Reader's blog: 'Relevance' cannot be the standard by which we decide on the future of Irish in our schools

In response to Daniel McConnell’s article on April 6, I would like to make the following points.

Mr McConnell is fully entitled to argue against the retention of Irish as a core subject in our secondary schools.

However, his argument is riddled with tired old canards about the language.

Firstly, he says that the emotion should be taken out of the debate. I completely agree with him on this.

However, he suggests that those who disagree with him must be “die-hards” with a “hardline position.”

Using pejorative labels for those who don’t share one’s views seems an odd way to remove the emotion from any debate.

Mr McConnell also strongly implies that 98% of the Irish population support removing Irish as a core school subject, with only 2% in favour.

This is an old trick of those with an ax to grind against Irish, in pretending that only those who speak the language on a daily basis agree with state support for the Irish language.

Most surveys show that the country is divided on the issue.

A survey conducted for Claire Byrne Live in 2017 showed that 53% of people wanted Irish to be optional, whereas a survey conducted by the Journal this past January showed 57% wanted Irish to remain compulsory.

Either way, to argue that 98% of the population support Mr McConnell’s position is nonsense.

Mr McConnell claims that “the greater Dublin area is where Irish is spoken the least.”

This is simply false. According to the 2016 census, 20% of the people who speak Irish on a daily basis live in Dublin.

Contrary to popular belief, the highest concentration of Irish speakers anywhere in the country is in our nation’s capital.

Mr McConnell takes at face value Michael Lewis’s claim that Irish politicians in the Dáil say everything in Irish, and then repeat themselves in English.

He laments the “sheer utter waste of time that is involved in TDs repeating themselves in both languages.”

Of course, anyone who watches the Dáil for a couple of minutes knows this is not true. A study conducted by Tuairisc found that only 0.5% of the words spoken in the Dáil are in Irish.

Mr McConnell also points to the now infamous exchange between Enda Kenny and Mick Wallace in the Dáil in 2015 as evidence of the “high-handedness” that “true believers” in Irish exhibit towards those who don’t speak it.

Mr McConnell notes that the Taoiseach refused to speak English to Wallace.

As the transcript of that exchange shows, this isn’t true. Kenny switched to answering Wallace’s question in English when he believed the translation system wasn’t working.

He then switched back to Irish when it was confirmed the system was back in operation.

Clearly there was no love lost between the men, but if anything, Kenny was belittling Wallace for being unable to turn on the translation system, not for his lack of Irish.

Yet this representation of what happened continues to be peddled because it suits the agenda of those who want to claim that Irish speakers are oppressing everyone.

Another argument that Mr McConnell repeats is that “how Irish is being taught really is a calamitous failure.”

To be fair to Mr McConnell, this is a truth almost universally accepted in Ireland. But just because lots of people something doesn’t make it true.

The best objective measure we have for student learning are our state exams.

Looking at the results, there is no evidence that Irish is taught any worse than other comparable subjects.

The issue is that people have completely unrealistic expectations for what students studying a language for forty minutes a day can achieve when it is never reinforced outside of the classroom.

Of course, if the problem is just that Irish is taught badly, why wouldn’t the Department of Education simply fix that?

Mr McConnell states that the “die-hards” who want to revive Irish insist on it being taught badly. That makes absolutely no sense.

Mr McConnell also suggests that Irish should be replaced as a core subject in schools by history.

I completely agree with him that history should return as a core subject for the Junior Cert, but not at the expense of Irish.

In addition, he suggests that more “relevant” subjects like digital coding or economics could replace Irish.

This is nothing more than an attempt to place a veneer of practicality on an emotionally driven argument.

If one studies attitudes towards minority languages across the English-speaking world, one finds the same “practical” arguments being made, even against the teaching of major world languages like French in Canada.

Mr McConnell also seems to fail to appreciate that an identical “relevant” argument can (and in fact, already has) been used against the teaching of history as well.

It seems a particularly selective position to suggest that “relevance” should be the standard by which we measure whether Irish should be taught, but not history.

Beir bua

Caoimhín De Barra

Author of Gaeilge: A Radical Revolution.

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