Fine Gael has proposed abolishing Irish as a compulsory subject in the Leaving Certificate, believing this could help the language flourish as it would attract passionate students.
But Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and his Labour counterpart Eamon Gilmore claimed such a policy would destroy the language and wreak havoc on the economies of the Gaeltacht areas.
The debate itself took place in Irish, with all three men showing a comfortable command of the language.
It saw frequent clashes between Mr Kenny and Mr Martin, with numerous interjections by each man as the other was speaking.
Mr Gilmore was more restrained, choosing mostly to stand back and wait for his opportunity to explain his party’s stances.
The hour-long debate opened with each leader offering his vision for the country.
Mr Gilmore said he wanted to build a “Second Republic” by 2016 and give the country back to the people from the bankers.
Mr Kenny said he wanted to make Ireland the best small country in the world to do business, raise a family and grow old with dignity by 2016.
Mr Martin said Ireland could look to 2016 with hope, but the economy first had to be put back on a sound footing, claiming Fianna Fáil had a credible plan to do that.
The debate then moved to the bank guarantee scheme, the EU-IMF bailout, unemployment and emigration.
Mr Kenny said the Government’s “silly mistakes” would see €100 billion pumped into the banks, €35bn of which was going to Anglo alone. That money could have created 200,000 jobs, he said.
Mr Gilmore claimed that Fianna Fáil had destroyed both the economy and the country. He defended his party’s plan to extend the deficit reduction deadline to 2016, saying too much taxes and spending cuts in a short period of time would stifle economic growth.
But Mr Martin said neither Labour nor Fine Gael would reverse a single cut which Fianna Fáil had already made in government. He also said the EU-IMF agreement could not be renegotiated unilaterally, and that the bank guarantee had been necessary to protect businesses and the 1.8m people still working.
The debate moved on to farming, fishing and tourism. All three leaders denied that the era of the small farmer was over. But there was disagreement on the subject of the state subsidies provided to regional airlines, which are being cut by the Government.
Mr Gilmore pledged that a Labour government would retain the subsidies, but Mr Kenny noticeably failed to do, having been pushed on the issue several times.
“I’m not making any commitment here,” he said.
Mr Martin skirted the issue, saying the Government had developed a motorway network which was “a major step forward” for the regions.
Mr Kenny came under pressure again when the subject of his party’s Irish language policy arose.
The Fine Gael leader insisted that Mná Tí and Gaeltacht areas dependent on seasonal influxes of Irish students had nothing to worry about.
Mr Kenny said that as a “former teacher, a politician and an Irishman”, he was dedicated to the language and wanted to see it flourish.
“I plan to strengthen it,” he said, saying Fine Gael would review both the curriculum and teacher-training before making any decision.
But Mr Martin said that the Fine Gael policy, if implemented, would mean the death of the language.
Mr Gilmore similarly claimed the Fine Gael policy would “destroy the language”, the summer colleges and the Gaeltacht areas.