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The New Experiment in Gaeltacht Education

In 2016 the Department of Education and Skill’s outlined its latest scheme for Gaeltacht (designated Irish-language) districts: ‘Policy on Gaeltacht Education 2017 – 2022’. It aims to reverse the adoption  of English as the primary language of these areas, a process which is pretty well complete.

Irish speakers are now in a minority in twenty out of the twenty-six ‘Gaeltacht Language Planning Areas’, often with numbers which are quite miniscule.[i]

The new education scheme is, nonetheless, being implemented throughout the defined districts. Each school’s Management Committee was offered the choice of becoming a designated ‘Gaeltacht School’, and 106 out of 133 primary schools agreed, as did 27 of the 28 secondary schools at that time, with the last one joining in subsequently. [ii]

Their participation is entirely unsurprising, however, given it qualifies any school for extra teaching staff and other resources to implement an enhanced Irish-language curriculum, as well as to teach the general curriculum through Irish. Remarkably, no English at all is taught to any children for the first two years of their primary schooling.

This plan will fail as all such Revival of Irish plans have done, and for the same reason. They derive from a defective belief that official action can reverse the people’s choice to speak English. It is simply impossible to sustain a separate language community as a relic of the past among an overwhelmingly English-speaking nation, even assuming the parents of the children concerned are actually seeking this.

Is this a new insight? Hardly! In 1963 ‘The Final Report of The Commission on the Restoration of the Irish Language’ was clear:

The preservation and strengthening of the Gaeltacht, therefore, must not be approached as if it were an attempt to preserve in one corner of the country an aboriginal reservation to remind us of the past…

In any case, the new Gaeltacht Education Policy is not a scheme to preserve a Gaeltacht, but to re-invent one. It is a sort of linguistic Jurassic Park experiment, where the captive school children are expected to mutate into an Irish-speaking tribe after a spell inside the Department of Education’s fantasy laboratory.

Of course it won’t happen. Today’s infants will emerge in due course from their Irish-medium ‘Gaeltacht’ designated schools as native English-speakers. As adults they will live their lives in the English-speaking world, of which they are already a part.

In 1990 Reg Hindley the author of The Death of the Irish Language painted a revealing picture of children in Gaeltacht areas:

the problem is not usually one of downright mendacity, much as it feels it when being assured by respectable people in positions of considerable trust that the children in their area all speak Irish excellently and are devoted to it, whereas the infants in the playground are playing loudly in English and the teenagers of whom one enquired directions where chatting in English when interrupted. [iii]

But the account of a deviant Sassenach was denounced by Irish language enthusiasts, and his research dismissed with contumely.[iv]

Nonetheless, in 2017 a Department of Education report on an Achill Island school bluntly stated that ‘the pupils speak only English.’[v]

In 2018 another Department report on the new Gaeltacht Education scheme itself said: ‘There are significant challenges in encouraging teenagers to speak Irish among themselves in social situations in the school environment.’[vi]

Thus, it seems the schoolchildren chat in their home language as soon as they can get away from their teachers. What a surprise!

In 2004 a ‘Study of Gaeltacht Schools’ carried out for COGG (the ‘Council for Gaeltacht and Gaelscoil Education’) said that ‘English is the main language used by pupils in normal conversational interactions in the vast majority of Gaeltacht schools.’

Subsequently, in 2014, a report by NUIG ‘Analysis of Bilingual Competence – language acquisition among young people in the Gaeltacht” revealed:

Unbalanced bilingualism or dominant bilingualism is the norm. English is the dominant language since it is the language in which they exhibit greater ability. Irish is the weaker language or it is the weaker language for the majority of pupils … From the point of view of formal linguistics, the majority of pupils function better in English, since it is the language in which they have the greater ability.

These facts about Irish-language use in Gaeltacht areas is of course well-known to State officials, considering that altering them is the stated purpose of their grand experiment.

A moral question arises here around using pupils as guinea pigs. On this point, Joe Mac Donncha in the Dublin Review of Books opined:

One might well ask, at this stage, if it is morally tenable for the state to continue to encourage parents in Gaeltacht communities to raise their children through the medium of Irish when the state itself is aware, or should be aware, that those children will struggle to acquire native-speaker competence in their first language, given the linguistic dynamics of the current Gaeltacht.[vii]

So why is this still happening? The answer is that it is a matter of a fixed political ideology, and it is in the nature of ideologues that they are immune to external influence, moral or otherwise. And as we know, when social engineers have the power to carry out their schemes, they often acquire a sense of absolute entitlement to do so.

Spare a thought for the school children concerned who choose to speak English whenever they are able. We may ask what entitles the Department to impose such ‘revivalist’ policies on them especially in many districts that have long since abandoned Irish.

‘Saving’ the Irish language may serve the interests of a coterie of enthusiasts, but does anyone care whether or not it benefits the children concerned?

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[i] Untitled, ‘Cainteoirí laethúla ina mionlach i 20 den 26 ceantar pleanála teanga sa Ghaeltacht – figiúirí nua daonáirimh’, July 20th, 2017, www.tuairisc.ie. https://tuairisc.ie/cainteoiri-laethula-ina-mionlach-i-21-den-26-ceantar-pleanala-teanga-sa-ghaeltacht-figiuiri-nua-daonairimh/

[ii] Untitled, ‘Na cúiseanna nach dteastaíonn stádas ‘Gaeltachta’ ó 27 scoil sa Ghaeltacht’, May 14th, 2019, www.tuairisc.ie. https://tuairisc.ie/na-cuiseanna-nach-dteastaionn-stadas-gaeltachta-o-27-scoil-sa-ghaeltacht/

[iii] Reg Hindley, The Death of the Irish Language, Routledge, London, 1990, p.59

[iv] For example: ‘Buried Alive – A Reply to Reg Hindley’s The Death of the Irish Language’. Dáil Uí Chadhain, 1991

[v] Unknown, ‘Achill Island pupils ‘speak only English’ The Sunday Times, December 10th, 2017.

[vi] ‘Schools participating in the Gaeltacht School Recognition Scheme’ September-December 2018, Department of Education and Skills.

[vii] Joe Mac Donncha, ‘The Death of a language’, Dublin Review of Books, April, 2015

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