Friday, 8 April 2011

Ireland has narrowly averted a major cultural disaster. Since the formation of the Fine Gael/Labour government, the proposal to make the Irish language optional in secondary schools has been dropped in favour of restructuring the way in which it is taught. This change of heart is hugely significant and will allow the Irish language to reassert itself as a form of national identity.
Language holds a strong cultural significance in any country, and Ireland is no exception. Often used to symbolise Irish independence from Britain, the ancestral language has played a pivotal role in solidifying national identity. Unfortunately this identity has been diminished significantly in recent years, as issues have arisen regarding our sovereignty due to European integration.
It is fair to suggest that EU membership is the way forward and that perhaps the loss of a certain degree of sovereignty is a necessary step in this direction. However, the loss of “cultural sovereignty” is both unacceptable and unnecessary. If European integration is a reality, then the Irish language is one of the few things that makes us distinctly Irish.
Many argue that the native language holds little practical value anymore and this is a perfectly understandable opinion. However it is not simply a medium of communication. It has not held this position for generations. Its importance today lies in its symbolism. Given our relationship with Europe, it is essential that we maintain a level of cultural independence. If we do not do this, in a number of years we may be asking ourselves whether we are Irish or European.
If Fine Gael made study of the Irish language optional for the Leaving Cert, students simply would not do it. As a student of Irish myself, I remember sharing the same argument as many with regard to the actual practical use of the language in day to day Ireland. The fact was that I was not mature enough to appreciate the actual value of the native language. Students today are no different.
However, I do agree with the coalition’s claim that the way in which the Irish language is taught needs to be changed. More emphasis should be put on oral and aural work rather than old Irish poems and stories in which the Irish is actually out-dated. Many students leave school with only minimal skill in spoken Irish and this needs to be changed. A student currently studying Irish at third level feels that there is a “clear flaw in the curriculum when students can study it for thirteen years and in the end they can't speak a word of it”.
Speaking at a post-election talk at the University of Limerick, Fine Gael TD Kieran O’ Donnell stated that there should be a “thirst” to learn Irish. He shares the view that students leaving school have a poor level of Irish oral skills and that this needs to be addressed.
If Enda Kenny had pursued his plan to the end, it would have been detrimental to the nation as a cultural entity. If students do not have to study it, they won’t. One of the few things keeping the language alive is the fact that students are required to study it for the Leaving Cert Exam. If made optional, I firmly believe that in a number of decades the Irish language would be effectively non-existent because the language would die with the older generation.
It is a shame that after less than a century of independence we, the Irish people, have had to come this close to a cultural disaster. While the language has been in an almost constant decline, Fine Gael’s proposal would have destroyed Irish culture. I use the word “culture” here because we need simply to look at the context of the Irish language to understand its greater influence. We hear it in our music, our stories, our poems and our folklore. The Irish language is inextricably linked to all of these so if the language becomes extinct, our culture as a whole will be destroyed.
So how do we preserve the language? The teaching certainly has to be revised because no matter how qualified or talented a teacher is, they cannot overcome the fact that they are bound to a backward system. Perhaps, to encourage younger students, there could be less focus on book work so more emphasis could be placed on a more interactive setting where students can be given more time to converse in the language.
Despite increased involvement with Europe, we do not share the same mentalities. We are, in fact, a different nation from others in Europe and to pretend otherwise is farcical. We must fight to maintain our cultural independence. We’ve already made significant financial compromises with Europe, let’s not compromise our cultural integrity.

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