Catholicism has a long history in Ireland and continues to influence and adapt to Irish society. For some, Catholicism acts as a cultural identity as well as a religious identity. This may contribute to the fact that many Irish people, including those who rarely attend church, observe the traditional Catholic life-cycle rituals, particularly baptism and confirmation.
While Ireland remains a predominantly Catholic country, 3.7 million people identified as Catholic in the 2016 census, 132,220 fewer than in 2011 when the percentage stood at 84%. In this data narrative I intend to use various figures and data gathered from the Central Statistics Office alongside the European Social Survey to explore the practice and belief among Catholics in the Republic of Ireland.
The Catholic Church continues to play a prominent role in the country through maintaining responsibility for most schools and many hospitals. The Catholic Church runs 90% of state-funded primary schools and around half of all secondary schools. However, some argue that baptism is still widely practised only because many Catholic primary schools give preference to the enrolment of children who are already baptised. In turn, many non-religious parents will baptise their children to avoid having to seek schools that are farther from their homes. Nonetheless, Catholicism continues to play a notable role in Irish society and Irish national identity.
In recent decades, Ireland has experienced a significant decline in the number of regular religious practitioners. This decrease corresponded with the rapid economic growth of the country in the 1990s, and the exposure of child abuse by Catholic clergy that came to light in the early 21st century. There also appears to be a growing generational divide, whereby many of the older population uphold the views held by the church.
Looking back, census results show that historically Roman Catholics represented on average of 89.5 percent of the population in each of the four censuses held from 1881 to 1911. It subsequently rose to a peak in 1961 of 94.9 per cent. Since then, its proportion of the total population has slowly declined.
While the proportion of Catholics declined in 2016, the total number also recorded a fall of 132,220 persons from 3.86 million in 2011 to 3.73 million in 2016, the first such fall in absolute numbers since at least five decades. There has been a corresponding rise in the number with no religion which grew by 73.6 percent from 269,800 to 468,400, an increase of 198,600.
One in 10 Irish people say they have no religion which is 468,421 people, a 73.6% increase since 2011. This makes ‘no religion’ the second largest group in this category behind Roman Catholics. Around 12% of persons aged 30-34 have no religious adherence, the highest of any age band.
Over the period 1972-2011, weekly church attendance by Irish Roman Catholics fell from 91% to 30%. For the population as a whole, the following graph details the decline in attendance.
In 2008, it was reported that there had been a steadying in the rate of decline of the proportion of Catholics in Ireland attending Mass weekly or more often. Weekly or more often Mass attendance was declining from the late 1980s but had levelled off at 64% of Catholics by the late 1990s. In 2006 the ESS data showed that weekly or more often Mass attendance in the Republic currently stands at 56.4% of the Catholic population.
However, proportion of regular Mass attendees is not evenly distributed across the age range, the provinces or even the occupations. From the table below we can note some interesting regional patterns. Those Catholics who never attend Mass is highest in the Dublin area at 4.5% but this region also sees the highest proportion of those who attend every day. The Once per week proportion in this region is the lowest of the entire State, just under one quarter of Dublin’s Catholics attend on this basis. There is nothing to suggest that living in these areas means you are a less frequent attendee.
Attendance at religious services apart from special occasions
by province. Base: RoI Catholics. Source: ESS4.
Three counties had more than 1 in 3 of the population as non-Catholic, namely Dublin City, Dun Laoghaire and Galway City. Tipperary had the lowest percentage at 12.9%.
The percentage of respondents who said they followed a religion other than Catholicism in the census in Ireland in 2011 is outlined in the map below.
This information is coherent with the idea that busier cities with a higher population density tend to have a more complex variation of religion. It’s also clear that rural areas show a substantially lower amount of following to other religions aside from Catholicism.
For those Catholics that attend more than once per week, we can see significant declines over an approximately ten year period. There is a reduction of 8% in the number of Catholics attending Mass once per week only. If age is factored into this data, we can see a more nuanced trend.
Once per week or more often Mass attendance broken down by broad age groups. Base: RoI Catholics. Source: ESS cumulative file.
There is a consistent fall in once per week or more often Mass attendance among all age groups bar two in the period under examination. In 2002, about 50% of 15 to 24 year olds attend Mass this often. By 2009, this frequency rate is about 30% for this age group. This is represented by the blue and green lines in the first set of columns above. Rises are falls across the age groups are recorded but the trend is downward across this time period for all but two age groups: the 55 to 64 and 75 or older age groups.
This is confirmed by comparing the linear regression values for a log scale trendline for two selected age groups. This is not so much a predictor of the trend but a confirmation of the trend, i.e. downward for the younger age group. The model proposed suggests that there will be a continued downward trend in the once per week Mass attendance for the younger age group and a continuing stabilisation of the trend for the older.
Larger numbers of Catholics in Ireland feel that they are religious than not very religious. If these data are examined by age, there is a continuing trend toward younger cohorts of people believing themselves to be not so religious. However, those who define themselves as very religious also show some relevant trends.
The chart below shows the proportions in each of the age groups and their definition of themselves as religious. The vertical axis represents proportions of Catholics in that age cohort. As can be seen, those aged 55 and above are far more likely to define themselves as more religious than those aged under 35, even among those higher up on the on the scale. The taller bars on the right as well as the blue bars indicate larger proportions of Catholics in that cohort choosing more religious definitions of themselves.
The green lines above mark the least ‘most religious’ in the graph with those marking the final point on the scale increasing with age. Over time, as the percentage of the entire population describing themselves as Catholic decreases, the proportions within the Catholic population defining themselves as religious or very religious increases with age. As before, both the differences in the region of residence and the gender of the respondent are significant to the sense of how religious the respondent feels themselves to be.
To further illustrate this idea, by taking the total population for 2016 from the CSO alongside the figures for those practicing no religion and those who count themselves as Roman Catholics there is a very clear and coherent message being narrated through the data.
Initially focusing on the fact that the highest declared Catholics throughout the census are children under nine years. Arguably this is due to the influence of the Catholic church in primary schools in Ireland and the sacraments such as Baptism, Communion and Conformation being a substantial part of our education system as well as our cultural norms, particularly at primary school level. Following this, there is a sharp decrease in those declaring themselves as Roman Catholics and understandably an equated shift in those practicing no religion.
The intersection of the figures with those in their early fifties suggests this was the time when the dissolution of the Catholic church began. Supported by the fact that from this point the number of practicing Catholics steadily increases taking the highest percentage of the population in their later years in life.
The narrative being brought forward through the data is extremely clear, there is an obvious reform taking place within the Catholic Church in Ireland. The figures clearly illustrate the steady decline of catholic practitioners alongside the general dissolution of faith across Ireland. Such figures, however, only get us so far in historically analysing the state of the Catholic Church in Ireland. Catholicism has had an extensive impact on Irish culture for many generations, and although in Ireland, there is no official state religion, and the Irish Constitution guarantees the individual’s freedom to profess and practise a religion. Nonetheless, the Catholic Church and the Irish state have a longstanding historical, cultural and political connection.
The rich data surrounding the practice and belief among Catholics in the Republic of Ireland allows us to develop a deeper understanding around the changes facing our society. Alongside being able to diagnose the information, it can also create a space to predict where the future of our cultural society will go and perhaps what the impacts of these changes will be from a socioeconomic and cultural perspective.