Parents wishing to educate their children through the medium of Irish face a number of hurdles in an oversubscribed system, writes Ailbhe Conneely.

On the day the Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage described the commemoration of the 1916 Rising as a chance for people to reflect on what it means to be Irish, the Oireachtas Education Committee heard the hurdles parents face in order to educate their children through the official language of the State.

Few Irish speakers in 1916 would have believed that in 100 years some Gaelscoileanna would be over-subscribed, that parents would face an interview process to establish if their child was being brought up through the medium of Irish at home, or that the said interview would be "as Gaeilge" to establish the level Irish of Mamaí or Daidí.

Indeed brushing up on the "cupla focal" through Irish language courses to ace the interview is more prevalent now ever before.

Courses cost money, and there's a certain level of competency required for those that undergo the arduous task of relearning the modh coinníollach, all to ensure that their little ones are educated through the medium of Irish.

On the surface their efforts can be lauded, however despite an increase in the number of Irish language schools in lower socio-economic areas, there is a view that the predominant demographic attending Gaeilscoileanna are the children of parents who can afford the time, money and effort to re-learn the language.

At the Oireachtas Education Committee, one member explained how her parents were unable to help when she faced her own hurdles regarding the Irish language at school.  

"I left school at the age of 14", Catherine Byrne explained.

"Because to go on and do the Leaving Cert, you needed Irish".

The Fine Gael Deputy doesn't blame her parents; they were hard working people, who like the majority of working class Dubliners at the time were busy trying to keep food on the table. 

Their daughter's fluency of Irish wasn't exactly to the forefront of their minds.

However, it appears the past continues to impact on the future when it comes to Irish language education.

Deputy Byrne explained that when her own daughter tried to enrol her child into a Gaelscoil, her efforts were futile. She was refused on the basis that she wasn't bringing her child up at home through the medium of Irish.

Deputy Byrne was unrelenting in her disapproval despite an explanation from Bláthnaid Ní Ghréacháin of Gaelscoileanna Teo - a national voluntary organisation supporting the development of Irish schools at primary and post-primary.

Ms Ní Ghréacháin explained that one aspect of enrolling into an oversubscribed Gaelscoil  nowadays, is an assessment of parental fluency. 

The Fine Gael deputy repeated her opposition to the measure and asked that her disagreement be formally put on the record.

Over-subscription is just one problem that emerged from the Education Committee which had representatives from Comhairle Oideachas Gaeltachta agus Gaelscoilaiochta; Gaelscoileanna Teo, Tuismitheori na Gaeltachta and representatives of the Department of Education before it.

Currently there are 308 Irish language primary schools, 67 Second level schools, 187 infant schools including Gaeltachts and Northern Ireland. 

43% of Primary Schools and 25% of Secondary schools are oversubscribed according to Gaelscoileanna Teo.

Another problem facing Scoileanna lan-Ghaeilge according to Bláthnaid Ní Ghréacháin is the lack of teachers with the standard of Irish required in order to work in the schools.

She explained that those willing to teach in all Irish language schools are faced with a number of options on the application which assesses if teachers have required level of Irish to teach in an all Irish school.

Ms Ní Ghréacháin said latest figures show that out of 2,000 teachers, only 115 tick the box to say they're fluent, however she said of that number, the standard of Irish was questionable.

This evidence was backed up by COGG, which works to keep up with the National Education Syllabus in order to provide Gaeilcoileanna with the necessary books. Junior Cycle reform is the latest challenge for the small team.

Its Chief Executive Muireann Ní Mhóráin pointed out that the chances of getting fluent Irish language secondary school teachers in subjects like Maths, Physics and Biology were slim.

It means existing teachers with their own syllabi are forced to "gen up" in extra subject areas. Ni Mhóráin pointed out the amount of preparatory work for these teachers is significant.

The contribution to the committee by parents living in the Gaeltacht gave an interesting insight into how life has changed for Irish speaking regions which are largely bilingual now according to Tuismitheorí  na Gaeltachta.

"Irish is no longer spoken as widely in communities and it is no longer as straight forward to teach Irish to learners", they pointed out.

Native Irish speakers are no longer in the majority in the Gaeltacht families, schools or communities according to Sorcha Ní Chéílleachair.

Representatives from Department of Education and Skills assured the committee that the department is fully committed to the role of Irish language and the teaching of Irish in the school system. 

Assistant Principal Tony Gayner pointed out that a report on the Irish language in schools will be given to the Minister before the end of the year.

That report may include a point raised by the Sinn Féin Deputy Trevor Ó Clochartaigh who sends his children to a local Gaelscoil.

He told the Committee the children are raised through the medium of Irish at home, however he said after their first term in school, they returned home with "Gaeilge bríste", at which point he was corrected by the Fianna Fáil Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív who described it as “Gaeilge Lofa”.

"Gaeilge lofa, cinnte" agreed Mr Ó Clochartaigh.

While there was plenty of broken Irish from Committee members, there were a significant number of deputies who said they were fluent in the past, but that it was no longer the case. 

The majority of apologies were made through the medium of Irish before many reverted to English.

And few could blame them.

When a fluent speaker like Mr  O Cuív poses questions as Gaeilge, anyone with pigeon Irish would be intimidated.

However, when a confused representative of the Department of Education made efforts to reply to a query he believed was for him, the Fianna Fáil deputy pointed out angrily that he didn't pose his question to the department. 

He suggested that the English translation being piped into the Committee Room was wrong.

It was an uncomfortable viewing and the kind that turns people off the language regardless of whether it's Gaeilge bríste or lofa.