Opinion: it may not be a "devotional revolution", but religion may play a greater than expected role for many in Ireland as the crisis unfolds

By Gladys Ganiel, Queen's University Belfast

Emmet Larkin’s claim that there was a "devotional revolution" in Ireland after the Great Famine is one of this island’s most enduring historical theories. Larkin argued that the trauma of the famine convinced people to seek God, transforming it from a land of barely practising Catholics to a nation whose identity was bound up with its faith. This process was accelerated by the energetic efforts of Paul Cullen, Archbishop of Armagh (1850-1852) and Dublin (1852-1878), who introduced new devotional practices from Europe.

Similarly, cross-national studies have found that phenomena like evangelical revivals and Marian apparitions almost always take place during times of social anxiety. Ulster’s famous 1859 evangelical revival can be understood in this light – and in part as a Protestant reaction to fears about Catholic expansion under Cullen .

Turning to religion during a crisis could be considered a relic of previous eras, a curious historical footnote that is of little relevance in our contemporary secular age. But it would be a mistake to overlook the power of religion during the Covid-19 pandemic.

A few short weeks ago, how many Irish would have included clergy on a list of those deemed essential for a functioning society?

Ireland has experienced a rapid decline in religious practice since the 1990s, converging with wider European trends of secularisation. Even so, there is evidence that at least in the first few weeks of the pandemic, the Irish are tuning in to religion to a remarkable degree. With Government restrictions on public gatherings, religion has moved online and people have followed. Many parishes and congregations are holding Sunday gatherings, prayer meetings and even parents and toddlers’ groups online. Providers like ChurchServicesTV have reported a surge in demand.

On March 19th, RTÉ began airing the 10.30am daily mass from St Eunan’s and St Columba’s Cathedral in Letterkenny , followed by a message from representatives of Ireland’s other faith communities. This was significant, especially given that there has been a low-level, rumbling controversy for years about whether it is appropriate for RTÉ to continue marking the Angelus every day, given increasing secularisation and religious pluralism.

In the first two weeks, the daily masses attracted an average weekday audience in the upper 30,000s, comparable to a usual Sunday mass on RTÉ One. More than 48,000 watched the Pope’s Urbi et Orbi Message and Prayer for Humanity on RTÉ on March 27th. In addition, 142,000 people watched at least part of mass on St Patrick’s Day (a 20% audience share), compared to 60,000 (14% share) in 2019. The first Sunday after churches closed, the usual viewing figures for RTÉ’s Sunday services were four times higher than usual.

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Much of the rise in viewing can be explained by people who normally go to church tuning in to these broadcasts. In addition, television and online viewership is rising across the board because people are confined to their homes. It also is possible that any turn to religion is a temporary blip, much like the reported rise in church attendance in the United States after the September 11 attacks. This surge lasted only a few weeks and seems to have been largely inconsequential 

The societal influence of all Irish churches has been declining and the Catholic Church has suffered a massive loss of moral authority, in part due to clerical sexual abuse scandals. A 2003 Royal College of Surgeons study on the impact of clerical abuse described clergy who were unwilling to wear clerical garb in public, such was the stigma associated with their profession.

But it could be argued that a sense of worth has been confirmed by the Government’s designation of clergy as "key workers" in the response to Covid-19. A few short weeks ago, how many Irish would have included clergy on a list of those deemed essential for a functioning society? It seems there is now a greater appreciation for clergy’s role in burying the dead, comforting the grieving and providing a focal point for connection and community.

At the same time, Irish faith communities' responses to Covid-19 have so far been more energetic than might have been expected. The Irish Council of Churches is documenting and disseminating many of these. Other localised examples include Fr Martin Magill of St John's Parish on the Falls Road, Belfast, who has instigated a wide-ranging Facebook ministry. Each day, this includes an ecumenical "thought for the day" with contributors from a range of denominations, morning mass, evening prayers and a 3pm live event where Fr Magill shares news from the parish and simply greets parishioners as they log on. Some of the "thoughts for the day" have had thousands of views.

Fr Pat Ward of St Columba’s in Burtonport, Donegal, who created an internet sensation during St Patrick’s Day mass when he asked Alexa to play Daniel O’Donnell’s "Hail Glorious St Patrick". St Columba’s has since changed its mass time from 10am to 11am to accommodate Americans who are tuning in.

And it’s not just priests. North Belfast drag artist Gerry Walls (also known as Tina Leggs Tantrum) is attracting around 500 viewers for an evening rosary session with his mother. Walls speaks passionately about how prayer is helping people cope, and how faith may be harnessed as a mental health resource during the crisis. He even reveals that Protestants from the Shankill have contacted him to express their appreciation for his prayers.

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An ecumenical national day of prayer, in which people united in prayer in their homes, took place on Palm Sunday. This kicked off a virtual, online Holy Week and one of history’s most unusually-celebrated Easter seasons in Ireland and around the world.

It would be historically and sociologically irresponsible to conclude that these early trends and examples point towards religious revival. On the other hand, they reveal that religion is adapting to rapidly changing circumstances with some creativity and enthusiasm. Ireland may not see a "devotional revolution", but religion may play a greater than expected role as the crisis unfolds.  

Dr Gladys Ganiel is a Research Fellow in the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen's University Belfast


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ