On Seachtain na Gaeilge, Caoimhín De Barra highlights international examples of the rejuvenation of languages and says Ireland should consider similar steps.
IT’S THE ANNUAL Seachtain na Gaeilge for 2021, running from 1-17 March. As our country nears its 100 year anniversary, this is an appropriate time to reflect on what could be done differently to achieve what our nation’s founders saw as one of their most important goals: reviving the Irish language.
One proposal that has gained some support is the idea of making every Irish primary school a Gaelscoileanna.
If implemented, this undoubtedly would see an improvement in the use of the language in the long-run. But it wouldn’t revolutionise the use of Irish across the country in the way that some people imagine.
Most students would leave primary school fluent in Irish. But by the time they completed the Leaving Cert, the majority would lose the fluency they once had. While our education system can help some people become fluent in Irish, this alone will not lead to more widespread use of the language.
This has been one of the flaws of the effort to revive Irish. It has generally been assumed that the only issue preventing Irish from being spoken more widely is a lack of knowledge. If this could be fixed, the language would flourish once more. Or so the thinking goes.
This idea can be traced back to the nineteenth century when Irish nationalists saw the national school system introduced by the British government as the primary agent of Anglicisation in the country.
But this fundamentally misunderstood why English replaced Irish as the daily language of most people. English didn’t become widespread because Victorian schoolmasters were excellent language teachers (with modern teachers of Irish somehow unable to emulate them).
English became the dominant language in Ireland because the British government created an environment where its use was of enormous economic benefit to the individual.
Therefore, if one really wants to revive Irish and to see it thrive alongside English, then one needs to think about how to make fluency in Irish attractive economically.
What can be done differently? Obviously, one could propose lots of ideas in this regard. But the next logical step to build upon what already exists is to establish a university that educates students through Irish.
Indeed, this might be necessary not just to help advance the cause of Irish, but to preserve the gains that have already been made through the growth of the Gaelscoileanna movement.
In his book, Compulsory Irish: Language and Education in Ireland, 1870s to 1970s, Adrian Kelly points out that in 1949, a quarter of all secondary schools in Ireland were Gaelcholáistí. But one reason this number declined was that students were unable ‘to continue education through Irish in the universities’.
The number of primary students educated through Irish has increased steadily over the last twenty years. But it would be a mistake to assume this will continue unless new opportunities are created for students to fully capitalise on the benefits of their bilingual education.
The existence of an Irish-language university would have a trickle-down effect upon secondary and primary schools, to try and provide more instruction through Irish.
But even for students who wouldn’t attend Irish-speaking schools, the existence of a Gaelollscoil would cause some students to reconsider their attitude towards Irish.
The fact that students would likely be able to do their chosen degree through Irish while requiring fewer points than they would need to attend Ireland’s traditional universities would mean that some secondary students would take the study of Irish much more seriously than they currently do.
If one looks at the history of the Hebrew language, one can appreciate just how important a role a university can play in helping revive a language.
In Ireland, it is often erroneously believed that Hebrew was revived by the Israeli state due to the need for a common language among its linguistically diverse population. In fact, it was revived before Israel was established, and it was primarily revived by people who already shared the common language of Yiddish.
But what is most striking about its revival is how quickly its supporters developed a Hebrew-speaking university.
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In 1880, literally, no-one spoke Hebrew as the language of the home. The first kindergartens were opened in 1898. Within five years, Hebrew-immersion primary and secondary schools had been established.
The next step was to open a Hebrew-speaking university, and this was achieved in 1912.
In truth, Hebrew only became the language of instruction after a bitter struggle. European Jewish philanthropists who supported Jewish immigration to Palestine protested that using Hebrew as the language of instruction would be impractical. But the supporters of Hebrew remained adamant and won the day.
The result? Today the Technion at Haifa is ranked as the top university in the Middle East and one of the top one hundred in the world. Its fifteen thousand students earn degrees in every scientific field. All through Hebrew.
Of course, establishing an Irish-speaking university wouldn’t just be a boon for the language. It would also be a tremendous asset for the community it would be located in.
In the United States, for example, many small towns thrive economically due to the benefits of having an institution of higher education in their midst.
It would make sense, therefore, to locate an Irish-language university in the Gaeltacht, not just for the linguistic benefits, but as an act of rural regeneration that is badly needed as many areas outside of Dublin struggle to sustain themselves economically.
To say all this is not to be blind to the fact that establishing such a university would not be easy. It clearly would be an enormous undertaking. But we live in a state founded by visionaries. It is time we had a bit of vision ourselves.
Caoimhín De Barra is an assistant professor of history at Gonzaga University, Washington.