My contribution to ‘The changing landscape of faith in Dublin’, March 19th 2015

This is the text of a short talk I made at this event (FB link) where Dr Melanie Browne and I were asked to speak to the exhibition to which we contributed. It had some slides which I am happy to share.

Despite my ongoing interest in religious landscapes, I do not draw hope or a source of energy from a transcendent force. In Ireland, I find I often have to make a distinction between my academic interest in religious place making and a relationship I do not have to an immaterial force. That is not to say they ought necessarily to be separate. I just find little relationship between my interest in how people make places religious and my own practices. In fact, I would argue that to discuss some category called religion at all in the first place is problematic but that is not for today.

In many different ways, Ireland is becoming more secular. There is a measurable decline in the authority conferred upon religious organisations and persons. It is highly arguable that Ireland itself is or ever has been a Christian country, let alone a Catholic one. This view, that a country can be Christian, Muslim etc., arises from the time when the religion of the monarch was the religion of his subjects and is ill suited to today’s democratic struggles. However, the numbers of people in Ireland who profess that they are Roman Catholic remains steady across time. The proportions of Catholics who attend to regular church rituals, i.e. mass, has fallen drastically since the 1970s when about 98% of Catholics attended weekly. About one and a half million people every week attend a Catholic rite. The proportion of people who profess different faiths and no faith has also changed in recent decades. The second largest religious grouping in Ireland today is Religious Nones. The religious landscape of Ireland today, outside of demographics, is very different to that of thirty years ago. Whether or not this is because of a process we may call secularisation is very much up for discussion.

Recent changes to the religious landscape of Ireland, as I have argued in my short essay in the book, tell us much about the intersection of religious belief and a formal planning process. That religious buildings are subject to a planning process to me is itself a sign of ongoing secularisation. I argue more broadly that secularisation is not merely the decline in the number of people who regularly practice a religious ritual or adhere to the authority of any one institution. It is mostly about what gets included and excluded as religious in the first instance. The religious landscapes of Ireland can only be understood as a connection between people’s everyday practices intended to the immaterial and representations of space. Churches and temples are built, cleaned, maintained and money is spent on them. We can see these as acts of piety or holiness but also as labour power. They rely on the material of everyday life so that they can remain vital. What is different in recent years however is the plurality of ways in which this materialization occurs. In their research on warehouse worship spaces, Maguire and Murphy argue that these places may not “dominate the horizon and remind people of that which is above and beyond them” but they still represent socially created space, simultaneously concrete and abstract. In that sense, it can be argued that formal analyses of the religious landscape of Ireland is being de-churched. The church spire will not disappear anytime soon but what we count as religious space is being changed. The religious and its understandings also change.

In Dublin today, we can see both change and persistence in religious landscapes. These places of religious faith are subject to continuous change, a negotiation. As a materialist, I believe that religious places are as subject to negotiated change as all other produced space. I am not sure why we might think otherwise. Three quick examples serve to illustrate this point:

  • The Timberyard building being finished in 2009, where O’Donnell & Tuomey were asked to find a place for a statue of Mary in the building’s design,
  • The re-installation ceremony for the Marian statue at the redeveloped Fatima Mansions complex. Before this took place, it was readily admitted to me by a community worker that this is “not the Church’s Mary, this is ours”.
  • Finally, the changes in use and numerous warehouse worship spaces catalogued by Eugene Langan, Melanie Brown and others for this exhibition.

In my doctoral work, I also examined how pilgrimage persists, in large and small scales, across the country as well as how the primary schools of Ireland are currently undergoing a similar renegotiation. This is a political process with material outcomes and the sooner we recognize this essential feature of religious landscapes, the better for us all. As practitioners and theoreticians. It certainly gets us out of the intellectual cu-de-sac of pointing at church-goers and laughing at their often-caricatured bronze age sky fairy belief systems. Condescending and dismissive accounts of religious place making are not only analytically unproductive. They also discharge us from an obligation to understand how all places are continuously subject to political contestation.

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