Tuesday, February 06, 2007

On the Teaching of Irish

A student of Irish wondering if he should throw in a few more fadas for luck, yesterdayAn Spailpín is interested to note Conradh na Gaeilge’s suggestions about improving the teaching of Irish in schools, as published yesterday and reported in the Irish Times this morning. The proposals are fine, as far as they go; the problem is of course that as long as the syllabus remains as misguided as it is any proposals along the lines of those of Conradh na Gaeilge’s are exercises in deck-chair re-arranging on doomed ships from the Harland and Wolff shipyard. However, to re-invent the Irish language syllabus would require things like courage, vision, commitment and logical consistency, none of which are concepts traditionally associated with Dáil Éireann or the inhabitants therein.

An Spailpín Fánach is also just rotten enough to remark that Conradh na Gaeilge might be better served attending to the problems in their own house. Your humble correspondent signed up for one of Conradh’s own classes some years ago – the ardleibhéal, no less – and the experience was a disappointing one. In fact, were it not for the fact that his friends are now insisting that your slightly bitter quillsman accentuate the positive I would posit a view that the only reason Conradh runs classes is to make easy dough, but as I say, I eliminate the negative in these things anymore and let all this little stuff go.

One of the reasons why the Conradh classes, and any other classes I’ve attended, have been wastes of time is the absence of set texts, and this asinine idea currently in vogue for the “spoken language.” What this means in effect is that teachers can just gas away for two hours and then toddle off home, happy that they’ve done their bit for the language.

Well, life isn’t that easy. Learning another language isn’t for cissies, and learning one as complicated as Irish takes a certain amount of guts. One of the reasons why Irish is so difficult is because of the mutations of the words – words change according to the grammatical function they perform in a sentence in a way that is utterly alien to English constructions. It’s quite common in Latin, but dumbing down means that we try and keep exposure to that from our children’s innocent eyes as well. We can’t risk thinking breaking out, you know.

An Spailpín Fánach’s chief memory of Irish from his schooldays – and those schooldays last fourteen long years, let’s not forget – is of Irish essays being returned with corrections in red ink that indicated h’s missing in some places and h’s to spare in others, the whole thing peppered with missing fadas, making that days pensées looking like they’d been caught in a blood-coloured blizzard. By the time the Leaving Cert rolled around, I had given up all hope of ever figuring out what went where, and I approached the upcoming examination in the same stoic manner as an infantryman going over to the top at the Somme – I knew that if I made it safely to the other side I was damned if I was ever coming back to this God-forsaken vision of Hell.

Children start learning Irish at the age of four. It’s a fifty-fifty shot if they’re even fully toilet-trained and we, in our wisdom, expect them to pick their way through a sentence as euphonically pleasing and grammatically complex as “ná bac le mac an bhacaigh agus ní bhacfaidh mac an bhacaigh leat.” We are an optimistic race.

Irish grammar is complicated. Full stop. Most people’s memories of Irish at school are of being hopelessly lost in its thickets, or else of simply counting the days until the Leaving Cert when they’d never have to look at another leabhar or focal ever again. So, nice and all as it would be to think that one could just painlessly soak the language up, as porter is imbibed on Saturday night, that’s not the way the world works, and all the wishing in the world won’t make it so.

The Government, insofar as it gives the language any consideration at all, is interested only in not rocking boats – not rocking the traditional pieties about part of what we are and aren’t the Gaelscoileanna great, and not rocking the gravy trains to the Gaeltachts and subsequently losing seats in the election. After that, they couldn’t give a rooty-toot-toot.

If you do give a rooty-toot-toot, if in this age of concepts of patriotism going no further than ringing Dessie Cahill to tell him how deeply proud you are to see rugby and soccer in Croke Park, then God help you. However, An Spailpín is stricken with the same sickness, so call back in a few days to this strange space and we’ll see what we can to do to learn our language correctly. In the meantime, An Spailpín respectfully suggests to Mary Hanafin and her underlings in the Department of Education that perhaps she could take Mr David Lee Roth’s advice, and employ hotter teachers. This is the Podge and Rodge generation after all.

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