“Compulsory Irish”: the Place of the Irish Language in Ireland’s Post-Colonial Education System

Photograph Source: Darren J. Prior – CC BY-SA 4.0

Seanscéal agus meirg air, meaning “stale news”, or, more literally, “an old story with rust on it”. This figure of speech aptly describes the annual spilling of ink over the status of the Irish language in the education system of Ireland’s Twenty-Six Counties.

The “debate” often occurs during the summer months. In June, tens of thousands of young people take their Leaving Certificate examinations. One of the required subjects they must study in their final two years of secondary school is the Irish language.

Some people, including journalists, disliked their experience of learning Irish in secondary school. This compels many of these tortured souls to put pen to paper every summer to vent their spleen, their aim being the removal of “compulsory Irish” from the Leaving Certificate course.

(I place the term in quotations as it is, in reality, a loaded term; “compulsory English”, the de facto compulsory language in Ireland, rarely gets a mention).

Two summers ago, in 2019, when the Department of Education altered its rules for those students with learning difficulties seeking exemptions from the study of Irish, the question of “compulsory Irish” was “debated” yet again.  Or, rather, it was whipped up.

This summer just gone the relatively low proportion of students (50%) opting to take the written Irish exam, who instead chose to receive the accredited grades made available due to Covid, brought further calls for the removal of “compulsory Irish”.

In June, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, an Irish speaker who is as infamous among Irish speakers for comparing them to the Taliban as he is among Irish-Americans for his anti-Trump speech, intervened briefly in the “debate”. The Labour Party Teachta Dála (Assembly Delegate) tweeted that the figure of only 50% sitting the exam in Irish represented “a problem”.

It was time, he boldly asserted, “to think radically about the future of the language”. The Labour Party, said Ó Ríordáin, were “advocating for at least one year in every primary school to be taught exclusively through Irish”.

I have not read the Labour Party manifesto. I would rather spend my time more fruitfully by cleaning my toilet bowl or watching paint dry. Anything the Labour Party said lost all credibility many moons ago – particularly in the years after 2011 when they formed an integral part of an austerity regime that decimated the state’s social fabric.

Nevertheless, one can speculate that Ó Ríordáin’s call to have a single year in primary schools dedicated to the teaching of Irish is not based on any serious consideration of the pedagogy of language teaching, of education, or of history – when it comes to the Irish language such political pronouncements rarely are.

More recently, Minister for Higher Education, Simon Harris, wrote in the Journal.ie of his desire to see the end of the Leaving Cert and its “points race”. He called for open access to third level education. Seans go dtiocfaidh an lá inné ar ais, “pigs might fly”; literally “yesterday might return”.

The prospect of the devoutly neoliberal Fine Gael party, of which Harris is a cabinet member, introducing universal access to third level education is laughable. And this before we even consider his abject failure in securing the major investment necessary to overhaul the two-tier health system during this tenure as Minister for Health from 2016-2020.

But his disingenuous call for an end to the Leaving Cert is interesting in light of the question about “compulsory Irish”. If such a universal third level system were ever implemented it might provide a window of opportunity for opponents of Irish, during a phase of reform of the Leaving Cert, to once again argue that the language should lose its place as a key subject for teenagers in the state.

On the other hand, such changes could signal a gain for Irish. If the competition of the “points race” was abolished, but Irish was maintained as a required subject, the problem of students seeking an exemption from the study of the language might be alleviated to a degree.

For several years, Conradh na Gaeilge (The Gaelic League), Gaeloideachas (the advocacy body for Irish-medium education), and others, have been calling on the Dublin government to put together “an evidence based comprehensive policy, for the first time since the foundation of the State, for the Irish language in our education system from pre-school to third level”.

Such a policy, by improving the quality of education in the Irish language throughout a child’s life, would go some way to negating the regular cries of those who oppose the language to make it optional in schools.

Despite the annual fabricated fuss, the potential (or lack thereof) for a restructuring of the Leaving Cert, and the question of exemptions, there remains broad support for the retention of Irish as a required subject at Leaving Cert level, with support greater among women, among older age groups, and outside Dublin in the provinces of Connacht and Ulster.

Why, then, does the “issue” continue to rear its head? The short answer is; because the minority who oppose the language’s status in the education system are incessantly vocal and are provided with platforms in the media to spout their baseless drivel.

Reaction of those in favour of retention of Irish versus those effectively seeking its abolition is often emotive. This, in turn, generates controversy, clicks and increases listener and viewer ratings, thus increasing revenue.

Indeed, one radio station, Newstalk, has more of an axe to grind than most. Several weeks ago it ran an online poll asking whether it was “time to make Irish a choice subject?”. The poll result was a resounding “no”.

Nevertheless, this is part of an ongoing anti-Irish language campaign by one particular host at the station, Dr Ciara Kelly; a type of demagogue for middle-class conservatives who think liberalism has “gone too far” and a favourite of assorted eejits who believe her to be “straight talking” because of her adversarial presenting style.

Despite majority support among the public, such campaigns can, without doubt, influence key policy makers. The unholy alliance which existed between the so-called Language Freedom Movement, Fine Gael and other anti-Irish language politicians and civil servants during the 1960s is testament to this.

The end result of that campaign was the removal of the Irish requirement for civil servants in 1974; a move that led to a demise in the status of Irish within the state and a shocking 0.2% of civil servants – just 16 individuals –  being recruited to deal with the Irish-speaking public between 2018 and 2021.

Less successful pressure groups than the Language Freedom Movement such as the Association for Choice in Irish, which existed in the 1980s, have faded into obscurity. Nevertheless, I do not subscribe to the idea – prevalent among some Irish speakers – that this anti-Irish language brigade are best off ignored and left to their own devices.

It may only take one easily persuadable Minister for Education to take on board some of the rhetoric of these colonised freaks and the language in the schools could be dealt a severe blow. With civil servants not taking heed of the Conradh’s calls for improvements to the teaching of the language throughout the education system, the threat that Irish could be demoted at any point remains a very real one.

Such a move would have a knock-on effect throughout the Irish speaking community with less university courses offered in the language , less employment opportunities, and less speakers generally.

It is my intention, then, by offering a brief overview of two books I recently read on the topics of Irish education, to add some historical context to the “question” of “compulsory Irish”.

Hopefully it will arm those who have the thankless task of facing down the colonial rump in the state with a better understanding of the historical developments behind “compulsory Irish”.

Primary Education in Ireland

The first of these is Primary Education in Ireland, 1897-1990: Curriculum and Context by Thomas Walsh. Published in 2012, the book shows the access Walsh, as an Inspector in the Department of Education, had to many sources which remain sealed to the ordinary researcher.

Walsh rightly identifies the primary school system founded in Ireland in 1831 as “a political response to the difficulties of the British Empire in controlling its closest colony”.

Moreover, “it was also the product of the various religious denominations within Ireland to use the education system to imbue the upcoming generations with their particular religious beliefs and ensure the survival of their faith”.

In essence, the schools were hybrid colonial-religious institutions, unlike most other countries in Europe. As a result, despite the departure of the coloniser from a portion of the country in 1922, the tentacles of the Catholic Church, even to this today, remain embedded in the education system.

But, for now, as Walsh notes, despite the entrenched and sectarian nature of primary education throughout much of the nineteenth century, the 1890s “became a period of reform”.

This comprised the cessation of a “payment by results” system for teachers which meant that only a small range of subjects were taught. International developments in education also saw the move towards a more child-focussed curriculum emerge.

With the introduction of the Revised Programme of Instruction (1900) there would be more emphasis on manual and practical subjects, and less importance placed on literary subjects.

The programme failed to be implemented effectively due to a lack of investment in teacher training, an under provision of additional physical spaces to teach the additional subjects, and a lack of democratic “buy in” by interested parties i.e. parents and the churches.

The British colonial government was never going to commit to the vast expenditure needed to successfully administer an educational system that would greatly benefit the Irish people – better off spending money on wars, conquest, and expanding markets.

In terms of the Irish language, Walsh documents how, under the Revised Programme (1900), “Irish could be taught as an extra subject to all classes or during school hours, so long as it did not interfere with other subjects”.

This came on the back of persistent campaigning by Conradh na Gaeilge – campaigning which also resulted in the introduction of The Bilingual Programme (1904), that applied to majority Irish-speaking areas.

The irony, however, was that this progress (albeit within the financial and ideological straight-jacket of colonialism) was scrapped by the newly founded Irish government in 1922.

On the eve of quasi-independence in 1922 an Education Bill (1919), known as the MacPherson Bill, was introduced. This incorporated recommendations about the establishment of County Education Committees and other progressive measures. However, the defeat of the bill, due largely to a Catholic and nationalist backlash, as Walsh argues:

“ensured that many of the issues that had previously marred Irish education were inherited by the Free State, including the lack of co-ordination between the various Boards and Departments [and] the deficiency of local interest due to lack of popular control and low attendance rates”.

The Irish National Teachers Organisation had organised democratic conferences in 1920 to push for a more participative system, but these were rebuffed and throughout the period 1920-71 a “centralised and secretive process” was used to determine the school programme.

The period of increased centralization also coincided with the introduction by the Department of Education from the 1920s onwards of a policy of Gaelicisation. One of the main stumbling blocks from the outset was that in 1922 “less than 10 per cent of the teaching profession were qualified to use Irish as a medium of instruction”.

Not only that, but neither was it child-focussed. Instead, it sought to impart facts, rather than cultivate and expand the mind of the child. Crucially, too, the programme of Irish-language instruction was introduced from the top down and not the bottom up.

This was contrary to Walsh’s advice based upon his main finding throughout the book, which applies especially to key junctures of curriculum change such as 1900, 1922 and later 1971, showing how “implementation works best in an evolutionary as opposed to revolutionary format”.

Indeed, the Primary School Curriculum (1971) led to a diminution in Irish due to the reduced number of required hours of Irish-language instruction to be carried out by teachers. Here was an “evolution” away from Irish.

The new curriculum, as well as being influenced by changing international economic and educational factors, was very much a response to the overly-ambitious plan with regard to Irish that existed between the 1920s and 1960s.

At the same time as the new curriculum was going through its teething process, the 1975 Committee on Irish Language Attitudes (CLAR) research found that positivity towards the language was on the increase across society as whole.

Nevertheless, according to Walsh, “respondents were dissatisfied with the teaching of Irish within the system, as it impacted on educational progress and equipped few with communicative ability in the language”

While Walsh acknowledges factors outside the education system as having had a major bearing on the gradual erosion of Irish within it, he also points to “the unrealistic expectations of what could be achieved” and how this “engendered a sense of failure among pupils, teachers and the public in relation to progress”.

Barring the Gaelscoil (Irish-medium school) movement which emerged largely in response to this retrenchment of Irish within the wider education system in the 1970s, the standards, time spent teaching, and quality of instruction in Irish has continued to decline in primary schools (and secondary schools) since the 1970s.

Walsh’s most significant conclusion when it comes to the Irish language is that the “radical attempt” to introduce Gaeilge after 1922 “greatly overestimated the power of schools to instigate [major] societal change and underestimated the complexity of effecting a change in the vernacular of a country.”

Ultimately, “the curriculum generally tends to mirror and follow societal developments and the school-based language restoration project … failed in its attempt to encourage a society to follow a curriculum-based initiative”.

Walsh’s well-structured, nicely written (yet sometimes repetitive) book is an important intervention into the history of Irish education. The range and use of sources is impressive.

Yet, though he references lack of funding as an important issue in implementing the curriculum at different points during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and likewise in reviving Irish, perhaps not enough weight is given to this. In reality it is the issue.

Instead, Walsh sometimes panders to the “conservative” and “complex” (his words) nature of the education system and Department of Education. Perhaps the system would not be so conservative and complicated if it were not for the lack of democracy and transparency of the state in general?

Citizens, even when interested parties to the development of the education system, are routinely kept in the dark as to the machinations of the Department of Education, as indeed with all government departments. The Department of Education is particularly opaque and refuses to allow historians, myself included, access to its archives.

Here we are reminded of the words of Marx, writing in The Constitution of the French Republic, published by the People of London in 1851:

“The condition of a ‘free government’ is not the division but the UNITY of power. The machinery of government cannot be too simple. It is always the craft of knaves to make it complicated and mysterious.”

A radical restructuring of the Department of Education, and an addition of a mass workforce of civil servants, has never been attempted; a fact made less likely by the cutback mentality of neoliberalism which has gripped every government department bar none since the 1960s.

The Department of Education still operates in the hierarchical manner it did during colonial rule, with a Secretary General (funnily enough now an Irish speaker) and a number of Assistant-Secretaries holding real long-term power. This status quo is upset intermittently, and only in superficial ways, by a change of minister with short-term electoralism in mind.

Nor has the radical redistribution of resources to train up a critical mass of Irish-language teachers to successfully resurrect Irish in the wider education system ever been attempted.

Even in more recent years, the provision has been a paltry €1.8 million and grants for teacher training, particularly for stays in the Gaeltachtaí, are cut, reinstated (perhaps!), only to be cut again at some future point.

Societal attitudes play a role in reviving a language, certainly, and resources should have been, and need to be, redistributed to positively alter this situation; particularly in the Gaeltachtaí (the Irish-speaking regions).

But within the schools themselves – whether the process is swift or evolutionary, preferably the latter – the language will not make inroads without substantial investment in teachers.

“Compulsory Irish”

To turn now to the second study. Unfortunately for Adrian Kelly in his Compulsory Irish: Language and Education in Ireland, 1870s-1970s, he extended an invite to write the book’s foreword to Joe O’Toole. At the time of writing in 2001, O’Toole was a senator as well as being the General Secretary of the Irish National Teachers Organisation.

O’Toole used both these positions to undermine the status of the Irish language within the education system, while cynically pretending that he only wanted the language to survive by making it optional and marginalizing it within the same system.

O’Toole, an Irish-speaker himself, traded off his faux concern for the language. His foreword for Kelly’s book, in which he refers to Irish language activists as “zealots” and “fundamentalists” continues a well-worn tradition of liberalism in Ireland that equates any real state support for the minority language with authoritarianism.

In this warped individualist view, the Irish language should exist only on its own merits, and it is up to solitary citizens to “choose” if they want to speak it. Such a stance disregards larger questions concerning the collective, such as those of socio-linguistics, cultural power, colonisation and the investment, or re-distribution, needed to decolonize Irish society.

Kelly’s book also emerged under the tutelage of arch anti-nationalist revisionist, R.V. Comerford, of the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. Comerford spent many years attempting to sell the lie that for a considerable span of the nineteenth century the majority of the population of Ireland was content within the British Empire.

Notwithstanding serious misgivings in the opening pages of Compulsory Irish, there are some important points to be gleaned from it. Like Walsh, Kelly also admonishes the early Free State. In the 1920s, he says:

“economics was not recognised as an agent of linguistic change … and the idea that the schools alone had brought about the use of English as a vernacular was the central premise on which the whole revival effort of the independent Irish government was based”.

Even within the schools, Kelly charts the reluctance of the Department of Education to move away from the over-emphasis on the written Irish language over the course of forty years. In the 1950s, mounting evidence about the failure of the written language to produce Irish-speaking children saw some begin to call for oral Irish-language examinations in the schools.

These calls were shot down by the Department of Education as being “unworkable”. According to Kelly, in 1953 “the Department of Education circulated a very detailed document outlining its negative response to the call for an oral examination”.

Yet, by the 1960s an oral examination had been introduced. Kelly notes, however, that these “changes of the 1960s far from justified the previous forty year period when successive governments refused to submit their teaching policies to scientific scrutiny, despite calls on them to do so”.

Kelly ascribes the unwillingness of the new state to accept critique of its educational policies to nationalist ideology. “Had realism been the guiding force behind the language revival policy in the schools”, he says, “then some degree of success could well have been attained”.

This lack of “realism” and “pragmatism” is portrayed almost as a type of Irish exceptionalism. If Kelly had expanded his reading to include international comparators he may well have reconsidered this argument, which is the cornerstone thesis of his book.

The colonial/post-colonial/decolonial context

Globally, many states during the twentieth century remained highly centralized and largely immune to democratic input on issues such as education, health and housing, until the reconfigurations that occurred in the wake of the Second World War.

In post-colonial countries and states navigating a decolonial process such an aversion to criticism was particularly acute. All across the decolonising world during the twentieth century, the newly emerging nationalist governments inherited the levers of colonial government and often ignored, deflected or suppressed criticism of how these were operated.

As Dane Kennedy has written, the new nationalist élites “acquired vested interests in the bureaucratic institutions, legal structures, and territorial borders that had been put in place by their colonial predecessors.” This, Kennedy says, “provided at least the foundations for the making of the nation-state; it also pushed other options off the table”.

Given the long-term colonial context then, it would have been difficult (though not impossible) for the kind of sovereignty and socialist redistributive state to emerge in Ireland that could have restored the Irish language to common communal usage.

Colonialism had implanted a negative connection between poverty and the language in the psyche of the people, it had hamstrung the Irish economy (especially after partition in 1920), it had elevated Catholicism as the distinguishing marker of national identity, and had forced most calls for “freedom” to be conveyed in a broad-church nationalist framework.

In a deeply rural, Catholic, peasant, petit-bourgeois and non-industrialised society as most of Ireland was, it was unlikely that anything but a conservative type of nationalism would dominate.

The anti-communism spread from the pulpits and the lack of mass trade union activity (barring some notable exceptions) made it unlikely that the nationalist leaders who emerged in the early years of the state would envision the type of radical policies that would arrest the decline of Irish, both in wider society and the schools.

This is not to excuse the policy choices made by Cumann na nGaedheal (later Fine Gael) and Fianna Fáil politicians; policies which Kelly rightly notes were counter-productive due to their lack of democratic input. It is merely to set them in their colonial context, where such democratic input had not been fostered in the state over the course of centuries.

Kelly ultimately closes his book (despite decent historical analysis in the main chapters), with another call to remove “compulsory Irish” from the education system of the state.

Ironically, in one of the concluding chapters he also notes how the “atmosphere Gallda” (English-speaking atmosphere) outside the schools contributed to the difficulty experienced in reviving the language within the schools.

Instead of suggesting how this might be remedied, he merely hones in on the removal of “compulsory Irish” as something that would, somehow, benefit the language, and, at the same time, improve educational outcomes for children overall.

On this final point, he disregards the mounting evidence showing the cognitive benefits of bilingualism that would have been available to him in the early 2000s, and he makes no mention of the benefits of the Gaelscoileanna and the atmosphere cultivated in them which greatly enhance the educational experience of the students.

All in all, despite some decent research, these critical blind spots undermine the book and demonstrate it to be more an anti-Irish language polemic than a balanced historical assessment.


Above and beyond the lack of pedagogical thought behind it, Ó Ríordáin’s call “to think radically about the future of the language” should not be taken seriously. His thinking is bound by the strict limitations of what can be achieved within the parameters of the capitalist state; a state which will never re-allocate the resources needed to revive the Irish language.

The civil servants of the Department of Education are already over-burdened and underfunded. Over the years they have had development units shut down and staff numbers slashed.

The last thing they want is an additional headache in overseeing a scheme that fosters the Irish language; a language many of them see through their neoliberal goggles as contributing no economic boon to Irish society and as therefore being worthless.

The primary findings from both Walsh’s and Kelly’s book concern the lack of democratic responsiveness and transparency in the Department of Education. This has, arguably, improved in more recent years.

Yet the Department’s centralised nature, the lack of funding it receives, and, some might say, an inherent anti-Irish bias among some of its functionaries, would act as a major impediment to any attempt to anchor the Irish language in the English-speaking schools of the state.

The Department has even put up barriers to the once flourishing Gaelscoil movement in recent years that have seen its growth arrested. The old anti-democratic demons that were so prominent in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have not been banished.

Under the pressures of the neoliberal demand to “rationalize” spending, gain “efficiencies” in staff deployment, and not cede control to local demands, the wagons have once again been circled.

Only a radical overhaul of the state, where citizens seize the leavers of power thereby allowing them a real say in who runs departments such as the Department of Education, and where the value accrued from economic production is invested in education, culture, and local economic development, will see the resurrection of the Irish language among the mass of ordinary people.

Then, maybe finally, the “debates” over “compulsory Irish” will become a thing of the past.

Dr Kerron Ó Luain is an historian from Dublin, Ireland. His most recent publication, Rathcoole and the United Irish Rebellions, 1798-1803, charts the emergence of radical Irish republican thought, and consequent military action, in his hometown.