In spite of the difficulties posed to the future of the Irish language, the student movement in Ireland appears to be firmly behind its continued growth and expansion. With the growing debate surrounding the status of the language in Northern Ireland and the threat posed by the discontinuation of some Irish language degree courses, the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) has taken a clear stance on supporting the language. This year marked a distinctive turn in the USI’s standing on matters relating to the Irish language, something which will have strong and beneficial implications for the union and the students it represents moving forward.
Similar motions on the appointment of a full-time, paid Vice-President for the Irish language had been turned down by USI’s annual national congress on a number of occasions in recent years. This meeting of Ireland’s student representatives in Ennis, Co Clare abounded with messages of hope and expectation for the renewed role of the Irish language as part of students’ lives.
It appeared that the passion among many of the delegates for this particular motion says a lot about the future of the Irish language in Ireland. President-elect of USI, Michael Kerrigan, pledged his commitment to the full-time paid status for the vice-president for the Irish language. He commented that “full-time status would revive Irish for many more people in our country”. A similar sentiment was echoed by Vice-President-elect for Campaigns, Amy Kelly,the current President of Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT), who argued that she was “sick and tired of defending our national language in this way” and also emphasised the need to help members of NUS (National Union of Students) – USI in Northern Ireland – to have an oifigeach na gaeilge installed.
USI have afforded the Irish language equal status to positions that represent students, such as welfare or academic affairs, something which will surely prove to be of major significance
While not avoiding opposition, the motion passed, with widespread support from the upper echelons of the student movement in Ireland. In doing so, USI have afforded the Irish language equal status to positions that represent students, such as welfare or academic affairs, something which will surely prove to be of major significance.
In the Republic, Irish, while afforded equal status with English in government, a gap still needs to be bridged in order to make the Irish language feel more inclusive. A full-time Irish language officer will hopefully be able to do just that. Cathal Sherlock, Education Officer of NUI Galway Students’ Union (NUIGSU), echoed this sentiment in his speech, claiming that “a full-time officer could use his or her time to meet with government and other officers” while Kelly claimed that it could attract increased funding for the Irish language and the “growth of cumanns”. Any future Irish language President or Vice-President for USI will feel the pressure to deliver on this enthusiasm.
Colm Ó’Néill, who served as USI’s Vice-President for the Irish Language for the 2015/16 year, told The University Times by email that “a very considerable emphasis is put on the Irish language in USI. Irish forms a central part of our campaigns, our advertising and our aims as an organisation”. Referencing the vote in favour of a full-time paid Vice-President for the Irish language in the union, Ó’Neill says that “the proper respect has now been afforded to this role and to the members who campaigned for it”.
In recent times, the status of the Irish language in Northern Ireland has become a more central topic of debate. On the one hand, a large community has placed the preservation of the status of the Irish language to the forefront of their agenda and potential programme for government. On the other hand, the unionist community, led by Arlene Foster, are unwilling to move an inch and would view any enhancement of the language’s status as a backward, regressive step. The imagination of many has been captured by this war of words and by the growing civil movement, led by An Dream Dearg who are demanding an “Acht Anois”. With the deadline for negotiations having now passed, the issue remains up in the air. The question is: will the mass mobilisation eventually tip the scales in favour of gaeilgeoirí na Tuaisceart?
USI also passed a motion to lend their support to the campaign for the introduction of an Irish language Act in Northern Ireland, reaffirming its commitment to campaign for students on both sides of the border in front of delegations made up from everywhere from Cork to Belfast. The St Andrews Agreement, signed in 2006, expressly made provision for the preservation of the status of the Irish language. USI has again chosen to back the Irish language and, in doing so, has aligned itself with groups such as Conradh na Gaeilge and An Dream Dearg.
As the Irish language faces its greatest challenge in recent times, the student voice will be sure to carry significant weight
As the Irish language faces its greatest challenge in recent times, the student voice will be sure to carry significant weight. This sense of looking to the future and the need for preservation shows an outward-looking, open-minded approach to this most pressing of issues.
Ó’Néill also welcomed this vote in favour of campaigning for an Irish Language Act in Northern Ireland, saying “this decision now means that we can stand for the protection of young people’s right both North and South of the border”.
This has also come amidst news of a blow to the study of the Irish language in Trinity. The College has decided to discontinue the Irish Studies programme, with the final cohort of students having been admitted in 2015. University College Dublin (UCD) and NUI Galway will now be the only Irish universities to offer this interdisciplinary degree course, first offered in Trinity in 2007. In a memorandum obtained by The University Times, from a meeting of the College Board in April 2015, it was revealed that there were only 10 first preference applications for the course for the 2014-2015 academic year with the quota for the course set at 20.
In spite of this, one of Britain’s leading universities, the University of Liverpool, have reaffirmed their commitment to this programme in recent years. Speaking to The University Times, Frank Shovlin, Director of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool, said that “over 600 students in the university take modules from the Irish Studies Department, with many of them studying English, politics or history and the total number of students taking the degree course itself has seen a healthy growth”.
Similar programmes are also offered at Notre Dame University in Indiana and in some of the Ivy League Colleges in New England. Shovlin also referenced the role Ireland will have to play in coming years and that in-depth knowledge of Irish affairs and the Irish language could prove quite pivotal. “Our degree programme is endorsed by His Excellency Dan Mulhall, Irish ambassador to the UK, who cites its important role in facilitating closer ties between Ireland and Britain, a role that is more important in light of current political instability in the UK, Europe and the US”, said Shovlin.
It appears now more than ever that the student movement needs to lend its support to the academic study of Irish as well as its more general, public use. While Irish remains a major focus in universities such as NUI Galway, there is a definite argument for increasing support for the Irish language in other Irish universities. A concrete, unified stance with respect to the Irish language will unquestionably serve USI well into the future, something that has been evident in the last number of weeks.