What’s a parish?

A considerable part of the work I do involves working alongside and with people in Catholic parishes. It seems odd to have to type ‘Catholic parishes’ for the sake of clarity because many readers might merely refer to a parish. The projects that I help to coordinate and write about involve a considerable amount of time spent thinking about parishes. If you’re from a city area it’s likely you will stop reading this now but for many who know Ireland outside the cities, parish retains an importance that belies a complexity of meaning. People talk about a parish GAA team or someone being “not from this parish”. We’ve even got some derogatory stuff going on with accusations of a political or social action being parochial. As clearly nothing important can happen in a parochial context (!), we might put this to one side for now.

But what is the parish? Is it people or a place or perhaps both? I had two discussions at work yesterday which may shed more light. I asked a colleague about the bureaucratic organisation of the Catholic Church in Ireland in a historical context (you know, as you do) and we got talking about parishes. She said that in some ways the organisation of the Church in Ireland along parish lines is part of a bureaucratic response to the Reformation, adherents of which insisted on a focus on the reading of the Bible. Those Protestants might have the book but we’ve got the Sacraments and the book, goes the argument. To manage the Sacramental Church you’ve got to have a structure that can oversee it. After all, if you want to get married in a Catholic Church, you have to prove that you’ve been baptised, confirmed etc etc. Monasticism just could not have done that. The rigid parish structure evolved out of this need.

The second conversation I had was with a priest of a Diocese in Ireland about the re-organisation of parishes. During the course of the conversation reference was made to the hatch, match and dispatch model of the parish. Talking about new models of provision: you can change to whatever model you want but the “hatching, matching and dispatching” still has to be done. A large proportion of people living in Ireland still want their child baptised, to be married in a Catholic Church (although this too is on the decrease) and buried using the services of a Church. Some of the most fervent agnostics I’ve known have wanted to have a loved one’s funeral in a religious setting. In this sense, the parish persists in people’s minds.

So is the parish a spatial unit? One that I know for sure cannot be mapped. Perhaps the Irish parish exists only in people’s interactions with each other, in the playing of games, in the passing of life’s parts. With the proliferation of ghost estates and the colonisation of Meath by Dubliners in the 1990s, where does that leave the parish? Does it matter that people don’t know?