The withering of Irish Catholicism sees Sunday attendance plummet in the cities…

It seems that Catholicism is on the wane in what were once urban strongholds. Maeve Connolly has a big front page splash on the front of the Irish News today on regular Mass attendances of just 4% in Poleglass. Holy Family in north Belfast is just bringing 17% of the local Catholic population.

Dublin Archdiocese – with its huge churches designed for another age, and which struggles financially with their up keep – pulls in a mere 14%. Beyond the big cities however people have remained more faithful. In Rasharkin something like 60-65% still go. Yet back in the 1970s the average regular Mass attendance was in the region of 90%. The survey gives percentages in terms of possible Catholics.

It’s the sharpness of the decline that must give huge worry to the hierarchy of the church… Sunday observance was 43% in 2006 (just after the current Pope took office) and is now down to just 20%…

  • But the fact that 84% of the population in the recent Irish census declared themselves to be Catholic is perhaps an interesting fact indicating that belief and attendance are two completely different things.
    Attendance on a Sunday is one thing. Attendance for Baptisms, First Communion, Weddings, Funerals is obviously much higher.
    Religious websites and bloggers, usually arguing from different perspectives now talk of an open schism in the Irish Catholic Church. And I note this has actually increased in recent months.

    But as Poleglass has been mentioned, let me make a point which would certainly confirm much of what has been said. A few years back I was on a bus going thru Poleglass into city centre when two young men got on board.
    Nearing the end of their journey in Divis Street, one noticed the spires of St Peters Cathedral.
    “I never noticed that before”
    “its been there years”
    “is it Catholic?”
    “I think so”

    They got off at the Metro College.

  • derrydave

    If it wasn’t so bloody boring maybe we’d have kept going in greater numbers – just a thought 🙂

  • A little bit facetious but if I was a Catholic I wouldn’t go to Mass there either. Here are a couple of pictures from the interior of the Church of the Nativity, Poleglass.

    Let’s face it they would be unrecognisable to most Catholics. More like the RTE studio mock-up on a Sunday morning.

  • tacapall

    If they didn’t constantly pass those begging bowls round sometimes twice during mass where people are embarrassed at not being able to drop a few coins in or constantly being lectured to from the pulpit about how Jesus died for our sins and unless we mend our sinful ways we will be judged and damned in the afterlife. I was working in Dublin a few years back and I met a few young priests from the local parish where I live in West Belfast at a nightclub in Temple Bar, they certainly didn’t get on like men of the cloth and their behaviour led me to believe they took their vows of celibacy tongue in cheek, not that it surprised me just the hypocrisy of it. I know of a local Irish primary school where half the class of pupils who were at the age to make their holy communion were not even put through the process by their parents, its just too expensive to be religious nowdays.

  • Dec

    Looks like a bathroom showroom, Ulick. You’ve got to think that’s at least part of the problem.

  • seamus60

    Just as long as they keep building the new chapels ROUND in design.

  • DT123

    FJH .

    If you assume ,that those attending the births,marriages and deaths,rarely attend apart from those events,you would assume that their children attend even less regularly.

    Taking that the parents of the current generation never missed/miss attending,in another 20 years,will there be any attendence at all?

  • Just bought the paper (for the Ulster Championship supplement), read the articles and one thing stands out as curious. The articles repeatedly refer to “Sunday Mass” but surely most people now go to the vigil Mass on Saturday evening? Is that this isn’t mentioned mere ignorance on the part of the author, Meave Connolly i.e. in not making it clear the figures include the vigil Mass or is it a deliberate misrepresentation of the figures? If the latter, I smell an agenda at work.

  • cynic2

    “If it wasn’t so bloody boring maybe we’d have kept going in greater numbers”

    or such complete nonsense?

  • Old Mortality

    ‘but surely most people now go to the vigil Mass on Saturday evening’

    You’re onto something there. In rural parishes at least, it’s a nightmare if you happen to be driving past an RC church when the Saturday evening mass is ending.
    However, this preference for Saturday evening may itself be a sign of weakening allegiance. In the village where I was brought up, the PP would not admit people to mass on a Saturday evening unless they could prove to him that it would be impossible for them to attend on Sunday morning. That was some time ago, needless to say.
    Nowadays, few people can be bothered to get up on a Sunday morning, if the survey is to be believed.

  • derrydave

    “If it wasn’t so bloody boring maybe we’d have kept going in greater numbers”

    or such complete nonsense?

    Yeah – that too 🙂

  • Mick Fealty


    I would think that an overall drop of 50% between 2006 and 2012 would contain a standard rate of decline Ulick. Agenda or no.

    If you guys are regular attenders you must admit that the general trend is unremittingly downwards, particularly amongst younger cohorts…

    What I see is kids and their parents… some, but very few, teenagers… and then most of the rest consist of over 50s or 60s…

  • derrydave


    Religion is ‘finished’ in Europe as a whole – we are now a post-religion (sic) society. The only growth in religious observance in europe appears to relate to non-european immigration. To my mind it is probably a good thing that we’ve grown out of all that mumbo-jumbo, and is a sign of a mature and developed society. God may be great, but religion can be pretty bad !

    In Asia, on the other hand religion appears to be positively booming – poverty, desperation, and religion often make good bedfellows !

  • keano10

    I was raised in a very devout Catholic family, but I would no regard myself as being a Catholic. There are many reasons which culminated in this decision. The outrageous widespread abuse of our children over many decades has haunted me as someone who is a loving parent. I believe that the Irish Catholic Church at the highest level deliberately protected these abusers over many decades and are still doing so to some extent.

    The shocking nature of this abuse gradually and systematically weakened my faith overall.
    I no longer practise the Catholic faith and it has honestly been a liberating experience. I am presently trying to regain and renew my faith and belief in God, but have no idea whether or not that will ever lead me back into another organised Religious framework again. I am not honestly sure whether it matters or not.

    The percentages attending Mass are no longer of any direct concern to me, but I think that many people hold a certain morality and human kindness which does not necessarily require manifestation through organised religious practise every Sunday. There are many hypocrites who attend Chapels or Churches each week simply through routine, tradition and a sense of obligation.

    I do not believe that reduced Church Attendance necessarily reflects a weakening of morality within society. As for The irish Catholic Church, they are deservedly paying a heavy price for their decades of lies, abuse and hypocrisy.

  • Ulick is barking up the wrong tree. The press officer for the Diocese of Down and Connor was on Radio Ulster this morning and confirmed that the figures are accurate. A vigil mass is held on the “vigil” (evening before) the actual date of the event being celebrated, but has the same status as a Sunday mass and was included in the statistics. Rather than looking for conspiracy theories, Ulick might concentrate on what the clear and unmistakable trends in the survey actually mean for the Catholic Church.

  • @oldhack I’ll assume you have some connection to the Irish News as you only ever seem to respond to me when I comment on something from that paper so here is something for you. I wasn’t looking for conspiracy theories as if you look at my post, I provided two alternatives. Fair enough if the vigil figures are included, however then my other alternative stands i.e. the Irish News author of these pieces didn’t mention the vigil Mass figures anywhere and as that was the first question that popped into my head with all of the references to “Sunday Mass”, then it’s clear she is either a poor journalist or ignorant of what she is writing about (maybe both).

    As you know I don’t buy the rag anymore after the disgraceful story relating to the GAA player who died on the pitch, so I don’t really know if this is these prevailing low standards the Irish News reader has come accustomed too over the intervening years.

  • Framer

    Proves that Catholic nationalism is ethnic not religious as the SF vote just keeps rising.

  • Granni Trixie

    Bear in mind that ‘Catholicism’ has cultural impact which in my experience is little affected by stopping religious practice such as mass going. Am I the only former Catholic for instance who simply cannot shift off a sense of guilt about many innocent pleasures (the Petshop Boys sem to know how a sense of sin permeates). it seems to be a struggle between what you intellect and common sense tll you and the way you were brought up as a Catholic.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Have noted the references to the decor and content, does that actually make a difference?

    I know on the Protestant side some churches are growing, and outgrowing their buildings, while others are declining and closing, and although attendance may be reducing gradually it is a very mixed picture. A good minister/pastor turning things around from decline to growth is not uncommon, and if anything it is expected of them, at the very worst you can easily change congregation or even denomination (both my sisters have changed denominations in recent years for practical reasons).

    Is there anything similar in the RC Church? can a good priest or building make a difference?

  • derrydave

    I don’t think so Drumlins – there seems to be much more scope for a minister / pastor to make an impact rather than a priest within the catholic church – maybe a bit more freedom of expression within the protestant religion(s), whereas preists very much have to toe the party line within the Catholic church.

    For whatever reason, regular attendance at mass seems to have gone from being completely the norm only 20 years ago to being amost seen as a bit strange. Wierdly enough the Catholic identity does not seem to have been impacted by this – everyone I know who has stopped going to mass (which covers almost everyone I know) would still consider themselves to be Catholic and would consider this to be an integral part of their identity, without ever feeling the need to practice their religion. Not sure this is the case within the protestant community, where there seems to be more people willing to move away from being identified by their religion ?

  • Ulick, as an ordinary newspaper reader, it was obvious that the references to Sunday mass attendance in the 1950s and 1960s were fair, as there were no Vigil masses in those days. It was equally obvious that the Vigil figures from more recent times would be automatically included in the overall survey, which the Diocese of Down and Connor has confirmed to be accurate. It is hard to understand why you are still shooting the messager when the debate is actually about what the trends mean for the future of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

  • Rory Carr

    Those of you suffering from depression as result of disillusionment with the Catholic Church in which you had placed so much faith and trust may wish to find some form of therapy on the Horror Channel on television tonight with a film titled Nude Nuns With Big Guns 2010 (I kid you not).

    The synopsis reads:

    “After taking her vows as a nun, Sister Sarah is drugged and abused to the brink of death. But now she’s broken the habit, got herself a gun, and the clergy will pay.” (Don’t blame me, I don’t write this stuff.)

    It is described as “A superior revenge thriller.”

    I shall be riveted myself.

    A “Mother Superior” revenge thriller more like.

  • sherdy

    It has taken years of hard work by the Church to half-empty their churches. Any more scandals and the job will be completed, allowing the hierarchy to sell off all their property, with the proceeds going to the victims of clerical abuse.

  • BIGK

    Sherdy,couldnt have said it better myself. The whole aim of the church today is to gather up as much property as possible all no doubt to help pay for the actions of the filth who persucuted our children throughout the ages. No parish building is safe. All they can steal from the people who built them using their hard earned money will be stolen and sold. It is happening all across the country.A lot of people can see their movements and are not amused. It is time the ordinary people stood up to these thieves in collars. This is the dying kick of the catholic church as we have known it. No wonder no one goes.

  • @oldhack apologies, the Irish News must be going for a better class of readers these days then, because it wasn’t obvious to thickos like me and I’m sure many others who read the piece.

  • ThomasMourne

    An unmentioned factor in falling church attendance is the improvement in education in recent years – not just in schools, but through television, internet and other media. The myths and superstitions of organised religious groups are more unlikely to be accepted by an open and educated mind. The abuse scandals have served to speed up people’s disbelief.

    Catholicism is thriving in the former communist countries of eastern Europe, evidenced by the strong faith of those people who have come to Ireland from there. But that will be a short-lived trend.

    Children in Catholic primary schools [and their parents] are intimidated into ‘following the herd’ in 1st communion and confirmation and, unfortunately, many PS teachers collaborate with this, for fear of their job prospects.

  • BluesJazz

    DR has mentioned how so called protestant churches are faring.
    Pretty badly in South Down.
    As a sunday school kid (CoI), my query on the timeline of Noah’s Ark with polar bears and kangaroos didn’t go down well with the ‘teacher’. I smelled a big fat rat.
    And the ritual(s) were just crap. Apart from the Xmas carols it was tedious.
    Same with many others. Science, especially evolution, has blown the ritualstic superstitious tradition away.
    The demographic of all religions-bar Islam in GB – is pensioners.
    It wasn’t a bad influence on my generation, quite nostalgic about some of it. But when you get educated , it just seems like Santa. I can see the community cohesion part of it, but economics has torpedoed that.
    Like the duckpond, pardoner and witchfinder, just a medieval mindset coming to a natural end.
    And good venues for Tesco Express, sunday morning redefined.

  • Mick Fealty


    That was a lapse in tone from you. I’d rather hear a counter case than it lapse into sour banter.

  • dwatch
  • Old Mortality

    Thomas Mourne
    ‘..the improvement in education in recent years – not just in schools, but through television, internet and other media. The myths and superstitions of organised religious groups are more unlikely to be accepted by an open and educated mind.’

    By that standard, the proles of Poleglass are the most highly educated Catholics in the Belfast area.

  • terence patrick hewett

    No intention of abandoning the church simply because it is in trouble. The Church has survived for 2000 years: it survived the Borgias and it survived Hitler. It will survive this century as well.

  • roadnottaken

    Drumlins asked a good question about good priests.. and it made me think. I live in a rural Co Derry Parish which has been very fortunate over the last 12/13 years with 2 very good, relatively young priests. The first one replaced an 85 year old who could barely even say the mass. He brought a drive to the Parish that hadnt been seen since the mid-80’s, totally renovating the Church, throwing his weight behind community gatherings and events (including with the local GAC), become much more active with the Primary School next door to the Chapel, and beginning work on the Parish Hall. The second priest has largely continued that work.

    However, the initial drive of the parishioners soon fell away.. there’s only so much one man can do, and when he had little leg-room on the actual religious side of things, no real change can take place. Even though the second priest continued the work, he has inherited a Parish which has good attendance (probably no more than average) but one which is slowly dying. Morale is low. That can be said in all Parishes. The older generation have been shaken to their core, and don’t know how to feel about abuse and lies within the hierarchies in Derry, Armagh, Dublin..

    But for me, the most noticeable aspect of a rural Parish, and in the case of these younger, more active Priests…the more conservative-minded, regulars will shoot down anything which they believe to be against Church teaching.. even the car’s that they drive, or the furniture they choose to put in the Parochial House. These people are the gossips and hypocrites that reside in every Parish. But their days are numbered too..the young don’t care anymore.

    Personally, I recorded Catholic on my Census return.. my father and brother too. None of us have any faith left. My mother has some personal belief, but she has the same level of distrust for the Church. None of attend, unless it is an occasion.

  • Those religious and laity who have made a sterling contribution to society have, at the very least, been let down by a small number of perverts and by those in the religious as well as the political establishment who either passed the buck or who turned a blind eye. Are those who are walking away also letting down the good folks I’ve just referred to? Were they just fair weather friends?

  • Newman

    There is no way through this crisis unless the truth is met head on and allowed to bring the necessary change. The problem however has not been to do with Church teaching but with a failure to apply that teaching and in Church government. It might be helpful if critics identified which specific church teaching caused the crisis. A failure to face up to the activities of rogue priests is a crisis in government. An analysis which saw moving priests to another parish as a solution was woefully and dangerously naive at best. What I reject however is that paedophilia will be sorted out if you change church teaching. It was always a crime in canon law and remains a grave and mortal sin. Jesus highlighted abuse of children as incurring the most graphic of punishments.Why then do many constantly think that all will be well if Humanae Vitae was amended along with most church teachings on human sexuality…..

  • “allowed to bring the necessary change”

    Newman, are mechanisms now in place which could facilitate such a change – or does too much power still reside ‘at the centre’?

  • Comrade Stalin

    My parents aren’t quite as old as some discussed here. I think they were in the first generation that was just beginning to question what it was all about, especially when the church decided to go on the attack against pop music in the 60s.

    The child abuse matter is the most serious question that has come up within the church, but most people brought up a generation or two back will recall different kinds of abuse. Corporal punishment, not just for bad behaviour but often for simply getting the wrong answers, or for being left-handed or a bit slow, was considered acceptable and such was the level of trust in the church that it was held that if the priests or nuns (or their delegates) used the cane they must have had a good reason. Later, the same generation witnessed priests abusing their power, often in subtle ways, influencing life within the community often in ways which were not necessarily to its interest. It was only after the fact that people began to question this and I think this has fed into the general disillusionment.

    Finally, not to sound clichéd but these days people are much better educated and better travelled than a generation or two ago. People expect to have a say in things, especially matters such as the need for celibacy, gay marriage, the role of women and so on. That is not how the church works, it seems to believe that its congregation is conservative/traditional and has no desire for such things. I think this is the single biggest problem with the church’s response to child abuse; it’s very much “we’ll take care of it, stop worrying yourselves”; it does not have the capacity to supplicate an angry congregation.

  • Newman

    Nevin…there has already been am massive change in the attitude taken to abuse of children and safeguarding procedures….still a lot more to do. Not sure if I can properly answer. De-centralistion can lead to Gallicanism which is equally as pernicious as Ultramontanism….there is certainly room for debate on this one.

  • You do wonder what sort of corporate governance mechanisms are in place in the Catholic Church?

  • Newman, my roots are Presbyterian where the minister is the first amongst equals in the session, the local church governing body. When there was a plentiful supply of clergy the local congregation got to choose its minister from a short-list. This worked fairly well when there was unanimous support for the successful candidate but when candidates votes were close it wasn’t unknown for a church to split and for a new church to be built a short distance away. This is an example of two much devolution and I suspect the presence of too many Presbyterians may be part of the UUP’s organisational problems!

    On the other hand the absence of local power can lead to an absence of responsibilty amongst the laity; even Cardinal Brady IMO appears to lack sufficient power to put the Irish church in order. Hence my earlier suggestion that a change of personnel will not resolve what may at heart be a structural problem.

  • BluesJazz

    The ‘structural problem’ might be a bit narrow. It’s not just Richard Dawkins, it’s science in general. Faith is belief without evidence. At school, in any subject, apart from RS, you need to provide evidence. Unless you want the Scopes trial ‘ressurected’, then all religions are just social constructs. Actually that’s what they are, medieval relics. They shamelessly make it up as they go along.
    Cargo cult thinking.

  • “The ‘structural problem’ might be a bit narrow.”

    BluesJazz, I was referring to the distribution of power and responsibility, not about belief.

  • Years ago I was talking about attitudes to faith and being a Catholic with a school pal. We agreed that we attended the Mass and were going through the rituals out of a sense of tradition. We knew there was nothing tangible to hold onto. I remember reflecting on what our parents must have been feeling when the scandals started to break – starting with Bishop Casey. Our conclusion was this – people held on ridgidly to what they knew because once you started to pick at one element the whole thing comes apart. our analogy was a woolly jumper with loose thread – pull the thread and before you know it the jumper is gone. So it with faith – if we admit that evil can reside at the heart of the church and cannot be challenged then where does that understanding of corruption lead? How can people give away everything they hold to be true at the end of their lives? Sheesh.

    The Church as an institution always knew that its power resided in fear – fear of the present, fear of the afterlife, repercussions – from God, from your neighbours and commmunity. Once we were shown that these people are just mortal people with no greater insight than anyone else it all started to come apart.

    I am from one of those families who had an uncle as a farmer, one as a medical man, and one a priest with the aunties doing teaching and nursing – a very typical catholic family profile from the 50’s and 60’s. The Priest left in the early 80’s – one because he was treated atrociously (as were all young priests) by the hierarchy and secondly he didn’t believe in transubstantiation. He liked the philosophy of Christianity and passed it onto his kids when he got married.

    We are in the “holy communion” debate now and I know my family are going to be the first to break that dopey cycle in a few years time – no bouncy castle or mini-brides dresses. I have no idea what it will do to the wider family but it will get a debate going for sure. Not sure if it will disinherit them – might do!

  • Newman

    Nevin…I think the starting point for discussion is in believing that a bright shiny modern a corporate governance model will somehow provide a panacea. It clearly will not. Retreat to localism means that the Church ceases to be what it was intended. It also arguably cedes the principle that difficulties are so great that the credal belief in “one holy Catholic and Apostolic” is an anachronism. Catholics believe that the Church is a visible manifestation of the Body of Christ not just in relationships but also in its apostolic structures.The dilemma is in reconciling this belief with the reality that at times it may be so weighed down by sin that its true nature may only be seen through a glass darkly.This really however does not change its essential nature. My own way through the apparent contradiction is to view through the prism of history. The Church has spectacularly failed at points in history…corrupt popes, the sale of indulgences the inquisition etc etc. Yet because of its divine spark it recovers and 2000 years later remains over a billion strong. That of course does not answer the questions you raise about empowerment of the laity and the absence of local power. Personally I think the Second Vatican Council documents do provide light. Not in the manner proposed by post modernists who keep referring to its spirit without proper reference to the documents, but in its vision for the church where the laity play an active and essential role. That has not properly happened in Ireland and we are today paying a dreadful price for the culture of secrecy and cover up that developed.As with all things involving the church Councils can take centuries to work through.I remain hopeful but am sobered by the present reality.The analysis you provide of local Presbyterian difficulties insightful. Hume was always a Cardinal..the leader of the UUP merely a temporary Moderator.!

  • dwatch

    Thanks Michael for your post. I just wonder how many Catholics agree with you that attending Mass and going through the rituals are out of a sense of tradition. I wonder how many refuse to believe in transubstantiation like the member of your family you just mentioned, but never admit it?

  • Tochais Síoraí

    dwatch, I’d say most have never given something like transubstantiation a moment’s thought. Even amongst mass attending Catholics, I’d be genuinely surprised if more than 1/3 would be able to give a passable defintion of it. Catholicism, particularly the Irish version is mostly about taking part in the rituals and being part of a shared experience and tradition. It’s not like say, Presbyterianism where there seems to be a far greater engagement with the actual beliefs.

  • Newman, I think you may have left out responsibility from my ‘power and responsibility’ phrase. I co-ordinated an inter-schools group of 16-18 year-olds in Coleraine from about 1971 to 1987 in addition to my day job. I was often the only adult in the voluntary group and the team spirit was generally brilliant. I was a sort of benevolent dictator cum regulator cum motivator – curbing the excesses to allow a space for the more timid to flourish. I figured out the roles that needed to be played in a project, called for volunteers to fill them and devolved as much responsibility as they were prepared to take or to share. Even newcomers to the group displayed a self-confidence which was often higher than folks four or five years older.

    One thing that struck me about some of the Catholic parents was that they would complain about bad decisions made by parish priests rather than step in an proffer advice if they thought he was heading down the wrong road. I can think of one instance where the PP had the church repainted – and then decided that the building needed to be reroofed with all the repainting that that entailed. The Presbyterian committee system brings more expertise as well as contrary views to the table. The Presbyterian cleric probably needs a firmer hand 🙂

    PS ‘Cardinal’ Hume was probably around too long and probably kept his colleagues too much in the dark.