There’s been a sharp increase in the number of students who are getting exemptions from studying Irish at second level. A third of junior cycle students availed of exemptions between 2019 and 2022, while the numbers of Leaving Cert students dropping Irish went up by 22% over the same period.
The record number of exemptions has led to some calls for it to no longer be a compulsory subject for Leaving and Junior Certificate exams.
The suggestion that Irish could be made an optional subject has provoked a strong response, particularly from people who believe maintaining it as a core part of the education system is key to ensuring it survives for future generations.
Actor and comedian Michael Fry says he strongly believes it should remain compulsory. He started re-learning the language later in life, and told Katie Hannon about his experience for ‘Upfront: The Podcast.’
“We all have weird feelings about Irish, the minute that it switched for me was realising that it does serve quite a nice function and that you can have full conversations with people in it – and you can do so outside of a setting that dictates that you have to be perfect all the time.”
“It’s also kind of knowing your history and understanding your identity, and understanding that other countries don’t have what we have,” he said.
LISTEN: Michael Fry speaks to Katie Hannon on Upfront: The Podcast
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The Navan native has thousands of followers and subscribers across social media, and says he had a good level of Irish the whole way through school.
“I went to the Gaeltacht twice. I did the very strict one, Coláiste Na bhFiann, where you’re not allowed to speak English at all. And that really helped my fluency. But I’m also just good at languages; I did languages at university, French and Spanish. It’s something that came naturally enough to me.”
He says he believes that Irish should remain a compulsory subject in schools, and strongly refutes barrister and columnist Brenda Power’s suggestion on Upfront on Monday night that making it compulsory has been “a failed experiment”.
“I think more of us speak Irish than we did before. We are getting educated to higher levels than we have before. We have more teachers. I think saying it’s ‘an experiment’ is quite a horrible way to refer to it as well. I think it belongs in our education system because where else would we find it?”
“I still firmly believe if you’re Irish, you live in Ireland, you should learn about the Irish language because it contains so much more information about our heritage, our culture, all those different things. And so, ‘a failed experiment,’ I find that a bit derogatory, to be very honest,” the comedy star says.
He took on his own language-linked challenge in 2022, supported by a mentor from Beo ar Éigean, an Irish-language podcast produced by RTÉ. He ended up writing one of his renowned sketches as Gaeilge, with the help of his mentor, Áine Ní Bhreisléain.
WATCH: A video of Michael Fry performing a sketch as Gaeilge
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“The only place you encounter Irish is in school. When I left school, there was very few places you would encounter Irish other than on road signs or the occasional announcement on the Luas. There’re very few opportunities for adults, unless you properly seek them out, to learn Irish.”
“I think if you give people the opportunity, they do take it up, but it’s also having support for Gaeltacht areas and things like that. That’s been eroded over the years.”
“I think by keeping Irish in the education system, it’s official in some way and that it’s viewed as important because I genuinely don’t know where else it would be viewed as important. Where else does everybody go? Everybody goes to school more or less, and everybody has to learn Irish.”
However, the comedian is critical of how the language is taught, saying a better way to learn a new language is a mix of formal instruction and immersion.
“It’s definitely the way it has been taught. I did a lot of stuff on second language acquisition when I was in university, I did sociolinguistics and when immigrant children come over to a school that doesn’t have their target language, the best way to get them in and integrated is to have formal instruction in their own language and then immersion.”
Acknowledging the long-standing criticism of the way Irish is taught within schools, he says he wouldn’t see any real disadvantage to turning our primary school system into a Gaelscoileanna system.
“I know people think that our brains have only capacity for one language sometimes or whatever. You go to other countries, and they speak multiple languages… I know it sounds radical, but I don’t see a real disadvantage to doing that.”