Bradford Anderson
Dublin City University

Creative Commons 4.0 by Bradford Anderson. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

Given the significant role which “religion” has played in Ireland through the centuries, and its place in popular reconstructions of the island (past and present), one might expect that the study of religions as an academic enterprise would be well established in Ireland. However, for a variety of reasons, this has not been the case, and the academic study of religions – described as an objective approach to the topic, often juxtaposed with theology – is a relatively new arrival in Ireland. This volume, edited by Brendan McNamara and Hazel O’Brien, seeks to give snapshots of this emerging discourse on the island, giving readers a glimpse of the way in which the study of religions is taking shape in this context.

The volume begins with an introductory chapter from Alexandra Grieser and Brian Bocking entitled “The Study of Religions in Ireland: An Entangled History.” Along with introducing the various chapters in the volume, Grieser and Bocking helpfully guide the reader through a number of important context-setting issues, from the complex geographical, political, and religious history of the island, to the wide-ranging terminology used for the study of religions in Ireland. The authors also usefully map out some of the work that has been done to date on the island (and beyond), and in doing so paint a helpful picture of how both institutions and individuals are contributing to the academic study of religions in Ireland.

Amy Heath-Carpentier’s chapter explores the complex interrelationship of religious and political perspectives of women who played key roles in the Irish nationalist movement in the revolutionary period, including Ella Young, Maud Gonne, Constance Markievicz, and Eva Gore-Booth, among others. Noting how these women drew from and engaged with traditions that went beyond their own Catholic and Anglican backgrounds – including esotericism, spiritualism, and theosophy – Heath-Carpentier suggests this was a “renegotiation” of their identity which served as a way of giving these women space to navigate the androcentric contexts of both religion and politics during this period. Such a perspective is also important for pushing back against reductionist understandings of this period which conflate nationalism with Catholicism, and a narrowly defined Catholicism at that.

Síle de Cléir’s contribution offers “Reflections on Irish Folklore and Religion.” Following a discussion of terminology related to “folk religion”, de Cléir explores the way in which folk traditions in many contexts are seen as “unofficial,” inferior to “official” religious traditions. However, this is not the case in Ireland, where the interplay of language and nationalist traditions has meant that vernacular traditions are understood as significant and are afforded a place of privilege. Drawing on examples of “lived experience” from antiquity to the modern period, de Cléir elucidates the important and ongoing role of religious folk traditions on the island, with variations in the way these traditions relate to either Christianity or “otherworld” themes and beliefs.

Patricia Kieran’s chapter unpacks the academic discipline of Religious Education (RE) at primary level in Ireland. Kieran helpfully situates the current state of RE in Ireland in historical perspective, while also guiding the reader through the ever-expanding terminology used in relation to this field. The various types of RE currently offered in Ireland are next explored, both in terms of disciplinary perspectives as well as school ethos and patronage. Kieran’s essay rightfully points to the lack of cohesion and clarity around RE in Ireland at the moment, while also noting a number of positive developments in terms of collaboration, curricular developments, and the growing field of third level research on RE on the island.

Gladys Ganiel turns our attention to “Understanding the Sociology of Religion in Contemporary Ireland.” This chapter explores both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and focuses primarily on Christianity. Beginning with the Republic, Ganiel outlines the way in which sociological studies have helped make sense of the changing place (and in particular the decline) of the Catholic Church in recent decades. Issues highlighted include the changing role of women in Ireland, the role of the media in the late-twentieth century in holding the church to account, and the series of referendums that have marked a shift in the social and cultural landscape of Ireland. Moving to Northern Ireland, Ganiel discusses the literature which has explored the role of religion in relation to conflict and peacebuilding. The essay ends with a snapshot of the ways in which the sociology of religion in Ireland is beginning to flower and diversify, even if there is much work still to be done.

Jenny Butler’s chapter investigates “Esotericism, Romantic Nationalism and the Birth of the Irish State.” Moving beyond reductionist ideas that conflate Irish nationalism and Catholic identity, Butler argues that both esotericism and romantic nationalism (which drew on Celtic mythology and traditions) played a vital role in the push for independence in the period under discussion. Important figures in this regard include Maud Gonne, Ella Young, Eva Gore-Booth, W.B. Yeats, J.M. Synge, George William Russell (Æ), and James Cousins, all of whom can be seen as drawing on the themes of esotericism and romanticism, thus challenging conceptions of conventional religious identities and their hegemony in this period.

Deirdre Nuttall and Tony Walsh explore Irish Protestant identity in the post-independence Free State. The history of Protestants in Ireland is shaped by the colonial history which saw the Reformation “planted” in Ireland during British imperial rule. New forms of Irish identity which emerged following the establishment of the Free State would become intimately tied to Catholicism, so that Protestants, who had formerly held power and prestige, now found themselves a small and increasingly marginalized minority. Drawing on Foucault’s work on power dynamics, Nuttall and Walsh suggest that a number of pillars would become central to Irish Protestant identity, as the community responded and adapted to its new situation in this era. These include a focus on community, a tendency toward silence in socio-cultural contexts, and an embrace of liminality. The authors note that the broader landscape of Ireland has changed so dramatically in recent decades – simultaneously more secular and more inclusive – that old notions of “Irish Protestant” identity will of necessity continue to evolve beyond those pillars that were so foundational in the previous century.

Vesna Malešević’s contribution, “Situating New Religious Movements in Contemporary Ireland,” highlights the fact that while there has been a clear move toward secularization in contemporary Ireland, alternative forms of religious expression and alternative religions have also seen significant growth in recent decades. Malešević outlines contemporary research on New Religious Movements (NRMs), as well as their emergence and growth in Ireland, taking the reader through developments such as folk religion, the devotional revolution, and the subsequent emergence of non-Catholic Christian traditions and indeed other religious communities on the island, from Mormons and Pentecostals and New Age movements. Thus, while post-Catholic Ireland is increasingly secular and institutional religions have lost influence, the culture is also infused with various and increasingly diverse forms of spirituality and religious practice.

Abel Ugba explores “Migrant Religions and the Irish State.” Following a broad discussion of the complex relationship of religion and migration in both historical and contemporary perspectives, Ugba moves to the Irish context, focusing primarily on African Pentecostalism in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland. He outlines the complex set of factors that have impacted the way African Pentecostals have established themselves in the cultural and religious milieu of Ireland, while also noting how the Irish state (and indeed broader society) has failed to put in place effective structures that would have allowed for a “less complicated” integration of these migrants and migrant communities. African Pentecostals thus offer an example of how a migrant community has contributed to the growing diversity of contemporary Ireland, even if they continue to be understood and framed as the religious and cultural “other.”

Brian Conway tackles the question of Irish Catholicism’s past and present, utilizing the theory of religious-secular competition to grapple with this question, looking at the ways in which tension between religious and secular opportunities can be found in individual, organizational, and societal levels in the Irish context. At the individual level, this can be seen in the various secular alternatives to the Church now available, such as the move away from consulting the priest for familial or personal counselling, and instead seeking out secular alternatives such as psychotherapists. The fall in religious vocations can be seen as an example of tension at an organizational level, as the priesthood no longer holds the cultural currency it once did, and other fields (including social work) offer opportunities that were once dominated by the Church in Ireland. At the broader social level, the church’s various scandals and a liberalizing of social views on a number of issues have meant that people turn elsewhere – including the media – for input and direction on moral and others matters. The Catholic Church in Ireland thus faces another inflection point, and it remains to be seen if it can (re)present itself as a viable alternative for individuals or society at large.

Laurence Cox and Brian Bocking offer reflections on “Thinking Beyond the Island: Buddhism, Ireland and Method in the Study of Religions.” While we do not often think about “Irish” and “Buddhist” as belonging in the same sentence, the authors highlight the complex relationship between these two terms, and what this might mean for the broader study of religions in Ireland. Drawing on previous research done by the authors and others, Cox and Bocking explore how Ireland’s relationship to Buddhism has historically exhibited both imperial and reductionist tendencies, as well as solidarity with religious dissenters. The chapter concludes with some reflections on how Buddhism can help us think about the study of religions in Ireland today, including the need to grapple with a growing Buddhist demographic on the island that is comprised of both immigrant communities from Asia and Western converts.

The volume concludes with a “Postface” from Tom Inglis, reflecting on and responding to the contributions in the collection. Inglis is a fitting interlocutor for the volume, given his important sociological work in mapping the rise and fall of the Catholic church in Ireland (Moral Monopoly, 1987/1998).

Several important themes and issues recur in the volume, pointing both to the vibrant state of the field, as well as to avenues for further exploration. First, the geographical, political, cultural, and religious diversity of the island of Ireland is present throughout the volume. Whether in comparison of the Republic and Northern Ireland (Ganiel), discussion of Protestant and migrant Pentecostal identities (Nuttall and Walsh, Ugba), or reconstruction of the impact of traditions such as esotericism and Buddhism (Heath-Carpentier, Cox and Bocking), the volume gives a robust account of the study of religions in Ireland, and in doing so challenges simplistic or reductionist understandings of historical and contemporary Ireland. A number of the studies also give important nuance and texture to ideas that have become too simplistic in popular contexts, whether it is the equation of nationalism with Catholicism (Butler), or the assumption of a clear and linear growth of secularization over the past few decades (Malešević, Conway). In highlighting such rich possibilities, these essays point the way for further research on the complex, multifaceted study of religions in Ireland, past and present. Indeed, this reader hopes that subsequent collections will highlight further topics such as Islam, Orthodoxy, evangelicalism, “Nones,” and other traditions and demographics that are growing and incredibly diverse across the island.

A second interesting feature is the recurring attention given to terminology and definitions of various subjects. For those involved in the study of religion, this is familiar territory. However, for a broader audience this sort of genealogical and lexical work is vitally important, as it again points to the complex and multi-layeredness of so many of the topics covered in the volume – from the idea of the study of ‘religion’ itself (Grieser and Bocking), to religious education (Kieran), folklore and vernacular religion (de Cléir), and New Religious Movements (Malešević). Indeed, educators, journalists, and other stakeholders will benefit from this aspect of the volume, and this points to an area where those involved in the study of religions have an opportunity to make a significant contribution.

Finally, the essays in this volume draw on a number of different fields, disciplines, and approaches: history, folklore, gender, sociology, politics, and migration studies are just a few important conversation partners used in this collection. While multi-disciplinarity of this kind is common in religious studies (and indeed the humanities in general), this sort of wide-ranging and collaborative research would seem to be particularly important in the academic study of religions on the island, given both the small group engaged in the enterprise and the relative youth of the study of religions as a discipline in Ireland. The ability to draw from work done in other fields and to collaborate with colleagues in cognate disciplines will need to be a vital part of the study of religions in Ireland moving forward if it is to have both breadth and depth.

McNamara and O’Brien are to be applauded for bringing together a rich and thought-provoking collection of essays from diverse perspectives, reflecting the interesting and important work that is being done on the study of religions in (and about) Ireland. The volume was launched in June 2022 at University College Cork, as part of the European Association for the Study of Religions conference (EASR), a momentous occasion as it was the first time that this important conference was held in Ireland. The publication of this book and the simultaneous hosting of the EASR conference together point to the growing significance of the study of religions in Ireland, as well as Ireland’s emerging place in this field, both of which are welcome developments.