Something mad is happening. Mass went viral this week in Ireland – the Facebook version. And this afternoon as I was walking through Waterford City there were people outside the Catholic cathedral wearing luminous vests with the words ‘Nightfever’ written … Continue reading
I grew up with stories of a man called ‘the Deacon’. He wasn’t a religious deacon but he did have, the story goes, the cure for skin cancer. He examined moles, cysts, freckles, skin-tags, pimples, spots and warts. He’d diagnose … Continue reading
The marriage referendum in Ireland last Friday marks a watershed in the religious history of Ireland. A Saint-Patrick-style moment. Although it wasn’t a referendum about religion, it has huge implications for religion in the country and represents yet another radical … Continue reading
There’s something beautiful about the Bahá’í beliefs. In a world where identity is too often made up of simple dualistic divisions that result in lots of usses and thems, here is a group which considers humanity as one. Even boundaries between religions are transcended, … Continue reading
All three of the following radio pieces were broadcast on Newstalk’s Global Village between August and October 2013. They were made with the support of the Mary Raftery Journalism Fund
Islam and makeshift mosques in Ireland
Hinduism in Ireland
Pentecostalism in Ireland
Ireland is still a Catholic-majority country but the statistics tell stories of religious decline. The fastest growing ‘religions’ according to the last national census were atheism, agnosticism and ‘lapsed Catholic’ and, although the figures for these categories still only number in their thousands rather than tens of thousands, the trajectory is clear.
But religion is a tricky thing, inseparable from the societies and cultures which it inhabits and in Ireland the growing trend is towards ‘cultural Catholicism’. A religion divorced from faith or belief systems but rooted in cultural practices and concepts of community.
Meanwhile the boom years in Ireland saw a new migratory trend – inward migration. A new phenomena. And the people who arrived came not just with their material belongings in tow but also with their ideas of identity and ‘self’ and the cultural collateral which, though not necessarily visible, were important elements of their presence here.
The migration of people involves migration of ideas. Another inseparability. The migrants brought their religious beliefs, practices, iconography and prayers. Religion is not just a solitary affair but involves the primacy of communal element and so one thing that migrant groups set out to do, upon their arrival, was to establish places of worship.
For Catholic migrants they found their religious homes in pre-existing buildings. For other non-Catholic groups, finding places of worship proved more challenging.
These programmes look at some of the challenges these migrant groups face in Ireland in relation to finding places of worship.
The conclusion at the conclusion of the making of these pieces is that the issue of migrant groups and places of worship is something that has not been addressed sufficiently in Ireland. Migrant groups themselves often erroneously believe themselves to be in compliance with planning laws and are even sometimes unaware of legislation requiring planning applications for changing the use of a building to a place of worship. Meanwhile planning authorities are often unaware of the requirements of these migrant groups and some local authorities do not have sufficient provision in their development plans or zoning regulations for the creation of new places of worship or do not recognise the financial limitations of many of these groups which often works as a prohibitory factor in terms of purchasing land in an ideal location or buying suitable pre-existing buildings.
I always half-hoped I’d meet an Indian guru someday. But I never imagined that the meeting would take place in an Irish bungalow in the remote winding laneways of an autumnal county Kildare. That’s where I met one today. The real deal. India’s ‘Blessing’ guru – Swami Jyothirmayah Ji – clothed all in white and with flowing long black hair, beard and a white dot in the centre of his forehead.
In the email I was told that Swamiji would meet me 9.30-10am – I get to the house about 9.45 and the worried face of Shankari who had organised the interview tells me that Swamiji is very strict about time and that she doesn’t know if he will talk to me as I am late.
A few minutes later a tall Indian man in long white cotton robes comes into the kitchen with an almost-luminous smile – everything about his face exudes warmth and openness. I smile in return. He welcomes me into the living room where we sit down to talk.
‘So’ I say ‘it’s exciting to meet an Indian guru’.
‘Guru?’ he replies. ‘I’m not a guru, I’m only a disciple, a student’.
‘Oh’ I say. He is still smiling. ‘But people do call you the ‘Blessing’ guru’.
He tells me he is from Bangalore in India and that he is Roman Catholic by birth. ‘I have a strong belief in Jesus Christ’ he tells me. He says that the title ‘Blessing’ guru comes from the fact that he goes around the world blessing people and that he has blessed over three million people.
‘I just touch people on the head for a few seconds’ he explains. ‘Some people are getting miraculous healings – physical and mental.’
I ask him if he feels anything when the healings occur. He laughs heartily. ‘That’s a trade secret’ he says.
He tells me that the title ‘Swamiji’ is for someone who has dedicated their life to society and to helping other people. He says he lives a life of celibacy and ‘cannot enjoy worldly things’. His home is in the ashram (temple) in India. ‘We are here to share, we keep moving, we give help wherever it is required’.
He belongs to the organisation Art of Living Foundation which he tells me is ‘beyond religion’. He is here in Ireland for five days as part of a visit organised by the Irish branch of AOL.
‘Does a person have to believe in God?’ I ask him. ‘Not necessarily’ he replies. ‘They just have to believe in himself or herself’.
‘But how does a person believe in themself?’ I ask. ‘Go deep into oneself and then one will realise that one is part of divinity, part of one consciousness – it’s like in this room you can see different kinds of lights and a tape recorder and different things – if you go beyond these you will realise there is only one electricity but different projections’.
The room where we are sitting is cool. It is early morning and it is October and although there is a clear blue sky there is no direct sunlight in the room. I feel cold and realise that Swamiji is only wearing short-sleeves and is bare-footed. ‘Are you not cold?’ I ask him. ‘No’ he smiles. ‘I’ve been in minus forty, minus fifty but I never use any jacket. Pranayama (breathing exercises) will make the immune system very powerful’.
‘Is there anything you would like to say?’ I ask him. There’s a pause for a few seconds and then he says very slowly and clearly ‘life is a celebration’. Another brief pause. ‘And meditate everyday. Learn meditation.’
‘Normally people have a concept of meditation, and think it is concentration. In Art of Living we say it is de-concentration. Whatever you do effortlessly is meditation. It is to be aware of what you are doing here and now. The mind has the tendency to go into the future and the past. How to bring it back to the present moment? If we are aware of our own life and mind then our real life journey starts.
‘The best way to control emotion is to control your breath’ he continues. ‘If you’re angry you’re breathing fast and if you’re sad then you have a shallow breath so our breath and our emotions are connected. This breathing technique that we teach will help to get out of unnecessary emotions’.
I bring the conversation back to Catholicism and ask if his master follows instructions from the Pope. ‘My master is not a Christian’ he tells me, looking slightly puzzled at my question. ‘He’s a humanitarian’.
‘I’m not caught up in religion’ he adds. ‘I’m a spiritual man. I respect all of religion but I’m spiritual – we are working for one world family, beyond religion, beyond nationality, beyond caste and creed’.
He tells me he has to be strict about time so that he doesn’t keep people waiting and says ‘I think we have about two minutes left’. I ask him if I can take a few photographs and I also record a short video of him talking about religion and before I leave I ask him for a blessing. He tells me to close my eyes and to breathe deeply, to let my body relax with every breath. And then I feel the heat of his hands over my head for a few seconds as he blesses me. And then it’s time to leave.
I drive away delighted to have met the ‘Blessing’ guru but aware that the niggling pain I’ve had in my stomach for the last while is still there.
Swami Jyothirmayah ‘Wisdom Evening’ is taking place at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Blanchardstown tomorrow night from 7-9 pm (arrive promptly!). Admission is ten euro.
The Art of Living Foundation is an organisation that was set up in India in 1981 by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Art of Living has a presence in 152 countries and has thousands of centres worldwide including an Irish branch. They teach breathing, yoga and meditation techniques and run courses regularly. Participants on these courses are required to sign a non-disclosure agreement before tuition commences. For more information visit http://www.artofliving.org/ie-en
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.
For the mind to be as still and solid and strong and immovable as a mountain. That, in a way, is the essence of Zen. To be the sky and watch the clouds go by.
I was in Tramore in County Waterford, Ireland, for a day-long Zen Buddhist retreat. It was in a family home on the outskirts of the town – a bungalow with grassy lawns and mature shrubbery and a t-junctioned hallway of shiny white tiles and greeny plants and walls of well-spaced paintings, prints and maps.
The retreat was organised by an Irish lay-Buddhist named John who is originally from Dublin but now lives in County Waterford. He leads a weekly Wednesday-evening Zen meditation group in the Edmund Rice Centre in Waterford City. It’s attended weekly by a small group of less than ten.
I’d gone to the Wednesday meeting once during the year – the only other person there that day, other than John, was an older gentleman, a devout Catholic, who said that meditation helped him with his own religious practice.
Last Sunday there was a handful of people attending the retreat – five including John – and a monk from Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey in Northern England who led the retreat.
I was welcomed and introduced to the monk – Reverend Finán – in the clean sitting room that was lined with book shelves. The monk sat upright at the edge of a comfy armchair. He stood up, smiled and shook my hand. He was brown-robed and pale-faced with high cheekbones. He seemed very gentle. Blue-eyed. Shaved head.
One woman jokingly asked the monk if he’d like a brandy before we started.
Then we all headed down the hall to the room where the meditation was to take place. The room was a bedroom that had been cleared out of all the furniture except for a chest of drawers that had been converted into an altar. On the top of the drawers was a white ‘table-cloth’ with a statue of the Buddha, a lotus flower, a small bowl of walnuts, a tiny tumbler of water and two burning candles.
People had either brought their own meditation stools or sat on dining chairs. The monk sat cross legged – full lotus position – on the floor. We recited a verse of Buddhist scripture and then sat, facing the wall for thirty five minutes. There were no instructions given. This was probably because everyone there had attended Zen meditation previously.
The Irish Census of 2011 recorded just over 8,000 Buddhists living in Ireland – only 0.2 percent of the population. The number of Buddhists in Ireland, however, has grown steadily since 1991 when there were just 986 self-identified Buddhists in the country.
It’s believed that there are also a significant number of ‘night stand’ Buddhists in Ireland – people who might identify themselves as belonging to another religious tradition but who keep books by Buddhist authors on their bedside lockers or who dabble in meditation.
Like all religious traditions in Ireland there are many different strands that exist under the one religious banner. In Ireland there are different schools, traditions and lineages of Buddhism. Zen is one strand and the retreat that I attended was from one lineage within one strand of Zen.
We sat and ‘meditated’ for 35 minutes (sitting meditation is called ‘zazen’). Then we walked very slowly around the emptied soft-carpeted bedroom for five or ten minutes and then sat again for 35 minutes. There was a tea-break with a short talk by the monk about the Buddhist precepts (guides for living), another twenty minute sitting, lunch, and two more 35 minute sittings broken up by another walk around the room.
The sitting meditation is very much about awareness – of the breath, of the sounds, of thoughts, emotions. To be conscious of the things that enter our consciousness. To be aware of awareness. It sounds easy. Sometimes it is. But on the second-to-last session I had a serious urge to jump up and run like mad out of the room.
In modern societies the tendency is often to be ‘doing’. To be active – reading, watching TV, on phones, social media, socialising, cooking, eating. In Zen the focus is on ‘being’. There are teachings about how to deal with suffering, discomfort, pain. To experience it without running away. In some ways there is an aim to treat pleasure and pain with equal measure. Or praise and criticism.
There are ideals. I don’t know how attainable they are. But for me Zen meditation is a very empowering practice – to watch thoughts as they arise and to let them go. To dis-identify. Occasionally there are even moments of nothing, emptiness, peace.
I came home after the retreat and thought about the idea of ‘being’, just ‘being’. And I’m sure there is a balance to be had – between being and doing, being awareness and engagement. I’m not sure where the balance lies. The ideal balance. But during the week the thought did come to mind that ‘if I was to be, just be, I might as well just be a tree’. Not sure where that leaves me either. No pun intended. But for the moment I will be continuing with an aim at least of daily sitting – meditation.