Residents and politicians in Firhouse have expressed concern about community outreach efforts by the Church of Scientology in the south Dublin suburb.
Last week the controversial organisation, which has been officially labelled a cult in several countries, opened a "Winter Wonderland" event at its new 1,200-seat facility in Firhouse. The event lasts for a month and features fairground rides, Santa Claus and several other children's activities.
The event, which is free to enter, is the latest in a series of community events hosted by the facility since its opening in October. Other events include a Halloween festival, a variety concert and an “Alice in Wonderland tea party”.
“Nothing’s for free. What is it they’re trying to do?” asked Firhouse resident and local area representative for the Social Democrats Carly Bailey.
She was worried the church was targeting economically deprived communities with a view to recruitment. Ms Bailey, a mother of two, noted that bringing children to see Santa Claus can cost €20 or more in many places but that it was free at the Scientology centre.
“It’s obviously aimed at people who don’t have a huge amount of money who would be absolutely thrilled to bring their kids to something that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.”
Dublin South-West TD Seán Crowe said he was worried Scientology was attempting to become part of the fabric of the community in Tallaght before starting to actively recruit people.
“They’ve made it known local groups can avail of its facilities. And there is a shortage of community facilities in the area. There’s always groups looking for a meeting room or something like that. So that’s their way in,” the Sinn Féin TD said.
“But I’ve huge concerns in relation to the group itself. It is a cult. I wouldn’t be encouraging anybody to be using the facilities,” he added.
“No, we won’t be going. From what I’ve seen on television and online I wouldn’t be bringing my kids near the place,” said Louise Kenny, a mother of two, while she shopped in the Firhouse Shopping Centre.
When The Irish Times visited the facility on Sunday a security guard followed this reporter before ordering deletion of a photograph. Church management was alerted after The Irish Times refused.
The church’s director of external affairs, Diana Stahl, said the facility was open to all but that members of the press must make an appointment.
She said about 800 people had visited the centre since the Winter Wonderland opened last Friday. When The Irish Times visited at 2.30pm on Sunday there were less than 20 visitors present.
Ms Stahl said members of the community were welcome to come in and discuss their concerns with a member of staff, except for protesters “who only want to cause trouble”.
Asked how many people have joined the church since the Firhouse facility opened, another Scientology official, who identified herself as Janet, said they do not keep track of those numbers.
In a separate emailed statement, Ms Stahl said Scientology is a “non conversionalist” organisation.
“You can meet many people who we have known and worked with for years who will confirm to you that we have never tried to ‘recruit’ them.”
She said “various local councillors and community representatives, local organisations, local media, numerous sports groups, artists and young families” have visited the facility since it opened.
Many of Scientology’s Firhouse events have been accompanied by protests outside the facility by a small but vocal group of anti-Scientology activists.
A protest against the "Winter Wonderland" festival took place last Friday. On Sunday a play titled "Squeeze my Cans" was staged in another community centre in Firhouse which mocked the church. It stars US actress and anti-Scientology activist Cathy Schenkelberg, who was a member of the church for 14 years before she left.
The autobiographical plot features a woman auditioning to be the girlfriend of famous Scientologist and actor Tom Cruise.