The benefits of learning Irish

27 Jan 2017 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 27 Jan 2017

Image courtesy of Terry Virts/ISS

Scope continues its focus on education in Northern Ireland with a look at the Irish language – discussing lifelong learning, bilingualism, immersion and increasing access.

The Irish language has become a political football, to the great regret of many people promoting its use.

In our series on education we are looking at learning generally, not just the schools system. This week Scope spoke with Conradh na Gaeilge about the benefits of learning languages in general and Irish in particular

Ciarán Mac Giolla Bhéin told us how and why he thinks learning Irish can be of huge benefit to all local people.

“The benefits of bilingualism, or multilingualism, have been well documented and proven time and time again in a vast number of studies from around the world – especially early-age bilingualism.

“It’s a matter of cognitive development. Children with a second language do better at maths, they have more empathy and are more tolerant of others.

“So there are huge benefits for young people – particularly when it is immersion learning that can lead to fluency in two languages.”

However, he says it is not just a boon for children and young people, noting that thousands of adults have taken the time to develop some fluency, with many using it as a gateway into further studies. And, of course, it is also well established that learning in later life is great for the mental health and wellbeing of older people.

Furthermore, he said that the Irish language is intimately wound together with the millennia-long story of Ireland as a whole and that anyone with an interest in our heritage would have much to gain – citing Mary McAleese who said, of learning Irish, that:

“Comprehension of the language revealed so much that had been hidden from me except in translation. Now I saw the creativity, the beauty and the artistry at first hand. It was like transitioning from black and white television to colour. Irish life came into view in Technicolor.”

Languages: more is better

One question that is frequently raised when it comes to the Irish language is one of practicality, and economic relevance. If we are going to encourage children to learn more than one language in their early years then why not Spanish, or Mandarin, or Arabic - something spoken outside of this island and by huge numbers of people around the world?

For Mr Mac Giolla Bhéin it doesn’t have to be either or.

“If you look at Sweden, their national language is not spoken much outside the country, the majority of them speak English as well – and indeed many people are fluent in more than two languages – but they would not question the value of Swedish. It is a similar situation in Norway.

“Broadly speaking, knowledge of and fluency in languages is just a huge positive, and the benefits seep into other aspects of your life.”

He also cites Wales as a country with a very similar situation to Northern Ireland, saying that it does a better job of promoting Welsh while, at the same time, everyone speaks English.

Conradh na Gaeilge has, unsurprisingly, some big ambitions. They want to see a strengthening of support for Irish-medium education, but also want much improved provision of Irish in other schools – including those where most pupils would be from a protestant/unionist background.

Adult learning is an area where he says Irish is flourishing but where access is not uniform across NI – and, while there are and continue to be courses in protestant, unionist and loyalist areas, there is still untapped potential.

It is their view that this would be of enormous benefit for local society.

History of the Gaelic League

Next year will see the 125th anniversary of Conradh na Gaeilge. The organisation believes that learning the Irish language, as well as being meritorious on its own terms, is also an illuminating way into local history.

Mr Mac Giolla Bhéin says that the Irish language is thousands of years old and its local heritage should be open to everyone and appreciated as part of our common local history.

“We had branches on the Beersbridge Road and on the Newtownards Road. There was a rally held in the Ulster Hall in 1913 that was addressed by Padraig Pearse, on the one hand, and by someone from the Orange Order on the other.

“They were both coming from different perspectives on constitutional politics, different traditions, but both had a core agreement when it came to the Irish language.”

Again, this is something Conradh na Gaeilge hopes can be helped by legislation.

The current draft Programme for Government is, at best, in limbo given the collapse of the latest Stormont mandate, but Mr Mac Giolla Bhéin is keen for one particular element to carry on.

The draft PfG promises to: “Develop the potential of Northern Ireland’s Irish and Ulster Scots languages and cultures including establishing an Ulster–Scots Institute and Irish Language Academy.”

He said he would like to see what such an academy would entail, especially how it might help harmonise existing Irish-language provision and also address the important issue of access.


Mr Mac Giolla Bhéin said that statutory support for the Irish language exists but has been reactive.

He said every single Irish-medium school in existence was driven by the local community, from the ground up, and is concerned that the Area Planning Process could harm what he says is a growing sector.

Characterising Area Planning as “broadly, the closure of small schools”, he said there are worries that Irish-medium schools that might only be a couple of years old and are seeing an increasing in enrolment might be treated the same as rural schools that have seen a longstanding decline in pupil numbers.

At the same time, he said transport is crucial – acknowledging that, for example, if a handful of parents in a particular area would like their children to learn in Irish, it does not follow that a school should open, he said what should be the case is that all feasible efforts should be made to provide transport links to the nearest Irish-medium school.

Another area where statutory support could be useful is in providing a general curriculum for adult learning – which is a significant subject for later-life learning across Northern Ireland, with thousands of participants.

Currently, if someone learning Irish moves house and therefore changes venue for their education, it is very difficult to know how best to integrate them, because there is no standard curriculum and so much of the teaching is ad hoc, and varies from venue to venue.

He says further that a key aspiration for Conradh na Gaeilge is to boost the popularity of Irish language learning among the protestant/unionist community – adding that there is some interest, but a long way to go.

Linda Ervine is probably the most high-profile supporter of Irish from a loyalist background, but there is perhaps some latent interest – even if it is completely untapped.

Mr Mac Giolla Bhéin says he was at a course with various schools around NI and met some pupils from Dunclug College in Ballymena. He said they were genuinely very interested to learn – having had no idea – that their school has an Irish name which is reflected in their crest, with depicts a tower or fort (dun) and some bells (clug).

This, he says, is emblematic of how the Irish language is genuinely tied up with local history, including the names of places and the names of local people.


An obvious barrier to all the aspirations of Conradh na Gaeilge and others working to promote the language is political sensitivity.

Currently it is bundled together with flags, emblems, dealing with the past, parades and other elements of local life that form the front line of intransigent cultural battles between, for want a better differentiation, Northern Ireland’s two main communities.

However, that is one of the things they hope would be put on the right track by an Irish Language Act.

“We wouldn’t deny that this has become a political issue – but it is not party political. We welcome support from every party, and we don’t want to be in the middle of some sort of trade off.

“Legislation doesn’t fix everything but it could do something to help with the toxicity of the situation, and it will give the language statutory protection and allow people who want to learn it to do so.”

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