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March 1999

The Re-birth of Irish

A look into the Irish language and its recent popularity.

You’d think, as a native English speaker, you’ve got it made. Not only is your mother-tongue the global lingua franca and key to getting a job anywhere in the world, but most people who don’t speak English are dying to learn it. But if you’re living in Ireland you might be wrong. In this country, commonly associated with the English tongue, Irish (also known as Gaelic) is constitutionally the nation’s first language. Many people in Ireland regard Irish as an integral part of their culture - in fact, the essential medium through which Irish culture is appreciated and fostered. This explains the dramatic increase in interest in the phenomenon of all-Irish schools. Although English continues to gain importance worldwide, many families in Ireland opt to put their children through a school system that conducts all its teaching, learning, sports and the arts in the Irish language. This total immersion in Irish aims to create a larger sector of the population which is bilingual in English and in the historic language just this side of extinction. Stamped out by the occupying British, who regarded it as a danger to their sovereignty and established English as the language of Ireland’s first national primary school system in 1831, Irish has all but disappeared in most areas of Ireland. The Famine also helped to kill off the language as well as the people who spoke it: 4 million Irish used the Irish language in 1841, but in 1851 this number had already dwindled to 1.7 million. By 1911 only 527,000 Irish still spoke their traditional language. It was associated with the Famine, the peasantry and its poverty, and went from being a flourishing mode of communication at the beginning of the 19th century to almost a fossil by the 20th. The Irish language continues to exist in a few pockets of the society, the Gaeltacht communities primarily in the west. In the 1950’s the Irish government attempted to begin a program whereby subjects in state schools were taught in both English and Irish. But experts argued about whether this was a viable or even effective method of keeping Irish alive. In light of this, frustrated parents and lovers of Irish culture began work to establish their own all-Irish schools. Gaelscoileanna, a voluntary national organization that promotes and supports these schools, was established in 1973. Although the movement started slowly in the seventies at schools in Dublin, it began to receive grant support through Bord na Gaeilge, the Irish Language Board, in 1978. Over the next 20 years interest in all-Irish schools flourished, increasing from 18 primary and five post-primary schools in 1978 to 124 primary and 27 post-primary schools in Ireland in 1998. Approximately 25,000 school-age children now receive their education primarily in Irish. “The growth over the last 15 years is phenomenal,” says one parent whose daughter attends a relatively new all-Irish school in Dublin. But much of the initiative lies with the parents. Those wishing to send their children to all-Irish schools must frequently establish new schools themselves due to lack of available space. When a group of parents can get 20 to 25 four-year-old children together for a class, they can approach Bord na Gaeilge, the Irish Language Board, for provisional recognition. If they receive a grant, they must then find premises and a teacher, and this group of children forms the first class. In the subsequent year this group moves up, and new children are accepted for the next first year or “junior infants” class. After three years of such expansion, the school may apply for permanent recognition. The burgeoning interest in all-Irish schools is a tremendous boost for families expending considerable amounts of time and energy as the responsibilities of parents are not few. “They are constantly fund-raising,” says Áine Ní Shíthigh (pronounced “awnye nee heehig”), Principal of Lios na nÓg (“The Fort of the Young”), an all-Irish primary school. Having your children attend one of these schools “is a big project, and you have to be prepared for the level of commitment and dedication required.” The fact that there are fewer post-primary schools makes places in them next to impossible to get. Why go to all this trouble when the Irish education system can easily compete with any other in Europe? “Many parents don’t speak the language themselves, but wish to give their kids the opportunity to learn it,” Shíthigh explains. “Others do have the language and want it to continue.” Immersing the children in the language keeps it alive, making it a comfortable part of life. Class visits to the Gaeltacht areas also prove extremely beneficial. “The children see a new way of life, see Irish used as an everyday language.” For these families the benefits of obtaining a profound knowledge and appreciation of their native culture through its language – the most cohesive and universal element of any human society - far outweigh the trials necessary to achieve this. Bound by a common language, these families form a tightly knit community that congregate for social and cultural reasons as well as educational. “There is great spirit in the atmosphere,” states Shíthigh. Apart from the advantage of bilingualism, families appreciate the fact that, as another parent says, “the teaching is sometimes better and the classes smaller,” than in a regular school. But more than that, they get “the feeling of being at home with Irish.” And this feeling means a great deal to those in Ireland trying to nurture and revitalize their national identity.

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