The public’s love and support for the Irish language offers hope, despite the State’s lack of commitment and urgency on the issue, writes Julian de Spáinn
Since An Coimisinéir Teanga’s office was set up a decade ago, the annual reports issued by it have highlighted the State’s lack of commitment or urgency in honouring its constitutional, legislative, and moral obligations towards the Irish language and Gaeltacht community.
The State has yet to provide guaranteed services in the Irish language to Gaeltacht communities, ensure an adequate number of competent Irish speakers in the public service, and resource adequately the implementation of their own 20-year strategy for the Irish language 2010-30 Gaeltacht Act.
Despite all this, the love of the public for the Irish language and their support for comprehensive provision of services through the medium of Irish remains resolute, and there are many reasons to be hopeful.
In a survey of more than 2,000 adults north and south, conducted by Millward Brown on behalf of Conradh na Gaeilge in January, 70% of those asked in the south, and 54% of those asked in the north felt such services should be available in Irish to those who wish to use them.
A third of the population in the north and almost half of the population in the south would also like to have more opportunities to speak Irish.
If we are interested in serving their needs, and in strengthening the position of our language, there are many simple, concrete steps we can take.
Conradh na Gaeilge has consistently advocated the most progressive methods in language teaching and emphasised the importance of immersion education.
Many parents agree, which is evident when you take into account that medium education is 43% over- subscribed at primary level and 25% oversubscribed at secondary level.
There have been signs in recent weeks that Education Minister Jan O’Sullivan has taken the recommendations of An Chomhairle um Oideachas Gaeltachta agus Gaelscolaíochta’s report into the linguistic ability of native speakers of Irish in Gaeltacht schools to heart, and may, 90 years after it was first recommended, be on the verge of developing a much-needed curriculum for native speakers of Irish for our schools.
This is encouraging.
A government policy focused on strengthening the Irish language could ensure that the massive demand for medium education is met by supporting the establishment of more Gaelscoileanna and, expanding the number of subjects taught through Irish.
The Department of Education is already piloting a scheme in which the visual arts are being taught through Irish in seven schools.
This should be rolled out to other schools and other subjects should be considered in the future. This would not only benefit the learning of Irish, but also language learning in general in our schools.
Concerns expressed about the standard of Irish spoken and taught in schools could be significantly addressed by allowing trainee teachers to spend more time in the Gaeltacht learning how to teach through Irish.
Wouldn’t it be great if each new cohort of trainee teachers started their studies in the Gaeltacht, getting to know each other through Irish from day one?
In a similar way to the experience in the Coláistí Samhraidh, the results of such a policy, that would cost no extra money, could be spectacular — vastly improving the fluency, accuracy, and confidence of young teachers, and draw the excitement of their positive Gaeltacht experience into the classroom from the start of their training.
This could also lead to a significant number of trainee teachers continuing to use Irish when they return to their college towns as it is infinitely harder to start speaking Irish to someone if you know them already through English then it is to continue to use Irish after getting to know someone.
Could the Government not also harness the enormous enthusiasm shown by more than 100,000 people who took part in community events during Seachtain na Gaeilge this year, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of school children who also took part in events in their schools?
Could more support be made available to help develop local networks of Irish speakers outside the Gaeltacht?
Could we not develop Irish language centres around the country where people can pop in, try out, improve, and perfect their Irish?
Could we not do more to encourage the economic development of our Gaeltacht communities, to ensure that native speakers do not have to leave to find employment?
Can we not restore Údarás na Gaeltachta’s capital budget, which creates employment and was slashed by nearly €20m between 2008 and 2012, to an adequate level?
It should be noted that in the same period, the capital budget of Enterprise Ireland was increased by almost €6m and the capital budget of the IDA was increased by almost €10m.
Since the question of the Irish language encompasses so many areas of action, and has implications for such different aspects of government policy, can we not create a cross-party consensus that the Irish language policy should always be administered by a minister with senior cabinet rank?
Can we not, if we regard the Irish language as one of our most precious cultural resources, adopt the Welsh model of proofing all new legislation for its language implications?
Since its foundation by Dubhghlas de hÍde and Eoin Mac Néill over 120 years ago, Conradh na Gaeilge has striven to revive, strengthen, and promote the Irish language.
As the democratic forum for the Irish language, we would like to work with anyone committed to creating more opportunities and more choices for the Irish-speaking and Gaeltacht community.
We encourage all with an interest or with ideas on how to increase the use of Irish to get in touch with us.
Ní neart go cur le chéile.
Julian de Spáinn is general secretary of Conradh na Gaeilge
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved