Catholicism in Ireland: An assessment

Letter from Dublin/Timothy Kirk

Catholicism in Ireland: An assessment

Back in early 2020, we had tickets to see Christy Dignam, the legendary lead singer of the ‘80s and ‘90s band Aslan, play at the Olympia. Then the pandemic hit, and everything everywhere was canceled. We were still hoping to have the chance to see him after the shutdown but, sadly, Christy’s rare blood cancer that had been in remission came back with a vengeance.  He canceled his comeback shows and entered palliative care before passing away on June 13, 2023, at 63, joining Shane McGowan and Sinead O’Connor on a grim honor roll of beloved Irish musicians lost during the year.

Christy’s relatives and friends organized a tribute concert for last month. The Vicar Street venue was already fairly packed when we arrived and as we entered, we were handed a small card with Christy’s face, the dates of his birth and death, and a short inscription on the reverse side.

Holding this secular prayer card, I was reminded yet again that even though Ireland has moved beyond Catholicism as the central animating and organizing way of life with astonishing speed, cultural Catholicism still expresses itself daily in large, small, and sometimes surprising ways.

The evening news (“The Six-one news”) starts one minute after the daily “People’s Angelus,” also played by the national broadcaster.  Bus patrons of a certain age reflexively cross themselves when the bus passes in front of a church. Irish friends sprinkle acronyms like ‘TG’ or ‘PG’ into text messages: ‘It's a fine day TG’…  ‘See you Tuesday PG.’   TG and PG are short for ‘Thank God’ and ‘ Please God.’  Someone knowledgeable about a particular subject area might say ‘I am familiar with the Parish.’  Depending on the age of the person with whom you are talking, a conversation might end with ‘God bless.’  

References to faith in modern, secular Ireland are tiny portals into Ireland's recent past of near universal religious practice. Attending single gender Catholic schools, reciting daily rosaries as a family, walking to town on ‘Mass paths’ (shortcuts through fields and townlands established by the people to get to Mass quickly) are part of the living memories of most Irish people over 50. I find these mini-gratitudes and supplications to a higher power comforting. There is a kindness and humbleness in giving thanks and asking for divine intervention on trivial matters like the weather or the traffic, as well as serious topics like a visit to the clinical oncologist.  In a world full of bravado, avarice, and the relentless pursuit of power and dominance, these expressions of gratitude and humility are a relief.

Priests are more visible in Dublin than in Boston, accessible for the ‘Hello Father’ nod and wave. Priests are also frequently quoted in the newspapers or interviewed on TV in times of tragedy, serving as community spokesmen to express collective sorrow and rally the solidarity of the community.


The zenith of Irish Catholicism is usually remembered as the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1979.  Over a million of the faithful attended an open air Mass in Phoenix Park, when he famously called the Irish people the ‘best Catholics in the world.’  Many Boston Irish readers will remember that period of time well because after his visit to Ireland, the Pope's next destination was Boston.  Our mother loaded her five sons into the station wagon and we stood along the path of the Pope’s motorcade underneath the Fitzgerald Expressway to greet the pontiff.  Later that day our dad attended the rain-soaked Mass on Boston Common while we watched on TV.  Dad’s attendance was somewhat of a surprise. While he did attend weekly Mass, he frequently critiqued the content of the homily or quality of the service on the drive home.  The monsignor in our home parish insisted on singing even those elements of the liturgy that doctrine permitted to be spoken. He vastly overestimated his singing talent, inspiring my father’s assessment: “He sounded like a pig being slaughtered.’  Dad went to the Pope’s Mass on the Common as an expression of his faith and of his culture.

In Ireland, with priests on the Six-one news and everyone sending PG and TG dappled texts to each other, it can appear to American eyes that things are much the same as the stereotypical Catholic Ireland of the American imagination, but that would be misleading.  So much has changed since the ‘70s.  The collapse of rates of mass attendance (from 92 percent in 1975 to 27 percent in 2022), collections, and vocations (from 1,400 seminarians in 1965 to just 20 this year) is dramatic. In Co. Dublin, the number of seminarians this year is exactly zero. The average age of priests in Ireland is well over 70 years; the average age of women religious is over 80. In April, a popular documentary entitled “The Last Priests of Ireland” and hosted by Ardal O’Hanlon (who played Fr. Dougal McGuire on the hit comedy show ‘Father Ted’) explored the prospect of an Ireland without clergy.

People disagree on the reasons for the existential decline. Many point to Ireland’s modernization enabled by economic development and integration into the EU, which led to major cultural changes most notably advancing the rights of women. Others cite the rightward lurch of Popes John Paul II and Benedict that dashed hopes for anticipated reforms of married clergy and women priests after the Second Vatican Council.  Still others lay responsibility on the reprehensible crimes of forced adoptions, institutionalized violence, sexual abuse, and coverups.

I will not use this space to either pile on or engage in nostalgia for the old days of Holy Catholic Ireland.

Putting the reasons to one side, it is startling that a half century ago, Ireland produced so many priests and women religious that there were long waiting lists for parish or school assignments. The decline over the last 50 years has been so fast as to be disorienting. In response to these trends, many parishes in Ireland are being combined, more responsibility is being delegated to lay people and more visiting priests from as far afield as Indonesia, Africa, Romania, Poland, and South America have arrived. These phenomena are familiar to Bostonians.  Our own Dad received last rites in 2003 from an African priest on loan to the Archdiocese of Boston.


The spiritual, practical, and communal impacts of this shift to a post-religious Ireland are already starting to appear. 

Social justice campaigners from Mother Jones to Bernadette Devlin McAliskey credit Irish Catholicism with inspiring them to devote their lives to pursuing justice and equality. Without the structure and education provided by the church, where will that call to service that drove missionaries to venture all over the world – building and staffing churches, schools and hospitals – be directed?  We see some answers in Dublin with the street protests for peace, at soup kitchens, political activism, and NGO’s like Trocaire and Concern.

The Catholic churches in Ireland served not just as spiritual gathering places but also as community centers.  The churches were/are where second collections for missionaries in Peru are passed. Parish halls were/are hubs for organizing bake sales to raise money for children in Africa or other causes.  Communities have also used these spaces to meet to discuss non-religious issues like a proposed bypass road or whether a new GAA pitch should be built. The opinion of the Church was valued and sought out. At a practical level, where will Irish people gather in times of adversity, celebration, or common purpose?  One alternative for community gatherings and a sense of shared cause are the GAA clubs.  The clubs are in every county and when Russia invaded Ukraine, bake sales, raffles, canned goods or clothing drives to help Ukraine were often held at GAA clubs.

According to some historians, Ireland is returning to pre-famine levels of religious devotion.  In the 1830s, weekly Mass attendance was approximately 30 percent. After the great famine and the introduction of aggressive, Roman-style rules-based clericalism and required piety after the 1850 Council of Thurles, Mass attendance surged to over 90 percent by the 1870s and stayed there until the 1970s.  The number and percentage of clergy of the population soared.  After independence in 1922, the government’s coffers were so empty that the Guinnesses, the richest family in the world at the time, would occasionally intercede to pay the wages of public sector workers (police, bus drivers and garbage collectors) to keep Dublin functioning.  In that context, country-wide basic services like hospitals, schools, care homes, food pantries, homeless shelters, and orphanages were provided by the Catholic Church.  Eamonn de Valera’s 1937 constitution enshrined the Church’s special status within the Irish State.

As Ireland developed economically, on entering the EEC in 1973 and by direct foreign investment particularly from the USA, the country began to behave more like a modern European administrative state by funding and staffing more of these institutions, a transition that will continue. Even so, the Catholic legacy endures.  Single gender education with a Catholic ethos is still the norm, more than in any EU country except Malta and in hospitals the “Nursing Manager” is still known as “The House Sister.”

The faith provides a road map for spiritual practice and a connection to the transcendent, the metaphysical “everything else.” The sacraments sanctify weddings, welcome newborn babies, and commemorate final farewells to loved ones.  These rituals will not be simply deleted from the culture. The Irish have been marking them in ceremony for millennia. Many non-practicing “cultural Catholics” still celebrate the sacraments in the church. Is it hypocritical?  I don't think so. They are the tools the people have to connect with the mysterious, the unknown, and unknowable.

Without the institutional church, many will find entirely new spiritual paths or combine their Catholicism with other belief systems or practices just as St. Patrick grafted Catholicism onto the spirituality of pre-Christian Ireland, layering Christianity on top of the religious observances and rituals that have existed since neolithic times.  Every fairy well or magical local god was given a saint's name. Festivals marking the seasons and movements of celestial bodies were renamed and fitted to the Christian calendar. More layers will surely be added.

I met a Jesuit-educated Dubliner who describes himself as a “Zen Catholic.” He sees no contradiction in his religious journey.  While on a solo motorcycle adventure across India 40 years ago, he met the man who became his Zen master.  That Dubliner, who happens to be a Jesuit priest, is now over 90 and believes that without his Zen practice, he would likely not still be a priest.  More Irish people will continue to turn to meditation, volunteering, music, poetry, or visual arts to fill spiritual gaps as the traditional religious scaffolding for their lives is dismantled.

Back at the tribute concert, the crowd sang along to every Aslan song, including “Crazy World,”  a song written by Christy Dignam in 1993 after his only daughter was born.  His plaintive lyrics ask what many new parents ask: “How can I protect you in this crazy world?”

Christy’s singer daughter, Kiera Dignam, was on the Vicar Street bill that night to sing this anthem that is also a prayer for a more peaceful, safe and just world… PG