Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland

Religious Practice in Late Modernity

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Gladys Ganiel
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     280 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Much has been written on secularization and the post-secular within the European context. Ireland’s religious landscape over the past two centuries has diverged dramatically from the broader European context. In this period of transition from sectarian conflict in Ireland, few are as well positioned as Gladys Ganiel to study the social and personal impact of what Diarmuid Martin, Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, characterizes as “Post-Catholic Ireland” (1). A Research Fellow in Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queen’s University Belfast, Ganiel evaluates how citizens of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are coping and flourishing despite the pressures of secularization and religious diversification in what she describes as a “mixed, post-Catholic religious market” (2).

The book is well organized. Ganiel begins by delineating her theoretical orientation in chapter 1. She unweaves Jürgen Habermas’ concept of the post-secular and relates it to Martin’s concept of post-Catholic, evoking “a shift in consciousness in which the Catholic Church, as an institution, is no longer held in high esteem by most of the population and can no longer expect to exert a monopoly influence in social and political life” (4). Ganiel does not intend to imply a split between two eras: the prior one, Catholic, and the present, secular. Instead, her case studies reveal how individuals are finding spiritual outlets outside of institutional churches and yet, at the same time, how they are articulating their spiritual lives in concert or contrast to their perceptions or experiences of Catholicism. She links this to processes of religious individualization. Further, Ganiel defines her key concept of extra-institutional religion as “various methods and strategies people use to keep their faith alive, outside or in addition to the institutional Catholic Church” (5).

In chapter 2, Ganiel provides a concise history of religion on the island, particularly Catholicism, from the Great Famine (1845-1849) to the present. Ganiel highlights the increase in practice and devotion post-Famine, and the fusion of Catholicism with Irish nationalism during the revolutionary period in the early twentieth century. Further, she provides an excellent overview of the pressures that led to a decline in the practice of Catholicism over the last few decades, underscored by an over fifty percent decrease in weekly mass attendance in both Ireland and Northern Ireland over the last generation (35). Ganiel describes how Catholic identity was shaped, and contextualizes the similarities and differences in the budding Irish Republic, where the Catholic hierarchy held an esteemed position, and in Northern Ireland, where the relationship to the state was tenuous.

The middle of the book is built on the mixed methods Ganiel employed in her study, including surveys and case studies comprised of participant observation and interviews. The research was funded by an Irish Research Council grant to the Irish School of Ecumenics for the collaborative project titled:  “Visioning 21st Century Ecumenism: Diversity, Dialogue, and Reconciliation” (2009-2011) (2). The interplay between the broader analysis of the survey results and the voices of her participants in the case studies is a strength of Ganiel’s approach. She surveyed 710 clergy and 910 laity about their experiences with ecumenism, religious individualization, and growing diversity in their communities. The subtext of the ethno-sectarian conflict, commonly referred to as The Troubles, though not addressed in detail, shadows the study, particularly in survey questions around ecumenism and her analysis of how participants responded to questions about reconciliation on three levels: individually with God, between individuals, and between communities. Her data reveals that Irish religious leaders and laity prioritize the first two forms of reconciliation while neglecting the third: social reconciliation between communities. Her conclusion that “the legacies of the island’s religious past continue to haunt the present . . . reconciliation and ecumenism remain divisive and misunderstood” should be a wake-up call to those hoping for reconciliation in Ireland and those seeking to apply lessons learned in Ireland to other sectarian conflicts (83).

The seven individual case study chapters sometimes challenge Ganiel’s concept of extra-institutional religion as many of the case studies are affiliated with the Catholic Church or might be considered churches themselves. The key to understanding how Ganiel applies this term is her emphasis on “extra” as outside of the services, dogma, and doctrine offered or prescribed by institutional churches, particularly Catholic, and the process of religious individualization that she establishes earlier. Her interviewees often contrasted their spirituality against their life within or perceptions of Catholic religious life. I wondered whether the focus on Catholicism undermined any minority voices who articulated the same phenomenon in reference to the Church of Ireland or Presbyterianism, the two dominant Protestant churches in Ireland.

Finally, Ganiel’s book touches on, but does not fully explore, the experiences of agnostics, atheists, and practitioners of minority religions in Ireland. For further grounding, she points the reader to larger studies (for example, Skuce, The Faiths of Ireland, 2006; Cosgrove et al. Ireland’s New Religious Movements, 2011; and Scharbrodt et al. Islam in Ireland: Past and Present, 2015). However, her research uncovers the feelings of suppression, rejection, and neglect felt by agnostics, atheists, and practitioners of minority religions in Ireland within the public sphere and social settings. Again, this should be a call to social and religious leaders to promote inclusion, not just tolerance.

In this diverse religious market, Ganiel finds that reconciliation across sectarian divides and with diverse immigrant populations happens most readily within these extra-institutional spaces (2). Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland should have wide appeal for not only scholars of religion in Ireland and Europe, but in keeping with her commitment to action research, for journalists, religious leaders and communities, and political and social sector leaders as well. It is action research at its best, exposing areas deeply in need of evaluation and reform while highlighting areas of strength to draw upon for social transformation.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Amy Heath-Carpentier, Graduate student, California Institute of Integral Studies & Assistant Director, Washington University in St. Louis.

Date of Review: 
September 2, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Gladys Ganiel is Research Fellow in the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queen's University Belfast. She is author of The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity (with Gerardo Marti), Evangelical Journeys: Choice and Change in a Northern Irish Religious Subculture (with Claire Mitchell), andEvangelicalism and Conflict in Northern Ireland.



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