The playwright John Millington Synge had a great grá for the Irish language, once declaring: “There is no language like the Irish for soothing and quieting.”
That may be so, yet debates about attempts to revive it have been anything but. The latest stems from a review of the Leaving Certificate by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, which has found that many students think Irish should be an optional subject.
This recalls the Language Freedom Movement of the mid-1960s, headed by another playwright, John B Keane. A fluent Irish speaker, he was passionately opposed to compulsory Irish, a stance that was highly unpopular in some quarters at the time, not least in his home county of Kerry.
The learning of Irish was made compulsory in 1934, but, to this day, the level of spoken Irish nationwide remains abysmal. A recent report from An Coimisinéir Teanga has found that just 551 out of 21,060 staff in government departments have a competence in Irish.
It is clear, therefore, that compulsion has failed, while voluntary efforts to restore the language — from the Gaelic Revival, by Synge and WB Yeats, among others, to the current surge in gaeilscoileanna — have been mostly successful.
So, why persist with compulsion, when it clearly doesn’t work? The phrase “ag marcáil capall marbh” — flogging a dead horse — comes to mind.