Offaly’s Catholics face uphill struggle despite Census revelation

Locals are realistic about the church’s challenges in ‘Ireland’s most Catholic county’

Almost 90% of people in Co Offaly declared as Catholic in Census 2016. File photograph: Thinkstock Images

Almost 90% of people in Co Offaly declared as Catholic in Census 2016. File photograph: Thinkstock Images


Offaly might have the largest number of declared Catholics of any county, but it is not immune from the struggles facing the Catholic Church.

In all, 88.6 per cent of people in the county declared as Catholic in Census 2016, although Banagher-based priest Fr Pierre Pepper is pragmatic about the reality behind the numbers.

“It would be revealing if you asked them the further question of how does that translate into the practice of the faith.

“If you look at the realities of a Sunday, the demographics that are there, it will tell a different story,” said Fr Pepper.

Even if people do not go to church, Fr Pepper said there was an extremely positive feeling towards priests in the county.

“There is faith there and there is an affinity.”

But this does not translate into huge numbers in the pews on Sunday. “If you were being honest, you could draw a line at 50 and below that you will notice the young people because they stick out,” he said.

Baptisms and First Holy Communions are “now social events, rather than religious ones”, he said. “They have a veneer of religious practice but that is about all.”

In one case, he had 35 children and their parents attending Mass every Sunday for nine months in preparation for First Holy Communion.

“The day after the Communion they were all gone, bar two.

“That is what you look at rather than statistics, it’s bums on seats.”

However, he remains hopeful. “We are still quite optimistic, there is no room for despondency.”

Settled population

Leaving the Church of the Assumption in Tullamore on Thursday, a woman from Kilcormac said Co Offaly had a more settled population than many other areas. “People don’t move in here. They move more to the city.”

She said the majority of churchgoers are “mostly older, over-50s I would say. There would be very few young people.”

Galway-born Gabriel Dillon, who now lives in Ballingar, was surprised by the Census figures, since he had witnessed a “vast” decline in the numbers attending church since he moved to the county 20 years ago.