To exempt or not to exempt, sin e an question. Our middle son’s struggles with language development mean that he is eligible for an exemption from Irish, prompting much soul searching and keening in our house. What would our ancestors say, are we betraying all they fought and died for by not forcing our son – and ourselves – through years of Irish school- and homework, will he be a little less Irish for not knowing the cupla focail, or will he resent us for removing this from his educational choices? What if he ends up hating us for our rejection of his native tongue, and ends up being radicalised into some sean nos terror cell, how long before he is on the slippery slope to beards, knits, acc-shints, and attempting to speak Irish to people who clearly have no idea what you are saying, like one of those people you find in a glass mansion up a boreen in west Cork who speaks Irish in a profoundly English accent? Perhaps we are overthinking this, because as his principal pointed out, the exemption exists because he needs it. He has struggled to communicate with the world in English, and the many complexities of Irish may just be a bridge too far for him. However, the principal was quick to point out that it is part of our heritage, and part of what makes us who we are. Perhaps, if you use it regularly, say as a teacher, you might feel that way, but for me, homework is a fun trip down memory lane until we get to Irish, because I can see virtually no reason for them knowing more than hello, goodbye and kiss me arse in Irish. It is as much an irritant to me now as it was when it was being forced down my throat in school, or when I was learning how to be rejected by the opposite sex in two languages during Irish college.
The Irish language will always exist – there will be better people than me who love it for what it is, what it represents, and will keep it alive. I feel little guilt in opting for an exemption for my son, not just for him, but to spare us all the difficulties of trying to understand a language I feel no warmth towards. I feel this way because I see Irish people as being engaged with their culture. We might find it hard to exactly define what it means to be Irish – or even agree if such a thing exists – but in my experience, Irish people at all levels of society have an awareness of our country, its art, its history, and its politics. To be reassured of just how engaged we are on the latter you only have to look to our dear friends across the water, as their post-colonial crisis of identity continues to make us look at them, slightly frowning, as a parent does with an enraged toddler smashing their own toys off the floor. Reading vox pops from the ordinary British folk I find myself googling ‘is history compulsory in UK schools?’ Because history is one of the most important subjects of all, and those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it, unless of course, you are like my daughter, and have an exemption from that subject too.
One of the curious side effects of her Lupus is memory loss. It is curious because while it is scientifically verified that she does have memory problems, in my experience a lot of the events she cannot remember relate to things she couldn’t be bothered remembering. Did she tidy her room like I asked her, oh no, she forgot, because of the condition you see. But does she remember every broken promise, every disappointment, every fiver borrowed for a pint of milk? You better believe it.
But while I will happily grab an exemption for Irish for my son, my daughter ditching history filled me with dread – all I could see was her in a conversation somewhere in the future and suddenly asking ‘what’s a Holocaust?’ or ‘why didn’t the irish just eat something other than spuds during the Famine?’ or even not knowing that Famine takes a capital F, despite the fact that ideally it should be Genocide with a capital G. But it is what it is – two subjects lost from their respective curricula, hours saved on arguing our way through homework, and two little pairs of feet set firmly in the direction of whatever brain trust will be pushing for Irexit in a few years’ time.