By Eamon Sweeney
Pól O’Frighil has been the Oifigeach Gaeilge (Irish Language Officer) at Derry City Council since 2008. The post is jointly funded by Foras na Gaeilge and the Council Irish Language Officer’s scheme.
“The job has two aspects which are delivering a full range of Irish language services to the community and teaching staff. In terms of strategy I was involved of course in Fleadh Ceoil na hEireann during the City of Culture and the Pan Celtic Festival,” he said.
Whilst there is no specific remit for Irish language officers to tie in to the work of Irish Medium schools, the mainstay being provided by the Department of Education, there is of course a relationship between Pól and the schools themselves.
Paul said: “We develop resources that we share with Irish Medium schools, for example we developed one called ‘Welcome to my World’, that focuses on children for ethic communities in the Derry area. We also encouraging learning through performance by holding events like the Halloween Feis for example.
“We also ran a programme called the ‘Culture of Bee’s’ which was funded by the City of Culture. This was an ecological programme that was taught in Gaelic.”
The point of the link-up’s at various level is also a recognition that children are not taught the language as a stand alone subject, but there is a dedicated attempt to use Gaelic as a method of engagement in all educational subjects as well as cultural activity.
A Derry man by birth, Pól’s introduction to the Gaelic language he says comes from the fact that his mother id from Cork.
“She was not a native speaker, but she spoke Irish to us when were children-not exclusively, however enough to maintain my interest. I went to Queen’s and took Celtic Studies and German and as a result ended up for a period teaching English in a German school.”
“Work as an Irish language Officer is primarily for communities that haven’t had access to the language. Therefore there is also a good relations aspect to it of course.
“We have a forum of local Irish language schools which come together and discuss joint projects. We would also cover issues like Irish language road and street signage,” said Paul.
One charge often laid at the feet of the Irish language community is that its teaching is futile because Gaelic is percieved as a language that has little relevance in a global setting. This is something that is flatly rejected by Pól O’Frighil.
“The benefits of bilingualism are extensive. At a young age, children’s brains are like plastic, they have the ability to absorb huge amounts of information as opposed to older people. This means you learn as you grow. Therefore it is not a redundant language. Children who begin their education in a bilingual way are more likely to go on and learn other languages too,” he said.
Irish Language Officers are also heavily involved in promoting the Liofa campaign. The word Líofa means ‘fluent’ and this is precisely what the Líofa campaign strives to achieve – a greater number of fluent Irish speakers. The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure in the North of Ireland, Carál Ní Chuilín, launched Líofa, on 5 September 2011 and initially set a target for 1000 people to take up the Líofa pledge with her and commit to improving and using Irish by 2015. This target has been revised to 10,000 in light of the interest in the campaign and is gathering momentum.
Paul said: “In a practical sense this means teaching Council staff Irish once a week. In fact the Council operates in English, Gaelic and Ulster Scots. This has a link to tourism for Derry as well as the city’s museum spearheading the Island Voices lecture series.”
“I love the job. It is a challenge at times convincing people of the value of it. There is a lot of emphasis now within education of the STEM subjects. But, the evidence shows that places that brand themselves with another language certainly helps attract visitors. It pinpoints something special, something unique about to that part of the world. Scotland for example started seeing great increases in tourism when they began promotong Scots Gaelic. We are in the position here where whilst the Plantation happened around 400 years ago and we have that tradition, the Gaelic heritage goes many centuries back before that. We have the story that St Columba took the Gaelic language to Scotland. This diversity puts us in a unique position.”