As a successful Seachtain na Gaeilge ends in UCD, Amy Bracken hits campus and flashes the Fáinne to see just how relevant the language still is for the students of UCD
Ah, the cúpla focail – the subject you either loved or despised in school, the supposed language of the State, the italics you avoid on road signs… the number of definitions being coined for the Irish language never cease.
Anyone entering the education system in the Irish state before the age of eleven is subject to it. Radio stations, newspapers and magazines, and even a television station interact with the public through it. Yet surprisingly, it is the household language of only three per cent of the people. With Seachtain na Gaeilge (Irish language week) having just ended in UCD, just how much Irish can students speak today – and does it disappear after the Leaving Certificate? Is Irish dead?
Matthew is a First Year student in Arts, taking Irish as one of his subjects. His ambition to become an Irish teacher stems from the fact that he has spent time in the Gaeltacht in An Cheathrú Rua in Galway.
“I spent three summers in the Gaeltacht – when I was 14, 15 and I returned as cúintóir a few years later. I’ve gotten a job there for this summer, as cinnire.”
Matthew took Higher Level Irish for his Leaving Cert and decided to pursue it in college due to his passion for it – apparently not being the only one, citing a mature student in one of his Irish modules, who will ‘definitely’ send her children to a Gaelscoil, due to the fact that by holding conversations, it is easier to practise your language. Matthew also emphasises his belief that unless people are actively using the language, they will lose it.
As most could guess, Matthew’s enthuasiasm for the language is not universal among the student body. Carla, living in County Dublin, is a First Year student of Biochemistry. Despite being born abroad, she studied Irish for three years, to Junior Certificate level, before receiving an exemption for the Leaving Cert. “My Mum didn’t want me taking it for my Leaving, because of the extra workload involved. I didn’t want to abandon it as I loved it, but I knew she was right.”
When asked if her level of Irish has deteriorated in the years in which she hasn’t been using it, Carla concedes that she hast definitely lost bits of it, but that her time spent in UCD has helped to revive it. She participated in the No Béarla campaign during Seachtain na Gaeilge, and has been availing of free Irish lessons to improve her levels of Irish.
“I went for the first time last Tuesday. It was a helpful class; they gave us plenty of notes to take home, and there were lots of different levels to choose from-elementary, leaving cert. level, etc. Afterwards there was a céilí, so that was fun.”
Carla has also previously spent two summers in the Gaeltacht. “One of them was very strict… some people were expelled from it for speaking English.”
She describes her level of Irish as “normal”, and took the Leaving Cert standard Irish language class, although she was not intending to take the Irish exam in her Leaving Cert.
Hugh, a Final Year History student History from Donegal, describes himself as having a “fair standard” of Irish and credits this to his primary school teacher. Despite not having attended a Gaelscoil, Hugh credits his teacher with providing him with a strong level of Irish – the majority of which he still possesses, though admitting that some of it “disappeared” when he finished school. However, Hugh was very dissatisfied with the way Irish was taught in his secondary school, stating that his Irish teacher encouraged him to learn off essays she had written by heart before exams. “I was basically just writing down words I didn’t understand.”
When asked if he believes the standard of Irish demanded for the Leaving Cert is too high, Hugh says no, but stresses his belief that whoever is teaching the language can have a huge influence on whether or not someone will try to keep using Irish after school – saying that you “need someone to make it interesting for you.”
It seems clear that different degree faculties and different backgrounds can have a major influence on levels of Irish and in maintaining an interest in the language. Both Matthew and Carla visited the Gaeltacht as teenagers and both participated together in the No Béarla day, despite their different degree programmes. Hugh has never been to the Gaeltacht, and did not participate in No Béarla.
Unlike Hugh, I grew up in the vicinity of a Gaeltacht, but I am participating in No Béarla and spent some time working with An Cumann Gaelach in my first year in UCD.
This goes back to Hugh’s point on Irish teachers and the need for them to make the subject engaging for students. I can accredit my own personal passion for the language to my second year teacher. Hugh accredits his level of Irish to his primary school teacher who provided him with an incentive to build up his knowledge of the language; however, it is probable that his second-level teacher discouraged him from doing so. Either way, Carla’s desire to learn Irish means that she is often speaking it among her friends, despite not having taken it for a number of years. Surely this is proof that the language is coming back?
Despite the statistic that only three per cent of Irish households using the language by default, the influence of the media and the growing use of campaigns such as Seachtain na Gaeilge and No Béarla shows that the language is, in fact, growing in popularity – as is evident in the fact that every third person understands Irish to some extent.
Just over three years have passed since the government introduced its 20-year strategy to make Ireland a fully bilingual country. Is Irish dead? Hardly. It’s on our radio and television. Irish tourists abroad are plagued with foreigners shouting “Conas atá tú?!” Even the makers of Carlsberg know a few lines: “Is maith liom cáca milis… agus Sharon Ní Bheolain!”
It seems there might well be hope for the cúpla focail yet.