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What Does 10% Less Catholic Feel Like?
The most recent census shows a country in the midst of a great change, but that’s not always how we experience it
The Irish census results came out about a week ago, with the most eye-catching result being that the proportion of people identifying as Catholic is down a fairly staggering amount, from 79% to 69% in 7 years.
This change got more coverage outside Ireland than from within. The international commentary was either of the “Ireland is becoming a modern country, how great” type, from the normie press, vs “Ireland has lost its identity, how awful” from a minority of more conservative/ right wing sources. But, as a story, it was gone out of the Irish headlines in a day. Why don’t Irish people seem to care more, one way or another?
Catholicism in Ireland is more than just a matter of who turns up at churches every week. A person can have stopped identifying as Catholic between 2016 and 2023 yet still send their child to Catholic school, attend and participate in Catholic ceremonies, be heavily involved in Catholic-oriented charity work. They can live in a world saturated with Catholic symbolism from street names to Saint’s days and of course carry with them memories of their more explicitly Catholic past. That complex web of existing institutional, emotional and psychic forces doesn’t go away just because you go to mass half as much as you used to seven years ago.
To personalise it a little: last month there were two confirmations in my extended family, though I was only able to attend one, my nephew’s. There was a party at my parent’s house. Afterwards I had to collect something from an upstairs bedroom and noticed there was an icon of a praying child on the wall that had been there for my entire life, that I had never truly inspected before. I took it down and noted a prayer to some saint or other on the back. Hanging it back on the wall I remembered that my parents have two plates in their kitchen with the Our Father written on them, that their friends brought back as gifts from Israel. Afterwards my sister gave me a lift home; we drove past her old school and recalled how every year of her during May the girls would have a procession around the car park singing “May is the month of Mary”, and she noted she could sing the whole song from beginning to end right now like it was yesterday.
I’m from the least religious part of Ireland and realistically my parents and their children are functionally atheist. (Some members of my family might dispute that, but that’s my perception.) If someone asked me on an average day what presence religion had in my life I would have said basically none. Nevertheless; that’s life in a 69% Catholic country - really very Catholic, and essentially indistinguishable from the last census 7 years ago even though there’s been a nominal decline.
An Irish person if cornered would concede that the decline in religious identification matters - but because of the uneven way the changes are distributed, the strength of memory and of the existing social bonds that contain and obscure those changes, it often doesn’t feel like it's happening at all. This is a dangerous illusion, because something is happening. The difference between 69% and 79% might not encompass the marginal change that causes people to feel that something significant is gone, but the tipping point does exist somewhere.
The trend lines for both religious and demographic change (spoiler - it’s the same change) are only going in one direction. The trend will have accelerated in the next census, and it may have found a different cultural expression by then. I'm not talking about a reverse course and return to Catholicism; I don't see how such a thing could happen, though I have plenty of religious mutuals who will be happy to fill me in on that. But the fact is that a tremendous amount of Irish social life and memory is unthinkingly reliant on, or at least oriented towards, the heat from a fire that may have already gone out. The 2023 Census is a record of a people, as Patrick Kavanagh wrote, “tripping lightly along the ledge/ of a deep ravine” - the question of what it feels like to be on other side of that ledge or the bottom of the chasm has still not been answered, it looks like we’ll have to wait at least another 7 years to find out - here’s to 2030.