Industrial warehouses as places of worship in Ireland

Over the past few months I’ve been examining the use of industrial spaces in Ireland as places of worship. I first came across the phenomena about seven years ago when I made a series of radio programmes, looking at the changing face of religion in Ireland, for WLRfm. Since then, the use of warehouses as places of worship has become more prevalent all across the country.

My theory as I began this research was that Irish society ‘corralled’ migrant groups into industrial estates as these were spaces which were invisible to the majority of Irish society – that Irish society is comfortable with migrant (mainly non-Catholic) religions as long as Irish society does not have to see them. However the research took a twist following a chance meeting at a ‘makeshift mosque’ in Dublin.

I happened to be in the industrial-unit-mosque at the same time as the Mayor of Fingal County Council, Fine Gael Councillor Kieran Dennison. He told a small group of people assembled in the office that action was likely to be taken in Fingal in relation to the use of warehouses as religious spaces. I whipped out my spiral-journalist notebook and scrambled to take notes. I asked ‘when would enforcement action be taken?’ He told me the conversation was off the record.

However, if action was going to be taken, it needed to be discussed openly. Over the following weeks Councillor Dennison spoke with me about the issue on the record. Councillor Dennison told me that a survey on industrial units in Fingal in Dublin had found that twenty warehouses in the Blanchardstown area were being used as places of worship. The survey, carried out by the council, wasn’t aimed at discovering places of worship – this was a chance discovery.

In the meantime I researched migration, asylum procedures, population figures, planning acts and the Fingal development plan.

Each local authority in Ireland is obliged to draw up and publish a development plan every six years. This plan sets out the objectives for the area in terms of planning and development. It also sets out zoning areas. Spaces in each local authority area are zoned for specific uses. Each zone has a list of uses that are permitted and that are not permitted.

Most industrial units in Fingal are in areas zoned ‘high technology’ or ‘general employment’. ‘Place of worship’ is ‘not permitted’ is either of these zonings. Councillor Dennison explained that the use of warehouses as places of worship was in contravention of the development plan and that they were therefore not compliant with planning regulations.

Although my research focused on Fingal in Dublin. This is an issue that is relevant for local authorities and migrant groups all over Ireland.

If migrant groups cannot use industrial warehouses as places of worship it will be almost impossible for many of these groups to find suitable places of worship.

Adrian Cristea of Dublin City Interfaith Forum told me that finding a place of worship is the biggest religious challenge facing migrant groups in Ireland today. He said that there are no policies or regulations in relation to the issue and that there is no information easily available for migrant groups. He said that the problem is ongoing and that a consultation process is needed involving local authorities, migrant groups and mainstream churches.

Mr. Cristea also made the point that there is an expectation for migrant groups to be aware of planning laws and procedures in Ireland but that local authorities also have responsibility for making this information available.

He agreed when I suggested that migrant religious groups may not be aware of planning regulations. The leader of each place of worship that I have visited in the past few months had the view that they were compliant with planning regulations. There is clearly a lack of information available.

I realise that the use of industrial warehouses as places of worship is partly because of funding and financial constraints, but also because in industrial units migrant groups are relatively invisible and thereby do not attract attention and therefore planning complaints or objections are rare.

Local authorities can look at rezoning areas. Migrant groups can familiarise themselves with the process of drawing up development plans and can learn how to articulate their needs and concerns. Either way, the future use of industrial units as places of worship is an issue that needs to be examined and addressed by local authorities and migrant groups all over the country.

Here’s the news story and feature that were published in the Irish Times yesterday.

This project is supported by the Mary Raftery Journalism Fund.