Opinion Many would like compulsory Gaeilge taken off the Leaving Cert, but it's a slippery slope

Caoimhín De Barra says if we take compulsory Irish off the curriculum, we’re undermining our language and our identity.

Seachtain na Gaeilge runs from March 1 to 17 and through that time we will be featuring some Voices pieces on, discussing how the language is doing and what issues remain in relation to our attitudes to Irish. We’ll also have an article or two written as Gaeilge.

Today, Caoimhín De Barra writes about compulsory Irish in schools:

SEACHTAIN NA GAEILGE is the season in which the debate about compulsory Irish for Leaving Certificate students comes to the fore once more.
The vast majority of articles published on this topic support making Irish optional after the Junior Certificate. Such one-sided commentary is striking because polls show that people are split evenly on the question.

I am an advocate for reviving Irish, and my reason for supporting the current policy is simple: the longer people study the language in school, the more likely they are to retain it and use it once they leave school. The Irish education system has created thousands of Irish speakers who otherwise wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the place of Irish in our school systems.

According to the 2016 census, 185,276 people speak Irish either on a daily or weekly basis. We can use this as a rough number for how many people speak Irish fluently, which amounts to 4.2% of the Irish population.

But only 14.5% (26,870) of these fluent Irish speakers live in the Gaeltacht. What these figures indicate is that most people who speak Irish fluently get their language skills from school, as opposed to being raised in an Irish-speaking community.

0137 Leaving Cert Results Results.Pictured (L to R) Katie Pintos, Kevin Joyce and Vanessa Furlong celebrating their Leaving Cert Results at Trinity Comprehensive School, Ballymun in Dublin this morning. Photo: Leah Farrell/

That, in a nutshell, is why retaining Irish in our school system is so important.
Those who want to make Irish an optional subject for the Leaving Certificate say that individual choice should be paramount.

Compulsory, with good reason

But it is worth understanding why we make some subjects compulsory in the first place. The answer, paradoxically, is to give people a choice.

We teach people advanced mathematics until they leave secondary school because we want people to be able to choose careers where those skills are necessary if they desire. The exact same principle is at play when it comes to Irish. We teach it to students because we want them to be able to choose to use it when they leave school.

The true issue of choice in relation to Irish is not that students have to study it when they don’t want to, but rather that most people don’t learn enough Irish to allow them to choose to speak it.

Many of those who call for Irish to be removed as a core subject for the Leaving Cert say they recognise the cultural value of Irish and that students should study it in school. However, they maintain that by the time students reach fifteen, they have studied Irish for thirteen years and most have their minds made up about it.

A few even suggest that this change would be of benefit to the language because it would lessen the resentment towards Irish created by its core status.

Why we resent Irish

In reality, the contempt that some feel towards Irish is created by something far more complex than having to learn it in school. Look at Scotland. The vitriol there towards Scots Gaelic appears even uglier than anything we see in Ireland despite the fact that most Scots never encounter the language in school.

Indeed, recent trends in the UK show us what kind of impact removing the core status of Irish for the Leaving Cert would have on the language.

In 2004, the British government allowed fourteen-year-old students to opt-out of studying a foreign language. The results were hardly surprising. Between 2002 and 2019, the number of students taking German for the GCSE fell by 67% and by 63% in the case of French.

But the most important consequence of this decision can be seen at third level. Between 2012 and 2017, the number of students studying European languages at British universities fell by 23%.

Clearly, the extra exposure to a compulsory foreign language after the age of 14 meant that students in the British system pursued a career they otherwise would not have, had they been allowed to drop the language early.

Changing this didn’t simply free people from studying a language they were going to drop at 16 anyway, but substantially reduced the number of people who otherwise would have gone on to study a foreign language in higher education.

The truth is that people’s interests, attitudes, and abilities continue to change after the age of 14 and 15. Making Irish optional for the Leaving Cert would, over the course of time, deprive the language of thousands of would-be speakers that otherwise would have come through the system as it currently exists.

1958 #Gaeilge4All

I understand it’s not easy

Perhaps more than anyone else, I understand how much of a difference studying Irish for the last few years of school can make.

For most of my education, Irish was my weakest school subject. In 1999, I got a D in ordinary level Irish in the Junior Cert. If I had been allowed to quit Irish at that stage, I certainly would have.

But I had to persevere with it. What followed was a sea change in my relationship with the language. I was lucky to get a new Irish teacher who was very effective and that, coupled with growing confidence in my own academic abilities, helped me make huge progress.

Today, I am a fluent speaker, raising my own children through Irish. Not giving me the choice at 15 means that today I have a choice about speaking Irish. That is exactly why I support exposing students to the study of Irish for as long as possible.

A proxy war, with culture in mind

There is one other reason I believe that retaining Irish as a core subject is important. If we are honest with ourselves, we will acknowledge that the debate about compulsory Irish is a proxy war about the very nature of Irishness itself.

There are some, like myself, who share the vision that many of the men and women who founded our state a century ago wanted to see the Irish language thrive in a free and independent nation-state.

There are others, however, who have nothing but contempt for the language and who reject any association between it and Irish identity. They say they only want to allow people to choose whether they study Irish, but how many of those people would support the right to choose to conduct business with the state through Irish? Many would not.

The reality is that the effort to remove Irish as a core subject for the Leaving Cert is part of a wider movement to roll back all state support for Irish. This began with the removal of an Irish language qualification to become a civil servant in 1974 and continued in the 1980s when the hours dedicated to the teaching of Irish in primary schools were slashed.

The day that Irish becomes optional for the Leaving Cert is the day that the campaign to make it optional for the Junior Cert begins, and the effort to undermine the language gains more momentum.

For that reason, perhaps above any other, I support maintaining the status quo.

Caoimhín De Barra is an assistant professor of history at Gonzaga University, Washington.

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