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Not all candles and holy water for Irish


Signs of Roman Catholic history are all around in this little city on Dublin Bay -- in the massive 150-year-old gray granite church down the street, in the weathered stone cross near the bicycle racks on the corner where the big double-deck bus turns to head to back to Dublin, in the church bell that still rings at noon and 6 p.m.Still, it’s not all candles and holy water for Ireland’s 20- to 40-somethings. Like those of many Western countries, Ireland’s not-yet-marrieds and young-marrieds struggle with their relationships with the faith of their mothers and fathers. I visited with seven of them early in July.

Kami Gesara, 42, a baptized Catholic, works in a souvenir shop in Malahide and lives in Dun Laoghaire, (rhymes with cheery). Like Blackrock, Malahide and Dun Laoghaire and several other little towns hug the shore of sparkling Dublin Bay and are stops on the route of the DART, the electric commuter train that zips along the curve of the bay, taking people to and from the city of Dublin.

Gesara, who is divorced, said he had not been close to the church for about 25 years. “It no longer had meaning for me,” he said. “The ritual seemed to be for the benefit of the priests rather than the people.”

When I met Gesara, I was sitting on the bench near the bicycle racks at the center of “the village,” the stretch of stores, businesses and restaurants and sturdy old homes just a block from the bay. Many of the old stone buildings date back more than 150 years. Gesara sat down to eat his lunch of fish and chips from a shop across the way. We were both enjoying a burst of early July sunshine in a week that had been cloudy and about 68 degrees. He agreed to talk about his estrangement from the church.

“I decided to seek truth, to be honest with myself and the world, to be honest in relationships,” he said. “Basic honesty is about your emotions. The mind would like to lie for survival. I would like to live honestly.”

Gesara dismissed the idea that an institutional church would have much to offer.

“Corporate religion cannot afford to tell the truth. Truth rests with the individual, is for the individual,” he said.

Then Noel Kennedy came to our bench with ice cream bars from the grocery across the street. “Have a bite,” he said, offering a green ice cream on a stick. He insisted, so I bit. It was creamy and good.

Kennedy lives in Blackrock and works for the Guinness brewery in Dublin. He had a different view of religion. “Yeah,” he said. “I go to church on Sunday -- sometimes. When I fall from grace, drink too much, I say the quick Hail Mary.”

Kennedy said he was involved with efforts to raise funds for special projects for Our Lady’s Hospital for Sick Children in Dublin. He said he had participated in a 100-kilometer walk in Halifax, Nova Scotia, that enabled the hospital to buy a machine that aids in detecting cystic fibrosis and cancer in infants.

Kennedy expressed a cheerful view of the Irish people and their ways: “We know where we’re going. Our cards are marked already. Anywhere we go in the world, we make lovely babies, make people happy.”

Roisín O’Loughlin was staying for a few days at Idrone House, the bed and breakfast where I was spending a vacation week. O’Loughlin was looking for housing in Blackrock where she has a new job as executive assistant to the head of the Marketing Department at the Smurfit Graduate School of Business in Blackrock, part of University College, Dublin. O’Loughlin, (whose first name is pronounced Rosheen and means little rose) attended a Catholic primary school in Kildare, operated by the Presentation order of sisters, and a secondary school operated by the same order. At University College, Dublin, she studied history and archeology.

Although close to the church throughout her childhood, O’Loughlin stopped going to Mass when she left home. Now in her early 30s, she said she is reevaluating her relationship with the Catholic church.

“I always thought I would start going again when I had children. It benefits your life to have that kind of grounding, even if you are not a particularly strong believer. It gives you a moral standard. If you grow up without being in an organized religion -- whether Protestant, Catholic, Judaism or Islam -- you don’t see that you have responsibilities other than to yourself.”

Now, the church is once again becoming important to her, she said.

“As I drifted away, I am beginning to drift back. I have begun to go to Mass again and to participate a little more fully. There must be something in me wanting to go back. I like the sense of community and continuity that being part of it brings.

“Being interested in history, particularly Irish history, I am aware how hard people fought to give me the right to go to church. On Clarenden Street in Dublin, there’s a church built in the time when a Catholic church couldn’t be built facing the street. You enter from a side door. It was built with the pennies of the poor. They probably had lives we couldn’t imagine. I like to be part of that.”

Ann Ruane, 28, of Castlebar in County Mayo in the west of Ireland, was in Blackrock with her two sisters to attend a Friday evening concert presented by Robbie Williams, a British singer, songwriter and superstar, who drew sold-out crowds of 50,000 each for two nights at Landsdowne Stadium on the route of the Dart between Dublin and Blackrock. Next day Ruane described the singer’s performance as “brilliant,” a superlative commonly heard in the land.

Ruane said she had “drifted away” from the church about 10 years earlier.

“It was probably laziness,” she said. “I didn’t see much point to it. That doesn’t mean I won’t go back. I have a good feeling I will. I would do it for myself. There would be no point in going back, if I wasn’t doing it for myself. I do believe in life after death and things like that.”

Joanne McEntee studies occupational therapy at Trinity College, Dublin. I caught up with her in the Blackrock DART station one Saturday morning waiting for a train to Dublin where she has a summer job at a hospice.

“My faith is important in my life,” she said. “I go to Mass every week and try to pray and make some sort of acknowledgement of my religion every day.”

At Blackrock Shopping Center I met Helen, who asked that her family name not be used. She was waiting with Lawrence and Elizabeth, her 4-year-old twins, for space to open up in the center’s popular play and child-care area. The area, at the center of the first floor of the shopping plaza, has big windows, bright colors, a sandbox, games, puzzles and a caregiver. It takes 12 children at a time.

“I go to church,” she said. “I’m close to my religion in an average way. It gives me hope and comfort and security.”

Helen said her husband goes to church, but not as frequently.

“I am lucky to be a believer, lucky in my life. I think some if not all of that has to do with being with God and being good.”

Eugene Cusack, 40, lives in Galway, a port city on the western side of Ireland. I shared a table with him at breakfast one day at Idrone House. He drives to Dublin on the eastern side of the country once a week and spends three days here working in the telecommunications sector. He and his wife are the parents of two children, John, 7, and Hannah, 10.

Cusack said he attends church infrequently, although he was brought up Catholic. He described his wife as a “fairly regular churchgoer.”

He said he sees the church as irrelevant.

“The church of Ireland is constricted in its views,” he said, “not very progressive, not dealing with current issues. It isn’t giving us anything. It’s not having any impact.”

His children attend a national school, which, he said, is essentially a Catholic school supported by the government.

“Organized religion has a moral value for upbringing,” he said.

This quick and informal survey suggests that the Irish church may have some work to do among 40-something men. Women, perhaps more willing to forgive the institution known as Holy Mother Church, find reasons to stay or return. Perhaps it was ever thus.

National Catholic Reporter, April 12, 2002