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Irish has a standardized orthography: by the 6th century the Gaelic alphabet containing 17 letters was developed from Latin. This remained in use until the 1960s when the Latin script was introduced into the school system. A new spelling norm has been set down from 1945 and a new grammar norm in the 1950s.
Irish, or Gaeilge, is an autochthonous language spoken in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The majority of primary Irish speakers using the language on a daily basis are located in the regions known as Gaeltacht areas (to which the language receded during the languages shift that occurred).
Map shows percentage of the Irish, stating they speak Irish daily outside the education system. Based on the 2011 census.
The 2011 Census provides an comprehensive overview of the language: across the State overall, some 1,774,437 persons, 41.4% of the total population, define themselves as Irish speakers. This figure includes 66,238 Gaeltacht residents representing 69.6% of the total Gaeltacht population of 96,628 persons.
Inscriptions in Ogham from the 4th and 5th centuries are the earliest known forms of the Irish language, pre-dating Old Irish. The period between the 6th and 9th century saw the flourishing of Ireland’s Golden Age. This early period also provided a variety of literature in Old Irish which is considered the earliest vernacular example in Europe. The cumulative effect of colonisation, plantation and suppression, particularly from the 16th century onwards, led to the elimination of the Irish-speaking aristocracy and their institutions. Additionally, catastrophic famine, emigration and epidemics decimated the Irish-speaking rural indigenous population during the 19th century, all factors which led to a language shift to English. Language restoration efforts by voluntary organisations began in the early 20th century 1). With the emergence of the free state in 1921, Irish was made the national language, and outside the Gaeltacht, or traditional heartland of the language, education was seen as the main tool in language revival. In the 1980's only 3% of secondary students were receiving Irish-medium education. 2)
Irish is an official language in the European Union. Irish is not covered by the Charter, because the Charter does not cover official state languages.
The Irish constitution states that:
The Irish language is mentioned in over a hundred acts. Of great importance is The Official Languages Act (2003), which deals with, among other things:
Article 8 proclaims Irish the first national language by virtue of being the national language. In a judgment delivered in the High Court on 16th April 1999, Ms Justice Laffoy interpreted this to mean that “an obligation to provide for the education of the children of the State at their first stage of formal teaching and instruction must involve an obligation to provide for education in the constitutionally recognized first official language of the State. It follows that the requirement of the rules that teachers teaching in recognized primary schools should have proficiency in Irish is a valid provision under the constitution… also a valid requirement under European Community law…it is neither disproportionate nor discriminatory.” Matters of school location, entry policy and curriculum are subject to ministerial regulation.
The Education Act (1993) gives the Irish language a prominent role in education. The law differentiates between Gaeltacht areas and other areas in Ireland. Traditionally the Gaeltacht Areas were geographically determined locations, but since the Gaeltacht Act (2012), they are defined as areas where Irish is frequently spoken.
Article 2 of the Education Act (1998), states, among other things, the following goals:
Article 9 lists, among other things, the following functions of a school:
Article 31 describes the establishment of “a body of persons” that, among other things:
Since pre-primary provision is largely privately funded, the introduction of Irish depends entirely on the provider, whether pre-school, Montessori or other. No stipulation on Irish is attached to the recently introduced Department of Children and Youth Affairs free pre-school year. However, some English-medium preschool services will introduce incidental use of Irish, particularly in playschool contexts for children from age 3. Irish is listed on the curriculum of Montessori provision. The Irish medium and Gaeltacht sectors of Naíonraí (Irish-medium playgroups, usually age 3+) or any other provision for younger children provided by these sectors will generally be conducted through Irish as medium.
All recognised (funded) schools follow the national curriculum, including Irish, unless individual exemption is granted on specific grounds. In IM schools, Irish is the medium of instruction.Overall, within the primary system, the IM immersion sector is very successful on a continuing upward growth pattern with good results in language and mathematics according to independent research (see Section 8). Use of Irish in Gaeltacht education varies in response to the linguistic profile of the students and the local context. Research by An Chomhairle um Oideachas Gaeltachta is Gaelscolaíochta (statutory support body for Irish-medium education)published in 2011 showed that just 1,000 (10.5%) of 9,500 primary pupils were native speakers.
While Irish is one of the core subjects in the majority of schools and must be included among the subjects chosen for the Leaving Certificate, two problems remain. One is the variable quality of teaching as DES surveys show. The second is the increasing trend towards seeking exemptions from Irish. This sometimes begins in primary school so that the exemption will remain for second level if it is granted. Exemption is granted on specific grounds: education for a certain period outside Ireland for Irish nationals or for foreign incomers, or for students with attested learning difficulties (M10/94 post-primary; M12/96 primary). Examination results in Irish continue to show success for many. For students, the crux often is the lack of opportunity to use the language in contexts other than school, although many teachers show great initiative in creating such social contexts.
With regard to courses that are taught through the medium of Irish, many of the extracurricular courses (offered by Acadamh na hOllscolaíochta Gaeilge National University of Ireland, Galway in particular) can be defined as adult education. Additionally, people attending the Back to Education Initiative or Community Education courses may request Irish language courses towards State examinations certification. Other providers of Irish language courses are self-funded evening adult programmes in second-level schools, Education Training Board centres, Irish medium institutions and other locations which offer Irish classes for adults. Some are general, others are for specific purposes, for parents or for club leaders or for those interested in aspects of Irish culture, e.g. literature, folklore and music. The best-known residential Irish summer courses for adults are operated by Oideas Gael.
Some higher education institutes have established an internal support body called Bord na Gaeilge (Board for Irish), which conducts courses and events that are open to all staff and students. At National University of Ireland, Cork, Ionad na Gaeilge Labhartha (Centre for Spoken Irish) runs a suite of flexible courses and successful results in one specific course counts for the first year of the university’s degree course in Irish. Many higher education institutes conduct flexible diploma courses in Irish language skills.
The Language Centre at National University of Ireland, Maynooth has developed a Teastas Eorpach na Gaeilge (European Certificate in Irish), a progressive structured graded course that is specifically designed for adults and based on the Common European Framework for Languages: Learning, Teaching and Assessment (Council of Europe, 2001). Examinations are offered regularly and recognised by the Association of Language Testers in Europe. Courses are conducted for tutors as well.
In the Gaeltacht, the group Breacadh (Dawn), in collaboration with the ETBs, continues (since 2000) to provide services through Irish to adults in literacy in Irish, communication skills, computer skills, family learning. They also produce appropriate resources for the literacy classes in the three main dialects, commission research, and publish vocabulary lists in areas of work integral to Gaeltacht life. They have endowed a doctoral fellowship at Acadamh na hOllscolaíochta Gaeilge on literacy levels among native Irish speakers.
For pre-school teachers, the two IM pre-school providers have ensured the provision of the appropriate training and qualification through Irish, for Level 5 and 6 Certificates in Childcare.
Aspiring Irish language teachers at the primary level, can follow an undergraduate concurrent or a postgraduate consecutive program; the former leading to a BEd degree, the latter to a Professional Master of Education (PME).
At post-primary level, the Initial Teacher Education (ITE) situation tends to change as higher education institutes offer courses to meet professional need. In the concurrent model of teacher training no course exists through the medium of Irish but Irish is offered as subject in conjunction with other disciplines, e.g. home economics, physical education, religious studies and business studies.
The consecutive model of ITE at post-primary level now requires the qualification PME following the possession of a recognised degree.The TC has also issued specific degree criteria for registration of subject teachers at post-primary level including for Irish as curricular subject. Verifiable residential experience in a Gaeltacht area is required in addition to evidence of competence in the language. A programme of appropriate post-primary ITE must also have been completed.
Read more about Irish language education in Mercator's Regional Dossier.
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