Ireland’s complicated relationship with religion continues, data reveals

Every five years, Ireland is subject to a census which, of course, determines a great many things about the population of the nation. One of the questions answered about Ireland’s people is their religion, and its population has historically been a predominantly Christian.

However, while this fact has remained unchanged in the history of the country’s official censuses, the actual number of those applying a tick to the box marking them Christian, and more specifically Roman Catholic, have undoubtedly dwindled quite a bit. And in noticing this, one cannot help but wonder how much further that number may continue to fall, if at all.

After all, the percentages recovered briefly, as one will see from the figures displayed below. The question prompted by this may be: “Are people on the edge of cutting ties from Roman Catholicism , and will this be reflected in the statistics for Ireland’s population?”

It has certainly become a typical trait found in Irish society, the number of people who identify as being Roman Catholic merely by religious label alone. Though, it is very possible that this simply has to do with the religion one finds oneself born into. It is perfectly normal to hear of someone who used to attend mass every Sunday but eventually found themselves only showing up to mark the most important holidays, such as Christmas and Easter. And the statistics collected on this topic actually convey this fact, at least insofar as showing numbers for overall attendance decreasing.

Data collected by the Iona Institute published in 2009 found that between the years 1972 and 2011 there was a very significant drop in the percentages of Irish Catholics regular attendance at mass; the numbers lowered from 91% to 30%. The statistics show a similar pattern in the percentages regarding general church attendance in the Republic of Ireland; from 1973 to 2009 there was a decrease from 91% to 46%. 


Interestingly, despite a relatively steady decline in church attendance in the Republic of Ireland, the year showing the lowest attendance was 2005 when the percentage fell from 50% in 2003 to 34% in 2005, followed by a sharp rise in attendance and spiking at 67% in 2007. By 2008, however, the numbers suddenly dropped, giving a percentage of 42%.

According to the Iona Institute, the number of people attending Mass in the 1990s decreased at a frequency of about 3% per year; from 85% in 1990 to 60% in 1998. Towards the end of the 1990s and coming closer to the early years of the new millennium, the declining numbers persisted at a rate of around two percentage points per year; going from 60% in 1998 to 50% in 2003. From the year 2003 the rate of decline seems to have reduced to approximately one percentage point per year; from 50% in 2003 to 45% in 2008.

The number of Catholics living in Ireland in 2011 was 3,831,187. Only 30% of this figure were attending Mass on a weekly basis. This amounts to the presence of only 1,149,356.1 Catholics at Mass.


While Roman Catholics decreased as a percentage of the population of Ireland between the years 2006 and 2011, the religion still showed a strong growth in overall number due to a combination of an excess of birth rates versus death rates, and as immigration increased from countries such as Poland. On this topic, another fact worth noting is that the Irish population has been on a firm increase since 1926. It has gone from 2,971,992 to 4,689,921, as of 2016; an increase of more than 57 percent.


While those filed as ‘lapsed Roman Catholics’ are a very low percentile, these numbers alone are not an accurate representation of those under the heading of ‘no religion’ in Ireland. Having said that, the figures have certainly been steadily increasing. This, of course, also does not account for the decrease in Roman Catholic figures in the censuses overall, only a very small number of them.


John Hamill is on the National Committee at Atheist Ireland and when asked the very simply-phrased question of why he believes these numbers for mass attendance by Catholics are falling, he said:

“The issue is with the doctrines of the church and it’s becoming increasingly easy to see the problems with it. In living memory, mass used to involve the priest with his back to the congregation, speaking Latin, and if you were a member of that congregation and wanted to ask a question about your religion you have no real way of verifying the answers you got back.

“But now, kids these days, they have the internet in their pocket. They can look at the doctrine and what it says very easily and whether it’s actually true, and they can look at the world around them nowadays and how it has been understood by science,” he said

David Quinn is the founder and director of the Iona Institute, a socially conservative Roman Catholic advocacy group.

Mr Quinn said: “It was inevitable. We’ve become a much more secular society in line with the rest of the Western world. We’re an island geographically but we are not an island culturally. I think a lot of the delay in these numbers coming down is due to the fact that we were a poorer society for longer … economic development drives a lot of these things … we only became independent in 1922 … we, in a way, are kind of a case of history interrupted.

“We became independent in 1922 and decided we were going to become a super Catholic country, and that was a way of asserting our independence. That was a way of saying to Britain that we’re were not just politically independent but also culturally and religiously independent as well. And other countries didn’t go through that kind of a phase.”

Mr Hamill said figures on what exactly it is that constitutes a believing or practicing Catholic were complicated.

Stats show that Mass attendance is steadily in decline // Pixabay

Credit // Pixabay

He said: “There is a report done by the Catholic Bishops every year, and what they do is interview Mass attending Catholics on the way out of Mass and ask them what they believe. 60-70% do not believe what the Church’s teaching [are] about contraception, homosexuality, divorce; Catholics don’t believe in Catholicism when it comes to these social issues.

“About 50% don’t even believe in hell, 10% don’t believe in God. That’s 10% of Catholics, consistently over a number of years don’t actually believe in God. A belief in God is a pretty low bar to get over before you call yourself Catholic, but not in Ireland it seems.”

David Quinn said: “When people tick that box, they’re self-identifying as Catholic and who knows what’s going on in their own heads … if I was never going to mass and really didn’t believe in what the Catholic Church teaches and was only turning up to Mass on special occasions, I would not tick that box.”

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