Donning the hijab was not an easy process for Lorraine O’Connor. “To practise being a Muslim at home is easy, to do your five prayers and to live that lifestyle… It’s when you come out of the house that it becomes problematic.”
O’Connor, a Dublin native and mother of four, encountered scepticism and resistance when she converted to Islam in 2005. “There were people who told me to ‘go back to where I came from’, and I say, ‘Where, Coolock?’” she said. “Suddenly that would turn into, ‘You’ve forgotten where you came from.’ I changed my faith, I didn’t change my identity or my culture.”
Wrestling with the challenges of identity was top of the agenda at the Islam and Ireland conference at the Royal Irish Academy this week, where local and international faith leaders joined speakers and guests such as O’Connor to address the position of the religion’s adherents in modern Ireland, from recent immigrants to their Irish-born children, and those who have converted later in life.
‘It’s different being a white guy with a beard. A Muslim woman with a hijab is much more obviously displaying their faith’
James Carr, an academic at the University of Limerick, also faced difficulties after converting, which he described as a “long, gradual process”. After the conference he said: “There’s no contradiction with being Irish and being Muslim at all.”
Dr Carr’s studies today focus largely on Islamophobia, to which he has been no stranger. “I’ve had guys call me traitor for doing my work, before they even know that I’m Muslim,” he said. He was quick to note, however, that “it’s different being a white guy with a beard”. “A Muslim woman with a hijab is much more obviously displaying their faith,” he said.
“If people are afraid of Irishness being diluted by one being Muslim, then I think they need to reflect on how much faith they have in our culture. Certainly, the Irishness I’m familiar with is one that’s warm, open and welcoming.”
At the time of the 2016 census there were over 60,000 Muslims living in the State, a number that is expected to increase substantially when this year’s full census report is released. Islam is currently the third-largest religion in Ireland, and it is projected to overtake the nation’s Protestant population within the next two decades.
Lara Alagha, an Oireachtas political adviser, says Ireland’s Muslim population is “disproportionately young”, and that many of those adolescents face a serious identity crisis. Around 50 per cent of the UK’s Muslim population is younger than 25, a figure she believes will be reflected in Ireland’s next census results too.
Much of the cultural adaptation that will need to be made in the years and decades ahead will lie with these second-generation Muslims, to contend with the challenges of adolescence in a nation where their religion is often not visible.
‘Teachers would never take the opportunity to talk about why I was fasting or to talk about Ramadan… It was just kind of brushed under the rug’
“We all know how hard those years are to navigate, but throw in the idea of having a somewhat ‘foreign’ religion… I think there needs to be a lot more support for that,” said Alagha.
“Growing up, there was no hostility toward me being Muslim, but there was never any embracing of the idea”, said Alagha. “Teachers would never take the opportunity to talk about why I was fasting or to talk about Ramadan… It was just kind of brushed under the rug.”
Born and raised in the capital, she is an Irish national who has lived in the State her whole life, but whenever she’s asked where she’s from, she said: “I know the answer they want isn’t ‘Dublin’.”
“We have a long way to go in terms of just exploring what it really means to be Irish, and embracing people of other faiths who are struggling with their identities… people who feel like they’re Irish, but sometimes feel like society doesn’t want them to be Irish.”
For many Muslims, faith and identity is rooted in charity, one of the five pillars of Islam. O’Connor also acts as chairwoman of Muslim Sisters of Éire, a charity group that provides direct support for the homeless.
“We’re trying to show people that Muslim women aren’t oppressed, hiding in their homes,” she said. “They’re facilitating the needs that the Irish Government is literally ignoring.”
Their programmes provide food and essentials to Dublin’s homeless population each week, but also seek to build bonds between Irish Muslims and their locality through visible engagement, normalising the religion and integrating further within the community.
‘My path, my duty’
“We take it on our shoulders to help the non-Muslim community to understand Islam,” she said. “It was my path, my duty.”
Despite her personal struggles for acceptance of her faith, her local accent and demeanour do occasionally come in handy here.
“It can be a lot easier to approach something called ‘Muslim Sisters of Éire’ when there’s a woman from the northside of Dublin talking to you.”