their language.

Let us pass both the gift of the language and the gift of bilingualism to our children, and trust in the non-random selection and reproduction of the useful aspects of that language, far into the future.


Ciarán Weafer teaches Irish at Pobailscoil Neasáin in Dublin, Ireland. He has bachelor degrees in Irish and history from University College Dublin, and has studied old and middle Irish.