Réamonn Ó Ciaráin, the Director of Education with Gael Linn
As mid-term approaches, several Derry Year 13 students remain unable to access A' Level Irish in any post-primary school in the city.
The father of one of the young people concerned told Derry News he had been left with no option but to homeschool his son in the subject.
He said: “Little did I think when my child was attending Irish-medium nursery and primary school and receiving the majority of his education to GCSE Level through the medium of Irish, he would be unable to continue to study Irish to A' Level.
“It is a shocking situation and one which simply would not be countenanced if we lived in any other European country. Imagine a student in France being told they could not study French or through French. It just would not be tolerated.
“This situation is compounded by the fact that, outside of the post-primary sector, not one single centre of learning in Derry City is providing A' Level Irish for adult learners or returners.
“How has this situation been allowed to develop and where will our future náiscoil, bunscoil and meánscoil teachers, not to mention our university lecturers, come from if urgent remedial action is not taken to reverse this sad decline? I do not understand how anyone, with direct or indirect responsibility for Irish education, has allowed this to happen.”
Speaking to the Derry News, Réamonn Ó Ciaráin, the Director of Education with Gael Linn, placed the blame squarely on the legislative authorities, boards of governors and principals.
In September, Mr Ó Ciaráin chaired an online discussion on the “critical decline” in the uptake of Irish in English-medium post primary schools. The discussion was attended by 57 teachers who “felt compelled to seek urgent and decisive action”.
They called upon the legislative bodies of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Department of Education and their arm’s length bodies, such as CCEA, as well as the Education Authority, to intercede as matter of urgency to reverse the worrying trends in the study of the Irish language and other languages in English-medium post-primary schools.
Gael Linn is a non-profit and non-governmental organisation focused on the promotion of the Irish language and the arts.
Mr Ó Ciaráin said: “The legislative authorities, boards of governors and principals will have to realise that the Irish language is more than a school subject. In some schools in the area this is already the case.
“For many, Irish is their native language and, therefore, they should have every opportunity to learn it to the highest level in education. It needs to be facilitated, not made difficult. If the system makes it difficult or less desirable to study a given subject, what will happen inside a number of years is that there will be a decreased demand, where there was once was a greater organic demand.
“Conversely, if we start with the view, whatever happens, we must offer Irish in our school, things will be better for the Irish and its learning.
“The problem of Year 13 students, in other areas, who chose Irish A' Level being unable to study it as a result of time-tabling issues, between schools and their area learning community, has been brought to the attention of Gael Linn. It often starts further down the school when pupils choose Irish and by doing so miss out on another language or subject, or choose another subject and miss out on Irish.
“There is a perception Irish is marked more severely than other subjects and both teachers and pupils know it may be more difficult to achieve and A*. If students do not study Irish in the first place, for instance, they will not take it later on or at college.”
Mr Ó Ciaráin added that the system made it difficult for pupils to opt for Irish and other languages and then claims there is little or no demand for the subject.
“I do not think this is equitable,” he said. “Every effort should be made so that all pupils can study Irish, or other languages, to A' Level and in the case of pupils from Gaelscoileanna, it is obvious that the continuity in language learning should be in place.
“If there was legislation in place to promote Irish language rights, as promised in the Good Friday Agreement and the St Andrew's Agreement, these are precisely the issues a Commissioner for the Irish language would address. A Commissioner could ensure equitable access to Irish language as far as University, which is more than just a school subject.
“Ulster University, Magee, has an excellent reputation for the study of Irish and one would have thought, therefore, that all the schools in the area, where Irish would have been traditionally offered, would do their best to offer Irish to A' Level as a key into university, the local university in particular.”
Mr Ó Ciaráin was confident the situation could be reversed.
He recalled: “In 1988, Irish teachers and supporters came together to campaign for the overturning of a proposal, which at the time was being brought forward by the then Minister of Education, Brian Mawhinney. The proposal would have marginalised and downgraded the Irish language. This campaign was successful.
“What is happening now across the North is Mawhinney by the backdoor, in my opinion. Irish and other languages are being marginalised and their importance downgraded. This makes me sad but ready to campaign for our special native language to have its rightful place in our education system, along with other languages.
“If students don't get to study Irish, few will end up going to spend time on residential courses in the Gaeltacht, such as those organised by Gael Linn. These courses represent an important rite of passage for thousands of students each summer. However, they rely on students studying Irish at GCSE and A' Level to remain viable.
“The Foyle Learning Community has, apparently, failed children who wanted to study A' Level Irish because authorities in the area have not been allowing for the rightful significance of the Irish language in the lives of many pupils in that area and in other areas also. They must have overlooked the significant cohort of Gaelscoil pupils who would naturally wish to take Irish at GCSE and A' Level.”
Mr Ó Ciaráin reiterated that Irish was more than a school subject. He said it should be made available.
“Nothing short of maximum availability will suffice when it comes to the Irish language, our native language,” he said. “We are all aware of the importance of lifelong learning and there should be pathways to GCSE, A' Level, diploma, degree and postgraduate study for adults and young people who wish to continue learning Irish while working or after leaving post-primary education. There should be incentives for institutions to offer Irish in this way.
“Irish, as a taught subject, is in danger of being available to fewer and fewer students as time progresses. This stems from the disapplication of the requirement to take a language at GCSE taken by the Government in Westminster in 2004, coupled with the excessive emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects.
“It began to impact in 2007, at the same time as the economic crisis, followed by Brexit confusion and, more recently, Covid-19. The crisis in Irish language learning cannot be allowed to deteriorate further. It is too important to us all, even though we don't all realise this as much as we should.
“If this situation continues, fewer students will continue to study Irish at university and this despite the increased demand for Irish in the workplace across the island. Between May 2020 and May 2021, almost 500 jobs with Irish being desirable or essential were advertised on Conradh na Gaeilge's www.peig.ie site.”
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