‘Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam’ – so says the seanfhocail that every student in the country was told to learn off before their Leaving Certificate. “A country with no language has no soul”. Gaeilge is enshrined in the constitution as our first national language. The founders of the Republic in 1937 felt it necessary to give our native tongue permanent legal protection. Perhaps they knew the challenges the nation faced to re-claim its heritage after centuries of colonial rule. Perhaps they just liked the language and sought to promote it.
I think that the death of Gaeilge has been greatly exaggerated. Though English is undeniably the primary language of the nation (it is the language this article is written in after all), Gaeilge is still thriving in every corner of the isle. Census 2011 (the results of Census 2016 will not be released for several months) saw 1.77 million people answer affirmatively to the question, “Can you speak Irish?” This was an increase of 7.1% on the previous census.
While the number of those who speak it every day outside of educational facilities is rather low, the fact remains that over a third of the country has some grasp of the language. Where then does the view that Gaeilge is dying come from, and why does over half the population not possess an ability to speak Gaeilge, despite it being a mandatory school subject?
The answer to both questions is simply that the language is often taught poorly. As those students taught poorly are grouped together, an echo chamber effect occurs where it can seem that no one is able to speak the language. One of the primary challenges facing the spread of Gaeilge is the absence of a sufficient number of Gaelscoils, particularly at primary level.
It is no secret that the standard of teaching for our native tongue is often quite low in regular national schools. Many students are not even required to buy grammar books, despite being expected to know at least four grammatical tenses for Leaving Certificate exams. The standard of teaching is much higher in Gaelscoils and many parents who do not have a familiarity with Gaeilge themselves wish to send their children to such institutions. There is also the contributing factor that Gaelscoils have a tendency to produce better exams results than English language schools and those who attend are more likely to pursue higher levels of education.
Yet most primary schools of this type are short on available places, with most spots being reserved for the siblings of current students and the children of former students. The result is that insular communities of speakers are the only ones consistently learning the language. A higher proportion of Gaelscoils would dramatically increase the percentage of the population engaged with the language.
There is also the issue that Gaeilge as a Leaving Certificate subject is in a state now that is almost designed to turn people off the language. It should be taught primarily in the style of a foreign language. Splitting Gaeilge into two subjects, a mandatory subject focusing on oral and aural skills, and an optional subject based around literature and poetry, would be beneficial in ensuring people leave school with at least a passable grasp of the language.
Speculative proposals for improving the education system aside, does Gaeilge have a future and what does it look like?
The answer is that Gaeilge is likely to continue on as it has been going for some time now. The language will still be spoken in pubs, clubs, streets, offices, and homes around the country. It is unlikely that any of us will live to see the day when Gaeilge is once again the nation’s main language. Ireland becomes a more multi-cultural country every year; this is a good thing in almost every respect, but it will slightly hinder the spread of Gaeilge. Yet that does not mean the language is dying. The evergreen popularity of the currently occurring, Seachtain na Gaeilge, demonstrates that fact. Gaeilge will survive us all and the country will be all the better for its continued existence.