Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time main text: 6 mins.)

Hundreds of primary and secondary school students demonstrated on 29th April outside the Irish Parliament, to protest the decisions on the Irish language curriculum and lack of State support for education through the Irish language.

Teenagers and younger, many in their school uniforms, led by a few organisers, shouted slogans and some carried placards and banners. There was a sprinkling of a few older adults in their midst also, some long-time campaigners for the Irish language in society.

Primary and secondary school pupils attended from at least six colleges, all Gaelscoileanna, i.e those where instruction in all subjects (except English) is through Irish. Led in by an adult and spontaneously, they chanted slogans such as: Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam!

Confirmed in attendance were pupils from schools in three counties: Coláiste Íosagáin and Coláiste Eoin, from South Co. Dublin; Coláiste na Mara (Co. Wicklow); Coláiste Rachrann (North Dublin), Coláiste Chill Dara (Co. Kildare).

Julian de Spáinn, General Secretary of Conradh na Gaeilge (Gaelic League), a state-funded organisation for the promotion of the Irish language, speaking in Irish, said that the education system is “broken in relation to the Irish language.”

“A comprehensive policy needs to be developed for Irish within the education system from pre-school to third level”, De Spáinn stated. Irish within the education system has been surrounded by controversy in recent years from teachers, parents, students and language organisations.

Concretely, De Spáinn called for the immediate establishment of a working committee “composed of people who understand Irish within the education system and that have experience of it.” He said that the specifications and syllabus for the Junior and Senior Cycles are “nonsensical”.

He went on to claim that more than 90% of those teaching the Senior Cycle are unhappy with it and went on to criticise Minister Foley’s decision to move Paper 1 of the Irish exam for the Leaving Certificate to the fifth year (although its implementation has now been delayed).

In addition to criticising the lack of Gaelscoileanna throughout the state, De Spáinn stated that the exemptions from Irish language study are “out of control” and that pupils with special needs were not receiving the necessary service that they may be facilitated in studying Irish at school.

(Photo: D.Breatnach)
(Photo: D.Breatnach)
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

Shane Ó Coinn, Chairperson of An Gréasán do Mhúinteoirí Gaeilge, the website for teachers of Irish, stated that Irish in the education system was suffering, for which the main cause is that the Education Department had ignored the opinions of teachers and of pupils.

“It is clear from the results of SEALBHÚ”, he continued, “that an oral examination in the third year is urgently needed, the marks for which should account for 40% of the total.”

Gráinne Ní Ailín, officer of the Irish Union of Post-Primary Students, said that an integrated approach of the education authorities was missing and that a proposal from one agency was conflicting with another.

“On the one hand, the Education Minister is intent on moving Paper 1 of Irish to the fifth year, while the state agency, the National Council for Curriculum and Measurement is working on changing the entire curriculum specifications for the Leaving Certificate.”

“It is not possible to carry out both actions simultaneously,” Ní Ailín said and recommended taking a step back and putting together a comprehensive plan.

Pictiúr: Leon Farrell / Photocall Ireland

Status of the Language in the Irish State

Many may be surprised to know that Irish is not only an official language in the Irish state but, according to the Constitution, the language of first status. Nevertheless, Irish-speakers have become a minority in the state and the Irish-speaking areas are all shrinking.

Despite the official position of the State and which Governments and civil servants are obliged to support nominally, many people report a lack of services through Irish at all levels of State and in public services, with even official public notices in Irish often garbled or even incorrect1.

In the 1960s and ‘70s it was only through campaigns including civil disobedience and supporters being fined or even jailed that the State provided an Irish-language radio station and a TV channel and legislation obliged State departments to provide services through Irish on request.

When the Irish state joined the EU (formerly EEC) it did not request that Irish be an official language of the organisation but it became so on 31st December 2021 — and may well reveal a large gap in availability of translators.

The Gaelscoil (school teaching through Irish) movement may be said to be the only visible success for the language within the territory of the Irish state but, as the protests and many other factors reveal, it has struggled against the State system of which it is a part.

In 2020-’21 academic year, there were 152 Gaelscoileanna outside the Gaeltachtaí (Irish-speaking areas), with at least one or two in each county and catering for 7% of all children at that level outside the Gaeltachtaí in the Irish state.2

Out of 700 post-primary education facilities in the Irish state outside the Gaeltachtaí only 29 are Gaelcholáistí, or 2.8% of the total. Ten of those are in Co. Dublin, four in Co. Cork and some other counties have one or at most two.

But twelve counties out of the 26 in the Irish state do not have even one Gaelcholáiste (post-primary level), i.e. approaching half of the counties in the state.3 In a tragic irony, this includes Co. Clare, from which the Irish-speaking Aran Islands are believed to have been colonised4.

In addition there are some units and streams teaching through Irish in other schools and colleges but of course outside of the classroom, even within the school, the dominant environment is an English-language one.

Twenty-eight Gaelcholáistí, representing 18% of total Gaelscoileanna are DEIS, i.e addressing educational disadvantage integratedly. Although 31% of Gaelcholáistí are of Catholic ethos, 69% are multi-nominational or non-denominational.

However, outside the Gaeltachtaí, even with fully-immersive Gaelscoileanna, how is daily use of the language in society to be promoted when the pupils find themselves surrounded by exclusively English language in their lives outside the school gates?

The Irish Language in the Colony

The British colony in Ireland (incorrectly named “Northern Ireland”) from its creation in May 1921 was hostile to the Irish language, as indeed it was to all expressions of ethnic Irish culture. Unionist MPs openly mocked the Irish language even inside their parliament.

Nevertheless following substantial pressure, its parliament passed the Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Act 2022, giving the language a legal status within the colonial statelet5.

However, as we have seen even in the Irish state, legal status is not necessarily followed by appropriate implementation and unionists have thrown up obstacles against even the erection of bilingual street names within the colony.

(Photo: Leon Farrell/ Photocall Ireland)


The Irish language has been a part of all movements for national independence of Ireland. The occupier sought to ban its use among its colonisers and degraded its importance and use in all legal, educational and religious spheres.

Though the Irish state formally defended and promoted Irish, it presided over huge emigration for most of its existence. This combined with lack of development of the rural Irish-speaking areas encouraged a drift away from Irish for those whose language it had been at home.

Despite the activity of earnest individuals no major political party in practice moves itself energetically to promote the language. It is not required of their members or even representatives and none run any major language acquisition program – even for their own members6.

The same is true of all Irish Left and Republican political parties and organisations at this time.

Most advances have been won by political activism and the work of volunteers, across a number of parties and none. The movement continues to call on the State to put its money where its mouth is, as the saying goes, or the equivalent in Irish, to commit “beart de réir a bhriathair.7


1The State used incompetent translation for its Irish language version of its video on the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Rising. The whole video was withdrawn after wide-scale criticism of even the general content in English. Notices urging people to remain safe from Covid, when translated to Irish urged them instead to be saved!



4There are a number of indicators for this instead of from Conamara but one is the pronunciation of the lenited M followed by a broad vowel, which would sound like a W in Conamara but a V in the Aran Islands. This Clare dialect can be seen in place-names extending into Co. Galway, for example Cinn Mhara pronounced Kinvara (it would be pronounced Kinwara in Conamara).

5Even then, to placate Unionist opposition, it had to share equal space with the promotion of Ulster Scots dialect, widely known to be spoken in actuality by less than tens of people.

6This is true even of Sinn Féin, the political party most in support of the Irish language. Their activity in its support within the Irish state comes nowhere near matching the same within the Six County colony, suggesting that for them the Irish language is principally a useful stick with which to beat their Unionist opposition.

7 “Action in accordance with their words.”


Na céadta ag Teach Laighean ag éileamh go dtabharfaí aghaidh ar chás na Gaeilge sa chóras oideachais –

‘The State invests in something that’s then lost at secondary school’: The challenges for Gaelscoileanna (

What are Gaelscoileanna? | Gaelscoil | Teaching Wiki (

Statistics : Gaelscoileanna – Irish Medium Education


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