"How do you say this?" Understanding the Irish education system


Discovery more about Ireland through their school books
Discovery more about Ireland through their school books

Among many other things, the shop that I work at sells school books. Little did I know, the whole textbook-buying process works very differently here in Ireland than it does in the States.
As I remember it, at the public middle school I went to we were provided with the books we needed. They were usually kind of old and tattered I think. (Fun fact: Ben Affleck went to my middle school, and apparently there was the odd textbook floating around that still had his name in it. Thrilling, I know.) And at the private high school I went to, we bought the textbooks from the school.
Not so in Éire! Here, students are given their booklist for the following year on their last day of school. They then have to bring this list to particular bookstores that stock school books; the school typically has nothing to do with supplying the kids with the needed supplies.
But I have a lotto do with it! It took time, but now I can zip around our storeroom grabbing a Nach Iontach an Domhan É!, a Mata Meabhrach, a Beo go Deo, a Mata Beo, a Jolly Phonics, a History All Around Me, and a Handwriting Made Easy for a primary school class list. Or if it’s for a secondary school, I know where to go to get New Concise Project Maths, Bienvenue en France, Minding Me, Iontas, Timeline, So You Really Want to Learn Latin, and New Senior Biology. Then, if they’ve asked for it, I cover the books with clear plastic sleeves that get trimmed and heat-sealed with a nifty machine.
Now, you’ll notice that a lot of those books – particularly the ones I’ve listed for primary schools – are in Irish. That’s because 1) Irish language (called simply “Irish,” not “Gaelic” as we’re taught in America) is a compulsory subject alllll the way through Irish schools (which was really surprising to me since Irish was always represented in the U.S. as an effectively lost, unspoken language), and 2) There are two gaelscoils – schools that teach entirely in Irish – about 100 yards away from the shop, and we supply almost their whole student body. So there are English versions of the books I listed that some schools use instead; Nach Iontach an Domhan É! is a religion book whose English title is What a Wonderful World! Mata Meabhrach is Mental Maths and so on.
Through this whole process, I am developing a very specific Irish vocabulary. To me, the hardest part is trying to grasp the spelling rules. For example, how would you feel if I told you that meabhrach is pronounced “myow-rock”? Or that ceathair is "ka-her"? For the folks back home, here’s a sample of some of the words I’ve memorized. (At least in print form – I embarrass myself all day trying to say these words out loud. The customers love it.)

Naíonáin Shóisearch– junior infants (the youngest class in school)
Naíonáin Shinsearcha– senior infants (the second class)
Rang – class. If you’re in primary school, you’re in first class, second class, third class, and so on up to sixth class. Then you start secondary school, where you’re in first year, second year and so on up to sixth year. So if a school book list calls for Mata Beo rang a haon, they want the first class book.
Haon, dó, trí, ceathair, cúig, sé – one, two, three, four, five, six. (Pronounced hain, doe, tree, kaher, kooig, shay.)
Gaeilge – Irish
Bearla – English
Mata – Math
Ardleibhéal – Higher level
Feadóg stain gléas D– tin whistle in the key of D!
Cóipleabhar scríbhneoireachta – writing copy
Filltéan – folder
Foclóir – dictionary
Aireamhán – calculator
Bosca céimseachta– geometry set.
And so on and so forth! It’s quite an education, and I can’t help but feel lucky to have this experience at work – the school system here is so different from what I grew up in in the States, and having it sort of explained, piecemeal, over the years by my Irish friends had left me pretty confused. Now that I’m directly involved with equipping Irish students ages five to 18 with their materials, I think I have a pretty solid grasp of how it all works.