Don't Mind Me: Is ‘playing the system’ fair or foul?

Patricia Feehily


Patricia Feehily

Don't Mind Me: Is  ‘playing the system’ fair or foul?

Being exempt from the Irish on the Leaving Cert certainly defeats the propose of learning our native language

NOW that this year’s Leaving Cert is out of the way and thousands of bleary-eyed ex-examinees are winging their various ways to Magaluf, Ibiza and Ayia Napa and other hedonistic sunspots to re-boot their exhausted brain cells, the hoary old chestnut of compulsory Irish returns to bite us in the behind.

I don’t know why it has suddenly become an issue, but it seems that the increasing number of exemptions from the subject is beginning to rouse suspicions in the academic world. They’re worried that some people might very well be ‘playing the system’.

Now what planet have they been living on since the foundation of the State?  Do they not know that this is the land of saints and scholars and if there’s a system here to be played, then we’ll bloody well play it if we can get away with it. I’m all for ‘playing the system’ if it’s handed to me on a plate.

Now I have to be careful here, because the last time I mentioned the Irish language in this column, I was subjected to death by a thousand cuts on social media and survived only with the help of a massive blood transfusion that nearly broke the national blood bank. But seeing that we’re living in a more tolerant Ireland now and considering that I must have some minority rights, I’m going to take a chance regardless.

It seems that it was the NUI that smelled a rat as far as exemptions from compulsory Irish were concerned. Apparently two years ago, the Department of Education granted 3,851 exemptions from Irish on the grounds of disability. The exemptions were based on reports secured from psychologists by the parents themselves, indicating that their offspring were linguistically challenged as far as the native tongue was concerned. But it was only the native tongue that challenged most of them. Sixty per cent of the linguistically challenged went on to study French, German, Spanish and, for all I know, Chinese Mandarin, and I haven’t a doubt in the world but that some of them got A’s.

I don’t blame them, to be quite honest. The points system is a rat race and if being exempt from studying the Irish language gave them extra time to concentrate on Maths, for example, which carries an extra 25 points just for passing a Higher Paper, then the Department’s olfactory organ isn’t quite as effective as it should be.

The trouble is that playing the system costs money if you’re to do it properly. Not every parent can afford the services of a private psychologist to certify that a child is in need of an Irish exemption in the Leaving Cert. What happens to them? Is there a public service available to them and do they have to endure the endless waiting time associated with nearly every public service these days. Or do they just have to knuckle down and study the Modh Coinniallach?

Now, I have to say at this point that the Dyslexia Association, which is doing tremendous work to ensure academic inclusivity for all children regardless of ability, disputes the NUI claims and says that there are many reasons why pupils who obtain an Irish exemption under the current system go on to do well in other European languages. Nothing is ever black and white.

What everyone seems to be forgetting, however, is the increasing number of children who qualify for an Irish exemption because (a) they have lived abroad and didn’t start school here until the age of 11 and (b) they were born and raised here, but have lived abroad for three years and came back to the Irish education system before they were 11 years old. These exemptions particularly suit hospital consultants and other professionals who go abroad to enhance their qualifications and to hone their skills. Admittedly it also suits the victims of the recession who had no alternative but to go abroad for a few years to make a living and who are now returning to Ireland.

Either way, the system is there to be played and, as I said, we’re all keen players when we want to be. The only obvious and fair conclusion, from my perspective anyway, is to remove the compulsion to study Irish. Make it a subject of choice for those who love the language and those who find it easy to learn. Even give it bonus points if necessary. Meanwhile, the universities can decide themselves whatever courses they feel necessitate an Irish qualification in the Leaving Cert. At the end of the day they are not really the custodians of the Irish language. The people are, but the bottom line is that so far, neither of us has made a good fist of it.