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. Most of the population identify as Christian, with the majority (84.7%) affiliating with Catholicism. Of the remaining population, 2.7% identify with the Church of Ireland, 2.7% identify with some other branch of Christianity, 1.1% identify as Muslim, 1.7% identify with some other religion, 5.7% did not identify with a religion, and 1.5% did not specify their religious affiliation.
Catholicism in Ireland
Catholicism has a long history in Ireland and continues to influence and adapt to Irish society. As a branch of Christianity, Catholicism emphasises the doctrine of God as the ‘Holy Trinity' (the Father, Son and Holy Spirit). Many Irish accept the authority of the priesthood and the Roman Catholic Church, which is led by the Pope. According to legend, St. Patrick brought Christianity to the country in 432 CE. It is said that St. Patrick used the three-leaved clover (shamrock) to explain the concept of the Holy Trinity to Irish pagans. The shamrock thus reflects the deep connection between Catholicism and the Irish identity.
In the early 1600s, English opposition to Catholicism led many local Irish rulers to emigrate from Ireland to Catholic countries abroad. Eventually, Catholicism became closely associated with Irish nationalism and resistance to English rule. These connotations persist today, particularly in Northern Ireland. 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.
In recent decades, Ireland has experienced a significant decline in the number of regular church attendees. 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. Presently, just over half of the population continue to attend weekly Mass.
The Catholic Church continues to play a prominent role in the country through maintaining responsibility for most schools and many hospitals. Indeed, the Catholic Church runs 90% of state-funded primary schools and approximately 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. For example, there are numerous church-recognised shrines and holy places. Indeed, many holy wells dot Ireland's landscape. Such places are intertwined with old folk Celtic beliefs. Also, the holy days of the official Irish Catholic Church calendar are observed as national holidays.