VICTORIA WHITE: Sending kids west for Irish school pays lip service to the language

Victoria White argues that the Irish language is presented to students in a time warp.

THEY were told to zip their jumpers up and stand straight when they were singing the national anthem. I’m left wondering does everyone have to pledge allegiance to the Irish State if they’re learning Irish in the Gaeltacht?

I’m wondering if it would it be out of the question to be an Ulster unionist and learn Irish at one of our Irish colleges. I’m wondering if it’s out of the question to go to Irish college if you’re not Irish.

And is it a requirement to be a Catholic? Mass is part of the programme in most of the Irish colleges I looked into: Mass, without even a politically correct nod to “If you wish to take part” or “if you have another Church you want to go to”.

Can you not learn Irish at the Gaeltacht if you’re a Muslim? Is it all one big package: Irish nationalism, the Irish language, and the Catholic Church? Do you have to buy the whole thing?

About 24,000 kids went to Irish college in the summer last year and probably a few more went this year as the economy improved. I’m sure most of them had a fantastic time. I have three such happy punters in my own house who met people from all over Ireland and gained independence as well as hugely improving their Irish.

Sending kids west for Irish school pays lip service to the language

Personally, I have no problem with Mass or Amhrán na bhFiann or céilís. I just wonder if we know what we’re doing as we hand our kids this package which they know has been wrapped up specially for them.

Because no one in the Gaeltacht lives in this Gaeltacht bubble. No one ever has. In fact the most recent study of the impact of Gaeltacht colleges, undertaken by NUI Maynooth, found that when there was contact between the students and the Gaeltacht youngsters they tended to speak in English.

Can you blame them? Would you want to speak pidgin to another young person when you both have perfect fluency in another language — a language in which both of you are likely to be more fluent than you are in Irish?

My kids do a good imitation of the po-faced renditions of Amhrán na bhFiann at Irish college, but they loved it all. What I worry about is that none of this experience will carry into their daily life.

The Irish language is presented to them in a time warp when everyone went to Mass and saluted the national flag. Except there never was such a time. The Gaeltacht experience of the Irish colleges is a fiction and the kids know it. I fear the Irish gets left behind as soon as the bus leaves for home.

More than 20,000 kids — down from 28,000 in the boom times — go to Irish college in the summer every year. They live with Irish-speaking families and are more or less obliged to speak Irish all of the time for three weeks. And yet our kids’ Irish is no better than ours was. So what is going on?

How can the Irish language hope to translate into their day-to-day life if it is presented as being spoken exclusively by Irish nationalists who go to Mass in picturesque parts of the western sea-board? And how far will this have to depart from the reality of the Gaeltacht in which most 12-year-olds have more English than Irish and Mass attendance is poor, before some change comes to the Irish colleges?

Will our kids’ kids be singing in Irish at Mass during Irish college when no one in the area speaks Irish and no one goes to Mass? Already the Maynooth study cited one case in which Mass is in English during the year but in Irish in summer for the students.

You’d be forced to ask what is going on. Irish College’s main purpose is often childcare and the June courses could be sold twice over, suiting parents with other kids in primary or doing exams. Our secondary school year is truncated and the June courses fill the gap.

It’s not surprising that parents who send their kids to Gaeltacht are working hard. Three weeks in Gaeltacht costs parents up to €950 and financial considerations are the main factor influencing parents not to send their children, according the Maynooth study.

That’s clearly why the numbers fell during the Recession and are now rising again. Another massive expense for parents is the often near-obligatory weekend visit which can mean travel and an overnight stay. The main aim of these visits is to funnel money into the area — in all, the Irish colleges are worth €50m a year to the Gaeltacht economies — but it is often money parents can ill afford. One college is quoted in the Maynooth study as saying one or more parents came to visit 220 out of 240 students on a particular Sunday. The other 20 kids must have felt great.

Sending kids west for Irish school pays lip service to the language

Despite the huge financial barrier to kids accessing these courses, the State is paying the mná títhe in the houses in which most of the children stay a tax-free subvention of €9.50 per student per day to keep them. This subvention amounted to €3.7m from the State to the mná títhe last year.

The money is incredibly useful to these rural women in places where there is very little other employment. Arguably, it keeps life in these communities. But you really have to ask whether it is right that such a big State subsidy goes to fund an educational experience available only to the better-off. Scholarship support is patchy and random, depending mostly on initiatives made by individual colleges.

If you’re asking if the colleges keep the Irish language alive in the Gaeltacht you’d have to answer that it doesn’t. The latest research from the NUI suggests the language has 15 to 20 years left as a living language in the so-called Gaeltacht.

You can even argue that the coming of droves of English-speaking students has hastened the decline of the language. You have to wonder what it has done to Irish-speakers’ perception of their language to see it as their cash cow. My children had mixed reports as to the friendliness of the natives they met while at Irish college and there is possibly resentment of these thousands of children who arrive every summer and make poor stabs at speaking their language.

I like my kids being out West and I like them speaking Irish. I am happy for them to go to Mass through Irish in the local community and to experience céilís and traditional music and Gaelic games.

But at some point we are going to have to examine the fact that as a society we are spending millions of euro sending our children into an artificial zone to experience a life and a language that we have largely abandoned.

We’re going to have to ask ourselves if we send them into their Gaelic bubble because we don’t want to trouble ourselves with big questions like, “What is irish identity?” and “What place has the Irish language in that identity?” We’re going to have to ask ourselves if we’re not, as usual, making a symbolic act through our children while we get on with something more important — like going shopping.

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