Why we need more opportunities to speak Irish

Dearbhaile talks about learning Irish in school and positive steps we can take to make it easier to use after school

Written by Dearbhaile Roe


Many young people in Ireland spend a significant amount of their childhood and teenage years learning Irish – 8 years in primary school, 6 years in secondary school and perhaps a summer in the Gaeltacht. Undoubtedly, there are many things we learn in school that do not continue to be useful in our lives beyond the Leaving Cert, depending on your circumstances and your interests. I think for many students, proving Pythagoras’ theorem and regrettably the Irish language spring to mind. Unfortunately, for many students when they close the door behind them after their Irish oral in sixth year, they effectively close the door on the language. ‘’Slán’’ was never more powerful and sincere. It is heartbreaking reflecting on the amount of time, energy and effort students have given to the language for it to be cast away forever in the Aimsir Chaite.

Part of our identify, culture and history

Gaeilge should not be a burden imposed upon students throughout their school days. It is our national language and it unlocks a huge part of our identity, culture and history. People enjoy having the cúpla focal stored in their back pocket, ready to be used when necessary, but seldom used in daily life, despite extensive schooling. This frustrates me. It begs the question, why? It is positive that we have a national curriculum, online resources, television and radio stations but we need more people choosing to speak the language.

Opportunities to speak Irish

The standard of Irish in schools has been criticised but even if everybody left school with a reasonable level of fluency, it is argued that most people would still choose to speak English. It may be a bitter pill to swallow, but I think the way Irish is taught is not the main reason we don’t speak Irish. I think the issue is that we have limited opportunities to apply what we learn in school in our daily lives and importantly there is not enough incentive for people to care. Incentives are very powerful and if we don’t assign a stronger value to Irish, the language may die out.

For most people, their Irish begins to fade after school , and they have no outlet to use the language. Many people move between dismissing the language or wishing they could chat with ease. Ultimately, unless Irish is part of your degree or already part of your life outside of a subject in school, it is difficult to regularly use the language, with the exception of road signs and public transport announcements such as SEACHAIN AN BHEARNA le do thoil.

This mainly applies to young people who live outside Gaeltacht regions. However, there is still no designated university that accommodates Irish speakers. Many students who attended Irish primary and secondary schools unavoidably go back to using English for academic and social reasons. It is a vicious cycle as those with the language cannot communicate effectively with others, so is English automatically used

My experience with the Irish language

I have studied Irish for many years and have been fortunate to have the opportunity to continue learning as part of my degree in Education and Psychology. There is a huge emphasis in college on instilling a dearcadh dearfach (positive outlook) in young people but I often think educators teaching Irish don’t acknowledge the broader issues which undermine the use of the language. We need to teach children Irish while creating situations where they can apply their learning outside of the classroom with purpose. My main experience of speaking Irish for a genuine purpose was during a two week stay in the Gaeltacht in Ceann Trá in the Dingle Peninsula. It was a wonderful way to reconnect with Irish. Although I had often received good grades in Irish, I still struggled with confidence. For years, it felt very artificial and learnt off, with a constant feeling that I would make mistakes if I spoke it. But there it was relatively easy to make progress and use the language go nádurtha. However, outside of this environment, it remains challenging and inconvenient to speak Irish.

There is something peculiar about speaking Irish publicly outside of the Gaeltacht, where it is unexpected and can be judged. Many people feel too uncomfortable to speak it on home soil. I, like many other young people want to increase my use of the language on a daily basis but it feels like swimming in aghaidh na taoide.

Taking positive steps

I believe there are too many tokenistic gestures towards the Irish language. Any effort is positive, but I think politicians need to make more of an effort to use the language at a deeper level than finishing a speech with go raibh maith agat. They need to lead by example. The Dáil was supposed to operate through Irish after securing independence but it never changed. I think this is a primary reason for the dominance of English in our society. Another issue is why every primary school isn’t a Gaelscoil? Surely that would help increase and normalise the use of the language. Ultimately, this needs to be connected with opportunity. Certainly, there are lots of advantages to fluency in English but we shouldn’t disregard Irish and the benefits of bilingualism.

Overall, it is promising that there is a significant emphasis in the Education colleges on instilling a dearcadh dearfach (positive outlook) in young people and that the language is moving with the times. As they say in Irish, caithfimid beart de réir ár mbriathair (

we must act according to our word). If we want Irish to thrive, we need to create more opportunities and space in society. “I ndiaidh a chéile a thógtar na caisleáin.” We have the power to enact change.

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