This summer, driving through Connemara, I pulled into Sraith Salach, (Willow Stream) as Recess is now officially called, on the N59 Galway Clifden Road. All Gaeltacht villages throughout Ireland now only have the Irish name, though it caused such a furore in Dingle/ Daingean that they made an exception. The village consists of a shop, pub and marble shop. My friends were eager to photo the statue of the Connemara giant designed to lure tourists into stopping.
I went across to the shop and addressed the local shop assistant in Irish. I speak Irish, but it is useless to me if I never use it. Though they appeared to understand they answered me in English. I continued in Irish and they became aggravated. This is Connemara- Irish is sometimes welcome, sometimes not and impossible to say in advance where it is welcome and where it will be met with hostility.
Still wondering about the situation I just experienced we drove past a primary school and I suddenly thought of Bríd Ní Dhomhnaill, no relative, but subject of a bizarre boycott of the eighties which would last for five years.
The school opened in 1975 and though situated in the Gaeltacht, English was the language of instruction there. The new principal, Bríd Ní Dhomhnaill, opposed this. According to Ní Dhomhnaill only one parent was adamant that English remain the language of instruction and she went and spoke to the parents individually explaining the importance of Irish to them. She also tried to promote the rich cultural heritage of the area to her pupils, which was undeniably intertwined with the Irish language. In the eyes of her enemies she became a ’language fanatic’. Today it is slowly becoming obvious that we are terrible at languages, whether continental or our ‘first official language’. What Bríd Ni Dhomhnaill, as an educational professional, wanted to do was to teach her pupils enough Irish so that they would have more than the pathetic cúpla focal, which would today be seen as an advantage. In the eighties, however the local parents saw emigration as the only future for their children and believed Irish would be of little use.
She also crossed swords with the Catholic Church when she demanded that the mass be said in Irish only as opposed to bilingual, which usually meant the odd Irish word here and there but mostly English. She claimed that the priest, Father Gabriel Charles, could not, or would not speak the language of the local people. Religion is a very personal thing and it would be no exaggeration to say that elderly parishioners would have been more comfortable with Irish than English. The priest warned her against meddling in church affairs and that if she continued to do so he would press the Department of Education for her dismissal.
The problem with that is that there were no reasonable grounds to dismiss her. She did her job to the letter and though malicious allegations of incompetence were made against her, the Department of Education could not find fault with her. Nevertheless parents withdrew their children from her class and engaged the services of a private teacher. Though her union, the INTO, supported her they could not resolve the matter.
The boycott continued and though the private teacher appointed by the parents was removed she was replaced by another teacher, paid by the department of education, a bizarre move. The strange thing is that nobody was really sure what the boycott was all about; was it that she had challenged the church on a civil rights matter or that she was doing the job she was paid to do? Possibly part of the problem was that she was too enthusiastic about Irish. She saw the Irish speaking culture of the locality being eroded and tried to stem the tide, determined that the Irish language would not become a foreign language as it had in other parts of the country.
Another teacher would have just gone with the flow and acquiesced to whatever demands parents made, but Bríd Ní Dhomhnaill was a woman of principle with a strong sense of right and wrong. She described her predicament as being ‘recessed’, whereby although she had done no wrong she was bypassed by both parents and the Department of Education. She still had to be paid for turning up to an empty classroom. It was a bizarre situation that should never have happened or gone on as long as it did. Many hoped that when Father Charles was replaced by Father John Cosgrove that the situation would improve. It did not and the parents were as determined as ever that English remain the language of a Gaeltacht school. The school eventually closed in 1991 and Bríd Ní Dhomhnaill was transferred to a Gaelscoil in Galway city. Today the boycott has been forgotten about, though still has the power to provoke strong reactions if mentioned in conversation. Many in Galway, a county which sees itself as a champion of Irish culture would prefer it that way. Even today there are teachers who are afraid of being too enthusiastic about teaching Irish for fear of aggravating reluctant pupils and drawing the ire on the parents, yet a common complaint is that people cannot speak a word of Irish after twelve years of learning the subject. For me as a language teacher it is disturbing that though have improved for Gaeilgeoirí it still happens that the standard of Irish taught in school is dictated by parents and not the Department of Education.