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Our Irish columnist Gearóid Ó Colmáin on the idea that education through Irish could united people on both sides of the North-South divide

Last update - Thursday, July 2, 2009, 15:53 By Gearóid Ó Colmáin

Irish language media took a blow this month with the news that Foinse, the Irish language weekly newspaper, was to be taken out of circulation due to financial difficulties. Nevertheless, last week saw a positive report from the world of academia concerning the advantages of bilingual education in Ireland.

The research was carried out by Dr Judith Wylie and Dr Gerry Mulhern from Queen’s University Belfast’s School of Psychology, and concerns the cognitive development of children educated in Irish-medium schools in Northern Ireland. 
The cognitive advantages shown in Irish-medium schools were particularly striking in the areas of short-term memory and working memory. According to Dr Wylie: “Short memory and working memory are centrally important in all learning; indeed, everyday tasks such as reading, reasoning and mental arithmetic rely heavily on these processes.”
The Irish language revival movement has proved to be particularly strong throughout nationalist areas of Northern Ireland. But there has also been a significant growth of interest shown among Ulster protestants in the Irish language and heritage.
The ‘divide and rule’ policy of British imperialism in the North has resulted in an often warped view of Irish identity on both sides of the political divide. The Irish language is too often seen as an instrument of Irish nationalism, a way for Northern nationalists to dissociate themselves from the hegemony of British culture in the province. And in many respects this is true.
But many are also deeply aware of the importance of protestantism to Irish language heritage. After all, the Bible was first translated into Irish by a protestant clergyman, William Bedel, in the 17th century, not to mention that Queen Elizabeth herself showed a healthy curiosity in Irish, even asking Christopher Nugent, the Baron of Co Westmeath, to provide her with an Irish primer!
The Presbyterian clergyman William Nielson was a champion of the language, writing a grammar and phrase book to encourage learning of the language among his congregation. In fact, a significant number of the original Scottish planters in Ulster were Gaelic speakers. The language, then, is as much a feature of unionist Ulster as it is of nationalist Ireland.
A survey done by Smith and Robinson in 1991 revealed that 23 per cent of Northern Irish protestants believe that Irish should be a compulsory subject in schools. This is surprisingly high, given the level of cultural confusion that exists among the North’s divided communities. However, there have traditionally been pockets of Irish learners among Ulster’s protestants, most notably a group of women in the staunchly loyalist Shankill Road area. The unionist politician Chris McGimpsey is a speaker of Irish, and the Irish language daily Lá has featured regular columns from the unionist writer Ian Malcolm.
According to Dr Reamaí Mathers of Iontaobhas na Gaelscolaíochta, regarding the Queen’s report: “This groundbreaking work adds further evidence to the increasingly indisputable body of good science that shows that children who are educated in Irish-medium schools are not only receiving the benefit of two languages but are also receiving tangible educational advantages… What the Queen’s research provides is a deeper insight into the mechanisms at work in the superior performance by Irish-medium children when compared to the more usual English language schools.”
 There is certainly a compelling case for Irish-medium education in this country, North and South. And when one considers the diverse and often paradoxical ideologies that promoted the language throughout our history, it does not seem impossible that Northern Ireland could yet become the leading province promoting Gaelic culture throughout this island. /

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