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COMMENT: 'Peig' was absolute torture for students

Monday, 19th August, 2019 7:59am

Story by Tony McCullagh
COMMENT: 'Peig' was absolute torture for students

THIS image will instantly put the fear of God into generations of Irish people who still bear the scars of having to study ‘Peig’.

You often hear of adults getting anxiety dreams about sitting the Leaving Cert, even decades after finishing school. When I do, the subject of my nightmares is nearly always Irish – and the questions I can’t answer usually involve Peig Sayers.

When I sat my Leaving Cert in the 1980s, there was simply no avoiding her. Peig’s tale of woe and hardship on the Blasket Islands filled us with dread. City slickers like us couldn’t relate to rural isolation so we had little empathy with her life story. To a teenager, it was mind-numbingly boring and completely irrelevant to our life.

Like many others, I struggled with ‘Peig’ and it started to affect my relationship with the Irish language. Thankfully, there was an English translation version of the book available but this only reinforced everything I disliked about it.

I can safely say that I spoke better Irish on leaving primary school than I did after the Leaving Cert. My fifth class teacher was a native Irish speaker from Donegal and he placed a very strong emphasis on its spoken use. I genuinely developed a grá for the Irish around that time.

In secondary school, the emphasis changed from speaking Irish to studying poems and books. 

And it was the choice of ‘Peig’ as the compulsory Leaving Cert novel that killed our enthusiasm for the native tongue.

I reckon we’d be much more proficient Irish speakers had Roddy Doyle’s ‘Barrytown Trilogy’ or ‘Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha’ been translated into Irish and put on the curriculum (anyone know how to say ‘ask me b*****’ as Gaelige?).

Last week, the Government announced it was relaxing the rules for parents seeking Irish exemptions for students with learning difficulties, such as dyslexia. While there was some welcome for these measures, there were also fears expressed by Irish groups that it could prove to be a back door to making the subject optional in the future.

Conradh na Gaeilge had an interesting take on the move, suggesting that the Government should change how Irish is taught rather than increase the number of exemptions granted. For instance, students with learning difficulties could focus on an oral exam instead of a written once, allowing them to study Irish to the best of their ability.

As Ireland has become a home to many other nationalities, some of our newer residents will also have legitimate reasons for seeking Irish language exemptions. 

Where possible, however, as many students as possible should be encouraged to learn Irish, which remains an important part of our heritage and culture. Notwithstanding my dislike of ‘Peig’ (the book, not the person), I remain fully in favour of Irish being retained as a compulsory subject.

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