Migrants bring new energy to Irish churches

  • In a country that once had far more priests than it could absorb, a missionary priest from Kerala, India, presides at St. Philomena's Church, suburban Dublin.
  • While the Irish church no longer can send many clergy abroad, missions play an enduring role in Irish Catholic consciousness.
  • The Italian mystic, St. Padre Pio, has great drawing power in Ireland, perhaps as the only now significant devotion to grow here int he last 50 years.
  • A large crowd of Indian Catholics at the Knock shrine reflects the diversity of the Irish church today.
  • Our Lady of Guadelupe has a place steps from the shrine of Our Lady of Knock.
  • The shrine of Our Lady of Knock, Ireland
  • The parish church of Our Lady of Knock. Ireland is as likely as any other country to be a mission church today.
  • Worshipers at Our Lady of Knock shrine reflect the new demographics of Irish Catholic life.

Migration is an extraordinarily important theme of Irish life, from even before the massive flight during the Irish Potato Famine (1845-1852). A country unable to support families on poor and limited land sent family members all over the world, holding “wakes” for those who left on the assumption that they never would be seen by family again. Huge cohorts of Irish nuns and priests similarly went out to the world for generations as missionaries. Outward migration continued through the 1970s, and still continues to a lesser degree, but a new phenomenon has overshadowed it and begun to change the country.

The huge outward migration pattern reversed itself during the Celtic tiger period 1995-2008. Ireland’s economy expanded at an extraordinary pace as corporations move to Ireland to take advantage of a well-educated, English speaking population and a country that served as a bridge to the European Union. The boom, though it proved illusory, changed Ireland’s self consciousness radically, as it shifted from being a place people needed for generations to move away, into a place where the possibilities seemed unlimited. 

During this period when Ireland witnessed a large decline in church attendance, it also saw this influx of workers from other parts of Europe, Africa, India and the Philippines. In 2013, according to the Pew Research Center, 740,000 people—more than 16% of the population—was born outside of Ireland.1 Ireland is even home to a Muslim population of about 50,000. Ireland has become a much more globalized society than in the past. Notably, too, the migration has begun to shift Ireland’s self-conception of who and what is Irish. 

To some degree, the migration brought new religious energy to some parts of Ireland. The Archdiocese of Dublin offers chaplaincies and regular Masses to Catholics from 15 different national groups. Poles have their own thriving parish in Dublin, the grand St. Adouen Church, which was said to have drawn, at its peak during the boom years, up to 5,000 people to Mass a week. One hundred other towns in Ireland offered a weekly Polish Mass.2 As one Dublin priest reported, “If I didn’t have the Poles in my pews on Sundays, I’m not sure who I’d be preaching to.”

A small proportion of Irish Catholics oppose such migration. The numbers increased as migration increased, and even more after the economic collapse, but remains low.  According to the 2009 European Social Survey, 14.9% of Irish Catholics believe that immigration from “poorer countries outside of Europe” should stop, and 10.3% agreed that immigration of persons “of the same ethnic group as the majority” (i.e. foreign-born ethnic Irish) should stop.3