Colm O’Rourke: ‘I’m a school principal – but even I can’t converse in Irish’

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Colm O’Rourke: ‘I’m a school principal – but even I can’t converse in Irish’

A Russian lecturer appointed to promote the Irish language in Kerry faces an uphill task, writes Colm O’Rourke


IT’S A TOUGH TASK: Russian gaeilgeoir Victor Bayda
IT’S A TOUGH TASK: Russian gaeilgeoir Victor Bayda

When I heard last week that a Russian, Victor Bayda, had been appointed as the Irish language planning officer by Udaras na Gaeltachta for the Kerry Gaeltacht, I wondered if this was some elaborate joke to give Irish a bit of prominence.

Then he turns up in full living colour with Ray D’Arcy on Saturday night. It is for real, the Russians are coming.

Victor is a lecturer in Irish in Moscow who is tasked with promoting Irish to the Irish. He has a real passion for the language. I wish him luck.

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This is part of a 20-year strategy to keep Irish alive in the Gaeltacht in south Co Kerry, where the number of native speakers has tumbled to a few hundred.

Worryingly, anecdotal evidence would suggest young people fluent in Irish in the Gaeltachts converse more among their own age groups in English rather than Irish.

Victor has a job on his hands. It might be easier for him to teach Russian to a lot of Irish people nowadays rather than the native tongue, such is the distaste in many places for our own language.

How has it all come to this? How has so much of the resources of the State been such a total failure in promoting and encouraging people to speak Irish?

As a school principal for more than 10 years and a teacher for the previous 30, I have experience of this failure for a total of 40 years directly involved in education. Not as an Irish teacher, mind you, but now in administration, and it is striking how many young people actually dislike having to learn Irish. Maybe they don’t have much of a fondness for other subjects either, but a lack of appreciation of our native tongue is also a feature of much of the adult population too.

Many older people who have nothing but fond memories of school throw their eyes up to heaven and look on Irish as the black-spot of their second-level education. They remember Peig Sayers and other novels and poems which they found completely useless and rather boring, to put it politely. So learning Irish was never fun. It was about grammar and prose and poems. Still is.

There is nothing vibrant about Irish because that is what official policy has discouraged. It has created an image of a language based on hardship rather than encouraging imagination and vibrancy. It is like eating fish on a Friday in the old days, a food of penance.

Younger students now, especially at Leaving Cert level, protest and ask: “Why do we have to do Irish? We will never use it after school.” Now, all learning is important and can’t be measured in future earning potential but things are so bad that if given a choice of learning French, Spanish or Irish for the Leaving Cert, many would prefer to drop their own language.

Another worrying development is the number of students who seem to get a diagnosis easily which allows them to drop Irish as a subject while at the same time keeping on another language. Go figure that one.

The survival of the language is now dependent on a radical shift in emphasis. Why do so many Europeans speak English so well? The reason is simply that. They speak it, and the joy of learning is speaking it to a point where they are understood.

Most are probably not great at grammar or have not studied many novels or poems, but who cares? The essence of any language is to be understood.

Those charged with responsibility for the syllabus in Irish seem to forget that we learn a language as children from speaking it, by being immersed in words and sentences. Not with learning to write it. We all learned English long before we wrote a word. Yet students living outside the Gaeltachts are expected to write a language they cannot speak. It only leads to frustration. Those who set the syllabus for primary schools should focus almost exclusively on speaking Irish and add in writing much later.

It does appear there has been a theory holding sway in the Department of Education for the last 100 years. One where the purity of the language must be protected rather than just getting people speaking it, however badly. The latest in a lot of bad moves in this direction is taking the oral Irish exam out of the new Junior Cert. Now it is to be part of the classroom-based assessment, most probably some type of oral presentation which will be worth 10pc. What should be happening is that the oral should be worth 60pc or 70pc and the same at Leaving Cert. Then students would start speaking it a lot better. Forget the emphasis on writing.

Now I am not some type of Irish extremist. I can’t speak it very well and would not be able to take part in a conversation. Yet I value our language as being a vital part of our identity. If we do not have our own sports, our own distinctive culture, our music and our language, then we are no different to England. If that was the case, there would be no need for Brexit.

For decades, the Department has persisted with a policy in which Irish was “bet” into young people. Thankfully not any more. It was a signal failure.

A new enlightened approach is needed, one in which the learning of the language is combined with Gaelic games, music and dance, an approach where students could enter portfolio work on some or all of these topics as part of the Leaving Cert. And, of course, where the vast majority of marks in the final exam is based on speaking the language. In other words, the written exam should be worth a lot less. The best students would still be challenged but the weaker ones could get, at best, a ‘gra’ for some parts of the course and at least avoid intensely disliking Irish.

There is little point in Leaving Cert students at Ordinary level trying to analyse poems and prose. They would be much better off focusing on speaking the language so they could at the very least be able to have a simple conversation in Irish after leaving school.

The success of Gaelscoileanna shows the way forward. Speak the language and make it fun. It does not have to be purgatory. There are now more than 50,000 students in Gaelscoileanna – mainly at primary level – all over the country, north and south.

People might think these are just schools for high achievers. It is not the case. What this movement shows is the Irish language can be kept alive by making it enjoyable. Who could say that about the teaching of Irish in secondary schools at present?

Teaching Irish to Leaving Cert honours classes is demanding but satisfying for the teachers involved, but when they come back in August, the weary look of resignation on their faces when they see they have to teach pass Leaving Cert Irish is telling. They know, despite everything novel and interesting they may throw at it, they face a two-year battle to try to get students to learn prose and poems which do nothing to cultivate an appreciation of Irish.

If the Department of Education gave every student one fully-paid scholarship to the Gaeltacht during their school career, it would be more beneficial than the sledgehammer approach currently in use. It would also bring money to the western seaboard for the ‘bean an ti’, reduce emigration, bring back young residents, help the GAA, the post office, the local shop and the primary school.

State policy on the teaching of Irish has been an expensive failure. Yet instead of changing tack, the new policy is to plough on and make it even more dull and boring.

If Irish was not compulsory for the Leaving Cert, it would be dropped wholesale by students in favour of other subjects, including Continental languages. If this goes on much longer, we will be sending for more Irish-speaking Russians. Good luck, Victor Bayda. You will need it all because official Ireland has handed you a leaking ship.

Colm O’Rourke is principal of St Patrick’s Classical School in Navan and a noted GAA analyst

Sunday Independent

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