Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Saints & Scholars? The changing trends of religiosity in Ireland.

FOREWORD: I wrote this in 2012, it was an assignment for the "Globalisation" module of a taught Masters course in Sociology at the University of Limerick. One of the things that we were taught is that conducting research can often lead to further questions depending on the findings that emerge. 

Well, I noticed something while re-reading this assignment the other day and it begs the question - where have all the Methodists gone? Were they the one true faith that were taken by the rapture with the rest of us left behind? :)

Joking aside, we are due another census this year and it will be interesting to see how trends have changed in the past five years.

Saints & Scholars? The changing trends of religiosity in Ireland.

More recently described as the land of rogues and robbers, Ireland was once known as the land of saints and scholars. This paper will discuss the changing patterns of religiosity in Ireland since the foundation of the state in 1921 and examine the cause and effect of the decline in Christianity, particularly Catholicism.

Ireland’s colonial past has been cited as the main reason for the high levels of practising Catholics, which was seen as a way of asserting an Irish identity and which declined towards the end of the 20th Century (Nic Ghiolla Phádraig, 1988 & Martin, 1978 cited in Nic Ghiolla Phádraig 2009; Anderson 2010, p.17). 

The British imposition of the Government of Ireland Act 1920 established two states on the Island, Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State. Ireland, which consists of 32 counties and four provinces, was partitioned on the basis of a sectarian headcount and Ireland’s industrial base in the north remained under British control. Northern Ireland contained six of the nine counties of the province of Ulster and the Irish Free State consisted of the remaining 26 counties. The Irish Free State began independence as a third world country heavily dependent on agriculture and as such was not in a position to reform essential structures of the state such as the civil service and education, the latter being run by religious denominations. 

Essentially, the churches were left in charge of education, the largest of which were Catholic. The desired republican and secular ethos of the state could not be fully realised while it remained dependant on the Church to provide essential services and the issue of church run schools remains unresolved to this day. This dependence goes some to explaining why “Ireland has long been considered the European exception to secularization” (Anderson 2010, p.16). Rather than a separation of Church and state the two became intertwined.

However, it is often mistakenly claimed that Irish state was officially a Catholic country, with such false claims largely propagated by Unionists in Northern Ireland, which was an openly sectarian state that actively discriminated against the large Catholic minority; In 1934, Northern Ireland’s Prime Minister Lord Craigavion, declared “All I boast is that we have a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant state” (Farrell 1976, p.92). By contrast, the 1922 constitution of the Irish Free State prohibited the endowment of religion by the state (Article 8). This was replaced by Bunreacht Na hÉireann, the Irish Constitution, in 1937. While this new constitution recognised the “special position” of the Catholic Church, it was not well received by the Holy See; Pope Pius XI remarked "We do not approve, nor do we not disapprove - we will remain silent". However, several years later, Pius XII praised the Irish Constitution for its foundation in natural law (Jeffers 2003, p.3).

Demands for equality and civil rights for Catholics in the late 60’s led to the outbreak of the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. In an attempt to appease Unionism and demonstrate the pluralism of the Irish state, the Irish government proposed to amend the Irish Constitution. 
The Fifth Amendment of the Constitution proposed to delete subsection 2° and 3° of Article 44.1 of the Constitution which read as follows:

2° The State recognises the special position of the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church as the guardian of the Faith professed by the great majority of the citizens.
3° The State also recognises the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Methodist Church in Ireland, the Religious Society of Friends in Ireland, as well as the Jewish Congregations and the other religious denominations existing in Ireland at the date of the coming into operation of this Constitution.
(Referendum Results 1937 – 2011, p.81)

On Thursday, 7th December, 1972, the vast majority of the Irish electorate ratified the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution and removed the special position of the Catholic Church; with a turnout of 50.7% of the electorate, 721,003 voted for and 133,430 voted against the proposal. (Referendum Results 1937 – 2011, p.27) 

Despite the influence of the Catholic Church in the affairs of the state, it would be wrong to describe the state as simply sectarian. Following the ratification of the Constitution in 1937, the people of southern Ireland elected their first president, Douglas Hyde, a Protestant. Many Protestant TD’s have been elected to Dáil Éireann over the years without the help of Protestant voters. Ireland has a tiny Jewish population, yet a one point there were three Jewish TD’s representing different parties: Ben Briscoe was a Fianna Fáil TD for the constituency of Dublin-South Central (1969 – 2002, he succeeded his father, Robert Briscoe, who had held the seat for 38-years), Mervin Taylor was first elected as a TD for the Labour Party in 1981 and retained the seat in successive elections until he retired in 1997, and Alan Shatter (The current Minister for Justice) was first elected as a TD for Fine Gael in 1981. According to the census results for 2011 the Jewish population in Ireland is actually increasing and currently stands at 1,984 (CSO 2012), hardly sufficient to elect even one TD. 

My home City of Limerick elected Irelands first openly atheist TD, Jim Kemmy, in 1981. Considered by his critics to be “anti-clerical” Kemmy was often in conflict with the Catholic Church over his contrary views on abortion and contraceptives. He lost his seat in 1982, not because of his religious views but because he had publicly criticised the Hunger Strikes of republican prisoners in Northern Ireland. Kemmy regained the seat in 1987, which he held until his death in 1997. In 1992 the (predominately Catholic) constituency of Clare elected Irelands first Muslim TD, Dr. Moosajee Bhamjee (originally from South Africa of Indian parents) won a seat for the Labour Party in what was considered to be a Fianna Fáil stronghold. I specifically remember that the fact that he was Irelands first Muslim TD was overshadowed by the fact that Labour had encroached into Fianna Fáil’s territory; in Ireland party politics is often more divisive than religion and while Dáil Éireann has been criticised for its low number of women TD’s, it is certainly more religiously diverse than you would expect from the suffrage of what is widely perceived to be a Catholic country.

The Catholic Church’s influence through indoctrination in the schools and dictates from the pulpit has waned since the 1972 referendum. Over the decades that followed a number of amendments were made by the Irish people that changed what were essentially religiously inspired articles, most notably the Tenth Amendment, which provided for dissolution of civil marriage. Various scandals and the exposure of clerical sexual abuse have served to lessen the influence of the Catholic Church with a corresponding decline in attendance and practice leading to the emergence of new trends of religiosity (Cosgrove et al, 2011). 

According to the Census figures for 2011 (CSO 2012), there are 4,588,252 people residing in the state, an increase of 348,404 since the 2006 census. Religiously, the largest group number 3,861,335 and are ‘registered’ as Roman Catholics, an increase of 179,889 since 2006, whereas 1,279 declared themselves ‘lapsed Catholics’. 

Mainstream Protestant sects, such as Church of Ireland, Presbyterian, Lutherans, Methodists and Baptists, totalled 219,216.  

Muslims ranked third with a population of 49,204, an increase of 16,665, followed by Eastern Orthodox Churches with 45,223, an increase of 24,425 while “Other Christian Religions” numbered 41,161, an increase of 11,955. 

Hindu’s numbered 10,688, an increase of 4,606. Buddhists numbered 8,703, an increase of 2,187 and Jews numbered 1,984, an increase of 54. Those declaring themselves Atheist numbered 3,905, an increase of 2,976. 

Agnostics numbered 3,521, an increase of 2,006, while those claiming “no religion” numbered 269,811, an increase of 83,493. People whose religion was “not stated” numbered 72,914, an increase of 2,592. Those declaring themselves Pagan numbered 1,940, an increase of 249. 

On the face of it, it would appear that religious affiliation is on the increase, the only noticeable decrease was amongst Methodists, who numbered 6,842, a decrease of -5,318, and Evangelicals who numbered 4,188, a decrease of -1,088.

Undoubtedly, these increases can be somewhat explained by the “new Irish”, people who have immigrated here in increasing numbers over the past decade. While the majority of people have declared themselves Catholic, this is not reflected in attendance of Mass. Indeed many churches have had to close because of non-attendance. It is also interesting to note that those claiming “no religion” outnumbered the combined figures for mainstream Protestantism by over 50,000. Ireland has made many advances in communication, transportation, and information technologies since the 1970’s and is considered to be one of the one of the most globalised countries in the world (Ernst and Young 2010 cited in Cosgrove et al 2011, p.241) and religiously speaking, the census figures demonstrate a growing diversity in religious beliefs and affiliations.

It has also been noted that “economic growth responds positively to religious beliefs but negatively to church attendance” (Barro and McCleary 2003 cited in Cosgrove et al 2011, p.243), although this would seem to have been contradicted by the recent global economic crash and would appear somewhat delusional. Since the birth of the “Celtic Tiger” in the mid 1990’s, Ireland has become more individualistic, materialistic and consumer driven and in such a society it can be very hard to ‘love thy neighbour’ if you don’t know or don’t care who your neighbours are. It has  been argued that the rise in consumerism and the decline of Catholicism in Ireland as a “unifying moral framework” has left such a void in people’s lives that it can be directly linked to increased suicide levels (Keohane & Kuhling, 2004, p.55-56).

There is a growing trend in Ireland of “holistic spiritualities”, which can be described as those forms of practice involving the body, and that have as their goal the “attainment of wholeness and well-being of body, mind, and spirit.” And which are prevalent within emerging New Age and neo-pagan communities (Siontu & Woodhead, 2008, p.259). In Ireland, such New Religious Movements (NRM) are not defined by the age of their texts, practices or beliefs, but by the fact that the majority of its members are converts, that as a new religion it has little power or wealth when compared to the established religions (Cosgrove et al 2011, pp.5-6). Equally, what makes such “spiritualities” alternative are not the persons experiences but the fact that such experiences and their interpretations completely different to the experience within established religion or society: (this is the difference between a powerful experience of a Celtic deity or of “energy flow” on the one hand, and a vision of the Virgin Mary or a ghost on the other) (Cosgrove et al 2011, p.6).

Such trends are demonstrative of peoples need to give a deeper meaning and spirituality to their lives as they struggle with issues of morality and materialism. In their book ‘Collision Culture: Transformations in Everyday Life in Ireland’ Kohane and Kuhling (2004) examine the lifestyle and politics of New Age travellers living on Cool Mountain near Bantry Co. Cork. While they don’t examine the religious views of the New-Age Travellers, it is the use of Lukacs (1971) concept of “transcendental homelessness” to explain the use of temporary dwellings in the long-term as what they consider to be an “identity crisis” (p.130) as they seek to escape the modern consumerist lifestyle. I would argue that such a concept could be applied to spiritual and religious issues. As Nic Ghiolla Phádraig (2009) notes, despite the marked decline in religious practice and an increasingly secular society, there is a continuity of belief regarding the afterlife and fidelity in marriage. Is it possible that the void left by religious practices could create a “transcendental spiritual homelessness”? Is there a need in most people to be more than just consumers who reproduce and die? 

In the words of Lukacs we are both “secular, but yearning for the sacred, ironic but yearning for the absolute, individualistic, but yearning for the wholeness of community, fragmented, but yearning for immanent totality. (Lukacs 1971 cited in Keohane and Kuhling 2004, p.131)

Anderson, K. (2010), ‘Irish Secularization and Religious Identities: Evidence of an Emerging New Catholic Habitus’, Social Compass, 57(1), 15–39.
Constitution of the Irish Free State (Saorstát Eireann) Act, 1922 [online] available: [accessed 1 Mar 2012]
Cosgrove, O., Cox, L., Kuhling. C., and Mulholland, P. (eds.) (2011). Ireland’s New Religious Movements, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Farrell, M. (1976), Nothern Ireland: The Orange State, London: Pluto Press
Jeffers J. (2003) ‘Dead or Alive?: The Fate of Natural Law in Irish Constitutional Jurisprudence’ Galway Law Review,  [online] available: [accessed 1 Mar 2012]
Keohane, K. & Kuhling, C. (2004), Collision Culture: Transformations in Everyday Life in Ireland, Dublin: The Liffey Press
Nic Ghiolla Phádraig, M. (2009), ‘Religion in Ireland: No Longer an Exception’ Research Update, Number 64.
Referendum Results 1937 – 2011, (2011), Dublin: The Department Of The Environment, Community And Local Government, [online] available:,1894,en.pdf [accessed 1 Mar 2012]

Sointu E. & Woodhead L. (2008) ‘Spirituality, Gender, and Expressive Selfhood’ Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 47(2), pp.259–276.

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