A return to paganism or disillusion with the church?
Ireland’s Christian churches blame paganism for the decline of their congregations, but the real reasons are more modern
Summer solstice: people celebrate at the megalithic monument of Stonehenge, in England, last weekend; suggestions that Irish Catholics are becoming pagan have been rejected. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images
In interviews surrounding the publication of his final novel, That They May Face the Rising Sun, in 2001, the late John McGahern commented, “Irish culture is a great deal older than Christianity, and people were buried so that they would face the rising sun. All the pedantic priests would try and get them to face the church as the centre of authority, but they always thought the sun was more powerful than the church.”
Last weekend a report from the Association of Catholic Priests indicated that the Irish may have slipped back to old ways. It said that, following meetings with priests and bishops in more than half of Ireland’s Catholic dioceses, “a substantial number of bishops, and some priests” believe the Irish people “have, to all intents and purposes, become pagan”.
This view has been rejected by the association itself. Fr Tony Flannery of its leadership team has insisted it is “seriously wrong”. Priests in the association sensed “a great hunger for faith and religion” among the people. “The problem is not a loss of faith in religion and spirituality, it is a loss of faith in the Church,” he said.
The Catholic Church has been damaged by the abuse scandals of recent years, but all four of Ireland’s main Christian churches are losing membership and have ageing congregations. Fewer are marrying in churches. In 2010, 29 per cent of marriages in the Republic were in civil ceremonies, and the figure is rising.
Funerals are more likely to be secular, too. Brian Whiteside of the Humanist Association of Ireland says the organisation conducted 78 funerals in 2012, up from 12 in 2007. Last year it conducted 200 weddings, up from 80 in 2007.
In what he believes to be a first for Ireland, Whiteside recently conducted a humanist funeral for an 84-year-old man in St Patrick’s Catholic Church in Monkstown, Co Dublin. The deceased man was from a Catholic background, and as so many of his family and friends lived locally the priests agreed to his funeral being conducted there.
Michael Nugent of Atheist Ireland says the number of atheists is “increasing constantly”, to the degree that he believes recent censuses “underestimate the situation”. The 2011 census found that the next most significant group after Catholics were those who declared themselves as having no religion. They numbered 269,800. A further 72,914 did not state their religion.
That census found that more than 84 per cent of people in the Republic, 3.86 million, ticked the Roman Catholic box. Of the remaining three of the traditional four main Christian churches, members of the Church of Ireland numbered 129,039, Presbyterians 24,600 and Methodists 6,842.