Nightfever at the Cathedral

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

The Liberation of Auschwitz, 70 years on

Today is the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp and to mark the date I’m posting four radio documentary-shorts that I made to mark the 60th anniversary and which were broadcast at that time on WLRfm (Waterford Local Radio) … Continue reading

Makhmury’s story – ISIS, Iraq, Irish connections

God isn’t dead and religion isn’t dying. Even a cursory glance at global events in recent months illustrates the ongoing relevance of religion and religious beliefs for shaping contemporary social space, influencing political ideologies and fuelling international conflict. According to the historian Tom Holland, even the core presumptions of western secularism are shaped by religion (in this case Christianity). Religion is embedded in our societies and ideas of God embedded in men’s minds.

The actions of religious groups in distant and diverse parts of the world today can send ripples and after-shocks that stretch across national boundaries, sometimes instantaneously.

The actions of the radical Islamic group ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, sometimes called ISIL the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) have ramifications which span the globe. The group, who more recently called themselves IS after claiming to have established an Islamic State or caliphate, are based primarily in Iraq and Syria.

The latest report about ISIS is that they have killed five hundred Yazidis in Iraq and have taken three hundred women captive. Some of those killed are reported to have been buried alive. Tens of thousands of Yazidis have fled and are camped on Mount Sinjar where children are dying of thirst.

One of the interconnections between ISIS and Ireland is likely to be an interest (at the very least), of a small number of Irish Muslims, in joining their ranks. Irish Iraqis who have family members living in Iraq are also likely to be impacted upon by their actions.

One person in Ireland whose family are in the Kurdistan area of Northern Iraq is Makhmury.

Two days ago Makhmury was watching the Kurdish news on satellite TV in her home when one of her brothers and a cousin unexpectedly appeared on the screen. Her brother and cousin were being interviewed in Makhmury’s home city of Makhmur in Kurdistan, northern Iraq.

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The TV with a list of Kurdish stations available

‘They were on the news saying that they were preparing to fight ISIS. ISIS weren’t in the city yet but they were close. All the women and children had been evacuated’.

Makhmury says she went into a kind of shock and has been crying so much since then that this morning she had to use eye-drops to reduce the swelling. She says that she is now watching the news day and night and sleeps little. Today her husband and her son insisted she got out of the house for a break from the news. Her phone is constantly by her side.

Makhmury came from Makhmur to live in Ireland twenty-seven years ago. She has three grown-up sons and an Irish husband. Her only other family member in Ireland is a nephew. Most of her family are still in Iraq and many of them live in Makhmur. Her sister, brother, in-laws, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews all have homes there and they have all either left or are preparing to fight.

‘They had to leave very quickly’ she tells me. ‘They had to save themselves. They were worried about their daughters and the women. That was the priority – to bring them to safety. I’ve seen eye-witness reports from people who saw what was done by ISIS to the Yazidi in Shengal – women were raped and then their throats were slit. Hundreds were taken away. They separate the beautiful ones and they take them away. Thousands of Yazidis fled to the mountains.’

Kurdish fighters, called the Peshmerga (guerillas) are now involved in battles against ISIS in Northern Iraq. Some of Makhmury’s family are fighting with the Peshmerga. Makhmury explains that ninety-five percent of Kurds are Muslim and the other five percent is made up of Christians, Yazidis and other religions including Jews. She estimates that there are around two thousand Kurds living in Ireland.

Kurds come from an area called Kurdistan which spans parts of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq.

Kurds come from an area called Kurdistan which spans parts of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq.

Makhmury manages to keep in daily contact with her family in Iraq via mobile phone. She can sometimes hear the children crying in the background. She says everyone is anxious and upset.

When I sit at her kitchen table her nephew calls from Iraq to update her. All her family are safe and in Erbil at the moment. Makhmury is very hopeful that they will be safe because Erbil has a large international community including many Americans. She tries to reassure her sister-in-law over the phone. ‘It could be worse’ she tells her.’ At least you can stay with relatives, you are not on the mountains, you have food and drink’.

ISIS model their behaviour and style on what they believe to be that of the Prophet Muhammad and the Prophet’s companions from 7th century Arabia. Non-Muslims have been persecuted by ISIS as well as Muslims who do not agree with their specific brand of Islam. Christians in areas under their control have been given a choice to convert to Islam, pay a tax, or face execution. The Yazidis, a minority religious and ethnic group, have also been told to convert or face death.

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A Kurdish flag and Kurdish decorated basket in Makhmury’s home

Although ISIS are in Iraq and Syria their influence is not limited to geographical space. Reports of their actions also influence Irish understandings of Islam and attitudes towards Muslims. These reports have the potential to fuel Islamophobia which in turn leads to isolation of the Muslim community in Ireland amongst other things.

Makhmury’s own attitude towards ISIS is clear. ‘They are terrorists’ she says. ‘They are not Muslim. Muslims have to bring peace. To be a good Muslim you have to bring peace to everybody. You don’t hurt anyone. You can’t be a Muslim and slit throats, rape women, destroy people’s homes’.

* Since writing this blog yesterday, Makhmury has been in touch today to say that ‘the city of Makhmur has been recaptured by the Kurds Peshmerga and guerillas and this is a great relief for me and my family and everyone else in the north of Iraq. Well done to Peshmerga and guerrillas and all the courageous fighters’.

 

Anyone interested in reading Tom Holland’s views on Christianity and western secularism can, for starters, check out http://www.newstatesman.com/religion/2009/04/muslims-essay-islam-state

 

 

 

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Watching the Kurdish news in Makhmury’s home

 

Dublin Unitarian Church

It’s a December evening in Dublin. It’s almost four o’clock and it’s dark and the rain is pelting down. I’m running up the side of Stephen’s green as fast as I can. People are huddled in doorways waiting for the heavier rain to pass. I’m flying past them all, belting my way up against the wind towards the Unitarian church on Stephen’s Green where I’ve an appointment to meet the minister, Brigid Spain, at 4. I can feel a coldness on my feet as my shoes start leaking. My trousers are stuck to my legs. I reach the church, ring the bell and the huge heavy wooden doorway opens into light and heat and the welcoming smile of Reverend Briget Spain.

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Reverend Briget Spain at the front door of the Unitarian church on Stephen’s Green, Dublin

Dublin’s Unitarian Church has a fascinating four-hundred-year(ish)  history in Ireland but this year is a significant anniversary for the church. The Gothic Revival building where the church is housed is marking its 150th anniversary.

Reverend Briget Spain is the first female minister of the church in the Republic of Ireland. She’s middle aged and is married with children and has been minister here for three years.

We walk inside and step up the stone stairs and I peel off my saturated coat and leave it by the heater in the hallway to dry. Inside the church the lights are off and we look at the stained glass windows, visible against the city-light behind the darkness.

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The stained glass windows of the Unitarian Church pictured on a December evening

Briget switches on the full lights and I sit in a pew as she tells me a little about what’s happening in the church these days.

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The plain decor of inside the church – Christmas tree visible (and angels too)

The church itself is quite plain inside. Simply coloured walls. No statues or pictures. Dark-coloured pews. “There are angels but no crucifixes” Briget says as we look around the walls. (The angels are up on the roof under the rafters). There’s a Christmas tree with presents underneath.

The Unitarian church has its roots in Christianity and the Reformation but it has changed quite a lot since its inception.

“We don’t have rules that people are required to follow and we don’t have a creed that we impose or that people have to believe” Briget explains to me.

In the Unitarian Church there’s no belief in the Trinity; Jesus is believed to have been an inspired teacher, a man; Mary isn’t honoured; readings are often secular; baby welcoming ceremonies are held to celebrate the arrival of children to the world and there are female and gay ministers.

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One of the angels that sits atop the pillars

“Is there a belief in the divine?” I ask.

“There is a belief in the divine” she tells me “but it’s not imposed and the divine is not defined and some people here would be atheistic”.

“We don’t follow a liturgy” she goes on to explain. “Originally it was the Bible only but now we use whatever we find useful”.

At last week’s Sunday service, for example, there were readings of pieces by by G. K. Chesterton, Pam Ayres, Dylan Thomas, Andrew Greeley and a piece from Luke’s gospel. Briget says they read what they feel like reading and it could even be readings from Hindu scriptures such as the Bhagavad Gita or talks about Buddhism or other religions. Earlier this year they had a Muslim lady speak to them.

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Reverend Briget Spain inside the church

“Most are familiar with the teachings of Jesus but would say that Jesus didn’t say anything original. Jesus said “love your neighbour”. Confucious, 500 years before Jesus, had the Golden Rule which was the same thing. And in Judaism Rabbi Hillel when asked to teach the entire Torah while standing on one foot said “what is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour””.

“Is there communion?”

“We have communion rarely” she tells me. “We have it when there are five Sundays in the month and then it’s just about sharing bread and wine together”.

Remarkably, (considering the statistics relating to other churches in Ireland) the congregation is growing. “In 1996 there would have been around 20 or 25 here on a Sunday” she says. “Now we have around 120 most weeks.”  Most of the congregation are Irish and are “mainly recovering Catholics and disaffected protestants”.

They have no holy days but there will be a service on Christmas Day. They do say prayers but the prayers can change over time – currently they are debating the use of the Our Father with some members believing it to be a bit “out of date”.

We’re sitting in the pews chatting and the wind suddenly picks up and the roof creaks. Then we hear the sound of water dripping inside. Rain has started coming in one of the windows. “At least it’s not the prevailing wind” says Briget happily. “It does come in that window sometimes”.

A man called Charlie comes in and explains to Briget that he’s looking for a bag of bread he thought he left earlier. It’s not there. Charlie says that if anyone finds it over the next few days they are welcome to it. Briget explains that on Wednesdays they have a lunchtime meditation.

As well as Sunday service and Wednesday meditation the church is open for baptisms and weddings and same-sex blessings too. For the baptisms Briget explains that they do use water “but we’re not washing away sin”.

“This year we had around 75 baptisms for children of parents who weren’t members of the church. They want a service to mark the birth of a child – a service of thanksgiving and welcome. It’s getting more popular”.

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The 102 year old organ at the back of the church which is currently undergoing restoration with fund-raising underway

Briget also says that this year she was hearing new things from people who were phoning up looking for the baby welcoming ceremonies. “I had never heard it before. People were phoning up saying that they were brought up Catholic but wanted nothing more to do with the church anymore. I’ve also had grandmothers coming up to me after the baptisms saying “my child had no sin either””. She senses changes in the attitudes of many people towards Catholicism.

I’m anxious to get to the heart of the belief system of the Unitarian Church. I probe Briget for answers to questions on dogma and truths and practice. I ask her if she could sum up the teachings of the church in one sentence (a bit like Rabbi Hillel on his one foot).

“I could sum it up for myself but not on behalf of the members” she replies.

“We are searchers. We don’t claim to know all the truth. Most churches have their truth that is set is stone, that they are imparting and want people to believe. We say our ideas of truth change all the time and they change with knowledge”.

She reads me some lines which she says are recited at Sunday services: “Love is the doctrine of this church, the question of truth is its sacrament and service is its prayer. To dwell together in peace, to seek knowledge in freedom, to serve mankind in fellowship, to the end that all souls shall grow in harmony with the divine. This do we covenant with each other and with god”.

The rain has eased when we finish chatting and I make a promise that I’ll return for a service. “If I had a penny for every time someone has said that to me” she laughs.

Out in the foyer my coat has dried by the heater. Briget opens the big black door and I’m out into the storm again but the rain has eased enough for me to take a few photographs from the far side of the Luas line.

On the way home I’m thinking of all the people I know who would like to have baby welcoming ceremonies here…

 

 

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Taken from inside the hymn book – summing up some of the beliefs of the Unitarian Church

 

 

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Christmas tree with presents underneath donated by members for charity. One Sunday in every four the weekly collection is also given to charity

 

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The Unitarian Church, Stephen’s Green, Dublin – wet December evening

 

Secular Sunday Brunch with Atheist Ireland

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The ‘Secularism, Atheism, Humanism’ stall set up by Brendan Maher (centre), of Atheist Ireland, outside the GPO on O’Connell Street in Dublin [photo taken from internet] L-R: Jon Pierson, Maureen Meleady, Brendan Maher, Jane Donnelly and Michael Nugent

“One man came up to me and asked “what’s secularism? Is it some sort of sex thing?”

It’s a cold bright Sunday morning in November and I’m in the lobby area of the Trinity Capital Hotel in Dublin’s city centre talking to a man called Brendan Maher. He’s with a small group of people from Atheist Ireland who have met up for their monthly Secular Sunday Brunch. Brendan is telling me about the stall he set up on O’Connell Street last year promoting secularism, atheism and humanism.

“I set up the stall on the 6th of October 2012” he tells me. He had seen lots of street preachers in the area from different religions – Islam, Christianity, Mormonism, Scientology, Falun Gong, Jehovah’s Witnesses – and he had engaged with them all and then decided that there had to be an alternative voice. “So I bought a table” he says “it cost me €30 or €40 and it was the first stall of its kind in the world”.

He tells me that he was extremely nervous the first Saturday. “I had no idea what would happen” he says. “Would I be arrested? Stoned? Here were all these other people talking about their gods and here am I saying “that’s all rubbish””.

The stall is outside the GPO in Dublin City Centre on the first Saturday of every month. Brendan says they don’t approach people and they don’t try to give out information but instead that they let people come to them.

“Overall the reaction has been positive” he says “although Muslims see me as the anti-christ”. He’s also been told many times that he’ll go to hell “one Texan millionaire guy said to me “all I can do is pray for you”. Around 60 to 100 pieces of literature are taken from the stall each Saturday” he says “and I talk to around 40 people a day. I enjoy it, it’s great fun”.

When I arrive at the hotel there are only about five people gathered but more arrive and soon there are twelve. There’s only one woman besides myself and she tells me that the gender balance isn’t usually like this, that there are usually more women. Two more women arrive a while later.

Atheist Ireland was set up around five years ago as an organisation to promote atheism, reason and ethical secularism. Its chairperson, Michael Nugent, who is at the lunch, tells me that there’s a lot of misinformation and misunderstandings about atheism.

“Religious people assume atheists have specific answers and at the same time they haven’t thought of the implications of their own belief” he explains. “Most atheists say we don’t know, instead of inventing explanations.”

He says people sometimes pose the question “how did the universe begin?” as though it’s a trump card proving the existence of god. “Our answer is that we don’t know how the universe began, and neither do religious people, but everything that we do know about the universe suggests that it is likely to be yet another in a long line of natural explanations, rather than an invented supernatural explanation.”

Another question he is asked is “what happens when we die?” He tells me that he sometimes counters this question by asking “what happens when dogs die?” A few other members of the group then ask jokingly “what about cats? Caterpillars?”

There’s plenty of jokes and laughter during the lunch. At one point I say I might not stay for food and one man sardonically tells me they won’t be eating babies. I stay for food.

I ask if the secular Sunday brunch is open to religious people and I’m told “if they are accompanied by responsible adults”. More laughter. On a serious note, they say that everyone is welcome to come along.

Atheist Ireland is currently fundraising to develop a course on atheism and humanism which is to be piloted in Educate Together schools. They have raised €4,000 of the €10,000 needed for the course. They are hoping the course will start officially in 2015. “God willing” one man says. More laughter.

I ask what books they would recommend for people who are interested in atheism or ethical secularism and one man says “Scooby Doo”. Another says “The Wizard of Oz”. I think they are joking but they are serious. “Just peep under the curtain” one man explains. Other authors are listed: Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Bertrand Russell, Mark Twain.

The conversation ranges widely during the lunch – from religious issues to pets, procrastination and the current Constitutional Convention. There are also stories of “coming out” as atheist, discussions about religious education in Ireland, discrimination against atheists, their O’Connell Street stall, and the story of one woman who lost her lift home from a friend after posting a picture on Facebook of Jesus on a trampoline bouncing to heaven.

The chairperson, Michael Nugent, tells me about an event he attended in Limerick last year when two theologians said “atheists aren’t fully human”. There’s also talk of the new atheist church, Sunday Assembly, which held its first ever Dublin event at the beginning of the month.

The Sunday Assembly is basically a church without god. It was set up in London earlier this year by comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans and now their vision is expanding with the idea to open branches in towns and cities around the world. At the church in Dublin last week they sang songs such as ‘All you Need Is Love’, and ‘Get By with a Little Help from My Friends’. There was also a talk and a minute’s silence. There are plans to hold regular gatherings.

The church is not connected with Atheist Ireland but a few members of A.I. did attend and there’s mixed reaction – including questioning the inclusion of the U2 song “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” as it contains the lyrics “I believe in the kingdom come”. Another guy said he thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

The national census of Ireland in 2011 recorded 3,905 people who self-identified as atheists. However, the number had jumped so much from 2006 (when the category numbered 929) that atheism has now become the fastest growing ‘religion’ in Ireland. Atheist Ireland themselves suggest that the real number of atheists may be closer to the 270,000 who ticked the ‘No Religion’ box on the census.

Atheist Ireland currently have around 300 paid up members and around 2000 Facebook members. As well as the once-a-month Secular Sunday Brunch they have meetings, take part in debates and discussions and are politically active by making submissions on government policies (including on issues of education and health) and campaigning for human rights and equality issues.

Most recently they took part in the Constitutional Convention on blasphemy laws and Jane Donnelly, Human Rights Officer with Atheist Ireland, is now working on a submission relating to the legal discrimination of atheists and secular citizens in areas of health and education in Ireland which will be submitted to the Equality Authority.

Atheism is not a unified belief system – there are many diverse strands – and Atheist Ireland is more than an organisation for people who do not believe in a god or gods. It’s a community, a forum for discussion and perhaps most importantly it’s a politically active group who seek change and who campaign on ethical issues.

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Leaflet for event organised by Atheist Ireland

Michael Nugent tells me that they used to hold an ‘atheist in the pub’ night but it was so difficult to try to find a wheelchair friendly pub to rent a room that they’ve stopped the meetings for the moment. “Do you have members who use wheelchairs?” I ask. “No” he tells me “but the policy in ethical atheism is to try to be as open as we can be”.

Migrant places of worship in Ireland

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The Irish national headquarters of the Redeemed Christian Church of God

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Hindus begin to gather to celebrate Navaratri in the Taney Community Parish Centre, Goatstown, Dublin 14 (the room is rented for the evening)

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‘Paddy Ganesh’ at the Indian Sculpture Park near Roundwood in County Wicklow – some Hindus think of the park as a kind of outdoor ashram or temple

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Warehouse used as a mosque in Dublin 15

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

 

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The Temple or shrine in a wardrobe in the hallway of a Hindu home in Dublin

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.

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Pastor Samuel of the Church of Pentecost Ireland – Dublin City Centre (note the reinforced steel doors

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Inside the transformed warehouse – Church of Pentecost Ireland

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Manning the P.A. system – all the Pentecostal churches I visited had large P.A. systems. Music is a very important element in Pentecostal churches.

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The pointed-roof of the warehouse used by the Church of Pentecost Ireland is visible between the blocks of flats, Dublin City Centre

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All the Pentecostal churches I visited also had projector screens with the words of the songs – the flags in the background represent the different countries from which the congregants come

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Warehouse of the Redeemed Christian Church of God in Damastown, Dublin 15

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A small unit housing the Christ Apostolic Church in Tallaght

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The amazing choir at the Redeemed Christian Church of God, Tallaght

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Inside ‘Betania’, Romanian Pentecostal Church, Damastown, Dublin 15 – the day of a baptism (six adults were being baptised). Choir and musicians and projector screen visible on the altar.

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A Hindu priest preparing for a celebration in the community hall at Ballyroan Community Centre – the Ireland Vinayaka Temple is housed upstairs in the centre but is only rented on a part-time basis

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.

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The main shrine area of the temple at the Hindu Cultural Centre of Ireland, Lucan

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Some of the idols or deities at the recently opened Hindu Cultural Centre of Ireland, HCCI, Lucan

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Section of the full Sunday evening carpark outside Betania Romanian Pentecostal church in Dublin 15 – porters are on hand to ensure cars are all parked orderly

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A warehouse used as a mosque in Dublin 15

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A sign on the door of one of the Pentecostal churches

Islamophobia – or not?

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Donaghmede shopping centre, North Dublin

It’s a sunny September morning in Dublin and I’m back on the northside of the city – Donaghmede – where I’ve organised to meet a local guy who is opposed to the construction in his locality of what will be Ireland’s largest mosque.

I head to McDonalds outside the Donaghmede shopping centre where I’ve organised to meet him. It’s a busy Saturday morning and there’s a queue at the counter even though it’s only 11. A man with a book in his hands is watching me quizzically as I walk in. I head over to him. “George?” I ask. “Yes” he smiles, “Colette?” We shake hands and I sit down in the booth opposite him.

George Sturdy has pale skin and bright blue eyes and an almost-shaved head. He looks like he’s in his thirties. The book in his hands is red-covered. It is ‘One Day in September’ by Simon Reeve about the 1972 murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. George tells me he reads a lot.

I came to meet George after local Labour TD Sean Kenny forwarded me a strongly-worded email he had received from George objecting to the construction of the Clongriffin mosque. I’m here to hear his objections. George tells me that he subsequently sent an apology to Deputy Kenny because of the way the email was worded but that he is still opposed to the construction of the mosque.

George lists reams of incidents that have been in the media in recent years relating to Muslims: the decapitation of a British soldier in Woolwich in May, calls for Shariah law in England, various bombings, protests, complaints about Christmas lights and alcohol consumption, attacks on homosexuals and stones being thrown at scantily clad people trying to raise money for charity.

George tells me that he himself lives in the nearby suburb of Baldoyle which is about a mile and a half from Clongriffin which was just fields when he was growing up “where kids used to play”. He says that anyone he has spoken to in the area does not want the mosque to be built.

I ask how many people he has spoken to. He tells me “about ten”. But he adds that “most people in the area don’t know the mosque is being built”. He says that he heard about plans for the mosque about a year ago but “I heard nothing more about it until I went on to the Nationalist Movement Ireland forum about two weeks ago”.

“Are you a member of the movement?” I ask him. “No” he says “but I do follow their forum”. He tells me that he supports their policies “against this mosque and against Islam being allowed to grow in the west” but that he doesn’t support extreme right wing views.

George explains that the main concern is that the area will become “Islamofied”. He cites instances of areas in England where the street signs are in Bangladeshi and says that people are concerned the area would “be taken over” and not recognised as an Irish neighbourhood. He says people are also wary of Islam because of “what they’ve seen over the past ten years or more – beginning with 9-11”.

I ask him if he knows any Muslims himself. “No, I don’t” he says. He adds that when he visited Paris in 1996 the only guy who was friendly to him was a Moroccan. “I’ve no problem with any person – black, white, brown, foreign – it’s just Islam that seems to cause trouble wherever it goes”.

“Muslims take offence at the slightest insult that they perceive against their religion or against their prophet” he says.

“Would you be open to meeting and chatting to a Muslim?” I ask. “No, I don’t see any point” he says. “I’m not going to change their views and there’s only a point in talking to people if you can reach some compromise”.

I ask him what would be a compromise. “If the mosque wasn’t built” he says “or a giant cathedral was to be built in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia”.

I suggest that maybe if he met Muslims involved in the Clongriffin mosque he might understand it from their perspective. “No” he says again. “There wouldn’t be any point. It’d be like Gerry Adams sitting down with Ian Paisley”.

“Are you afraid of Islam?” I ask. “Yes” he answers. “I’m afraid of what it does when it becomes the majority religion and takes over. It’s the only religion in the world that has significant problems with other religions and as their numbers grow they become more insistent that you can’t criticise their religion. They want to erode freedom of speech and freedom of doing things that don’t comply with their religion”. He cites examples of attitudes towards homosexuality, alcohol or the wearing of mankinis to raise money for charity.

I ask him would he speak to a Muslim who drinks alcohol and has no problem with homosexuality. “No” he says again. “Talk is cheap – every city in Europe that has a significant Muslim population has had trouble. We only have around 40,000 Muslims here but if we had 500,000 it’d be different”. What about an Irish convert? “No, they would be even more entrenched in their views”.

“I have no reason for meeting anyone of the Islamic faith” he tells me. “It’d be like meeting the Pope and trying to convert him to the Church of England”.

I suggest that communication and dialogue is important for peace and understanding in the world today. “Dialogue – that’s for the leaders. Putin, Obama, Cameron”.

“Basically it’s a medieval way of life and is not compatible with modern western society. If it was a Sikh temple or a Jewish synagogue I wouldn’t care”.

“Would you say you’re Islamophobic?” I ask. “No, I’m rational” he responds. “A phobia is an irrational fear”.

So what next? “I’d like people to get out and protest because once the mosque is built it would be too late” he says.

After I leave Donaghmede I take a trip back to Clongriffin which is only minutes away by car. Although the buidings in Clongriffin are modern and shiny and the area is well manicured and clean it has a desolate air to it. Almost like a modern ghost-town. But with no ghosts.

The main 'square' in Clongriffin on a Saturday morning.

The main ‘square’ in Clongriffin on a Saturday morning. The site for the planned mosque is the green field in the background.

As I drive up the ‘main street’ and around the town square I count 33 ground-floor retail units. Only a handful further down the street have businesses inside. Most of the units have ‘To Let’ signs in their windows. Then there’s a Centra, an Italian chipper, a barbers, off-license and an office. That’s it.

A once-used retail unit on Clongriffin main street. Now closed.

A once-used retail unit on Clongriffin main street. Now closed.

As I drive away from Clongriffin I think to myself that the mosque will revitalise an area left frozen in time at the height of the boom. I’m back to the main junction and as I prepare to turn left at the traffic lights I see a large dark-coloured decrepit looking development facing me with big iron railings blocking what was once a road. There are security guards hanging out beside a little cabin.

I get out of my car and go over to ask them what’s going on. “This is Priory Hall” the female guard says. I’m stunned into silence as I survey the scene. I think that this bleak space of emptied out apartments is where protests should really be taking place. The reality of the tragedy of Priory Hall hits when it becomes visible outside of the frame of the TV. Reality via the media is a different reality. People in the media are different too.

Down the road from Clongriffin - the desolate legacy of the Irish boom - Priory Hall

Down the road from Clongriffin – the desolate legacy of the Irish boom – Priory Hall

The stories of real life don’t have simplified beginnings and ends. Are media representations accurate portrayals of the reality beyond? Are the Islam and Muslims of the media the same as that of not? Are the stories real? Representative? Accurate? George Sturdy thinks yes. Muslims I’ve spoken to think no. What picture would a non-Irish person who’s never met an Irish person have of me? What preconceptions?

Later, at home, I google ‘Nationalist Movement Ireland’ Their home page says, in large writing, ‘SHOW MULTICULTURALISM THE RED CARD’. I think about Ireland and all the Irish people who have left over the years. Irish people in countries all over the world. No to multiculturalism? Does this mean Irish people stay in Ireland?

The forum on the website has one section dedicated to ‘Real Immigrant Stories: Scammers and Criminals’ and the ‘General Discussion’ area has lots of stories about people of different nationalities and there’s also a story on the death of Hitler’s bodyguard.

George had told me that he is not a member of the movement but that he did speak to one of the leaders, John Kavanagh, before meeting me. I also googled John Kavanagh.

And what of the issue of meeting ‘others’ who do not share our views, opinions, beliefs, values? Should we only meet those with whom we agree? Or those who we can convince to change? Or should we meet people in order to listen? In order to understand?

 

Nationalist Movement Ireland - website home page

Nationalist Movement Ireland – website home page

George won’t speak to Muslims but for the next blog I’m going to look into the issue further – I’ll be speaking to Irish Times journalist Mary Fitzgerald about Islamophobia in Ireland and I’ll speak to someone from the Clongriffin Mosque Project to get their response to George’s concerns.

Iftar at the Shi’a Islamic Centre, Dublin – Ramadan

Fasting for Ramadan has unlocked in me a new level of understanding. It’s been like opening a box and uncovering the core of Islam.

Too often, in the west, our perceptions of Islam are made up of a cacophony of shock-factor news stories and the image that’s built up over the years becomes a collage that instils fear.

I’ve done enough stints in news to know that ‘great news stories’ are tales of the extraordinary, not the ordinary. The unusual, not the usual. And so, ‘doing’ Ramadan has opened up a gate for me – the gate to Islam as lived by the majority, the gate to Islam as ordinary. The ordinary – arguably, the place where real beauty lies.

Sunday starts off with another oddity for someone fasting for Ramadan – a christening in a Catholic church followed by a celebratory meal in a posh restaurant with the nicest blooming garden I’ve ever seen. I am the only one out of a group of fifteen not eating. People say to me ‘you’re very strong’. I think to myself “I’m only learning”.

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Hussainia, the Shi’a Islamic Centre of Ireland at Miltown, Dublin

Later I drive to the Shi’a Islamic Centre in Dublin. I’m told to wear a scarf. The centre, called Hussainia, is an unassuming red-brick building in Miltown with a glass dome on its roof. It doesn’t look like a mosque.

I’m here to meet Dr. Yasmin Ali, an Iraqi born woman who came to Ireland thirteen years ago. She is very welcoming and friendly. We take off our shoes in the porch and leave them on the wooden shelves before going to the women’s section.

The women’s section is a large carpeted room with soft couch-like seats all around the walls. There is a partition of wooden doors separating it from the men’s section.

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The partition between the women and men’s section

“For me, Ramadan is the most important month in the year” Yasmin says. “Believe it or not we wait for it every year and when it is finished we are sad. It’s a break from the rules – from having three meals a day – but more than just that, it is a break from everything.”

The Iftar meal is served every night in the Shi’a centre. Yasmin tells me that it’s cooked by a volunteer from the community and it’s free. The cost is covered by donations.

Most years Yasmin and her family come to the centre every night for Ramadan but this year the breaking of the fast is so late that they haven’t come. Tonight is her first night.

It’s approaching half past nine and I can’t smell any food. My stomach is grumbling. I’m getting concerned. Yasmin has told me that the food is cooked in the building and that “usually you can smell the food”. I’m starving. She sees the look of panic on my hungry face and tells me not to worry, there will be food.

The conversation returns to Ramadan. “We all look after our bodies a lot – we eat good food, exercise and go to the doctor if we are sick. But at the same time the body is not eternal. The soul is the eternal thing. So why not look after the soul as well?”

“I believe that Ramadan is a good way to discipline the soul” she continues. “You feel stronger because you can control your hunger, thirst, sexual desire. And I think it’s very important that you can control your instincts and by doing this for thirty days every year it gives more ability to control yourself and your desire”.

As prayer time approaches a few more women file in including Yasmin’s sister Jinan and Jinan’s daughter Diana. We are all chatting together. I’m the only one who is hungry. I’m starving. I’m also the only one who hasn’t lost any weight. All three of them have lost weight. Yasmin says they always make sure to eat healthy foods.

But then I hear the word “sweets” spoken by Diana who is nineteen “I crave sweets” she tells me unapologetically. “It’s probably the first thing I have when I break the fast. One day a week I would eat only sweets. It makes me happy. I’d have Raffaelo chocolate, candies, lollipops”.

“If I’m walking around and see sweets during the day I buy them and think “this is my iftar today””. Her mother does a mixture of a laugh and a sigh as though she has given up but enjoys Diana’s spirited personality at the same time.

My Ramadan calendar says sunset Sunday night is 9.42 but it’s already 9.47 and there’s no sign of food or prayers. Yasmin explains that the Shi’as calculate their sunset slightly differently to the Sunnis and as a result their breaking of the fast is around fifteen minutes later. There are other minor differences too.

The official sunset time arrives around 10.00 and Yasmin brings me a bowl of delicious lentil soup. I have a second portion, and a date and a glass of water and then the women rise for prayer.

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Prayer mats laid out in the women’s section. They drape the pieces of sheet-like material over themselves when they pray.

There are just ten women, a baby and a little toddler in the women’s section. The prayer lasts a few minutes and then the food is brought out on large trays. A plastic glass of actimel-style yoghurt is served with the food which we eat on the floor.

I tell Yasmin that I find it very hot with the hijab (scarf) on my head. She says “it’s okay now to take it off” and when I do I immediately feel cooler.

A toddler crawls towards the wooden doors that separate the women from the men and starts pulling at the door. One women lets out a cry when she sees the door is about to open. A few women rush over to lift the toddler away and put a chair against the door, securing the division.

The women tell me that it’s the men who do the washing-up. Partly, they suggest, to keep the women from wandering around the building. They also say that a lot more men than women come to the centre for food because most of the Shi’a women in Ireland are married and there are a lot of single men who come for food.

After the food and conversation I head home and take a look at my blog. The number of readers has jumped after journalist Assed Baig retweeted my link. I see there are people reading it now from Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, South Africa and more.

My intentions with this blog were many but one of them was to let Irish people know about Islam and about Ramadan. It seems Muslims also want to know more about non-Muslim perceptions of Ramadan and Islam. The curiosity (and fear too I suppose) works both ways. So hello to you reading this – Muslim, non-Muslim, Irish, not Irish – wherever you are!

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Food, glorious food

Raspberries during Ramadan

Today I got cocky. Did a two hour hike up a beautiful oak forested low mountain just outside of Dublin. And then I nearly caved. Again.

Halfway to the top of the mini-mountain I ate a raspberry by accident. I was so excited to see my first ever wild-raspberries that I completely forgot about the fast. If I had found any more I probably would have eaten them too. But it was by mistake so I think it’s okay.

And then my sister-in-law invited me to a bar-b-q. ‘If you want to break the fast’ she said in her text. I did want to break it but held on. I was even tempted to eat in McDonalds when my husband picked up a take away for himself and my toddler. That’s how hungry I was. The hunger monster in my belly was banging for attention. Loudly.

By 6 o’clock I was really craving food and wondering ‘why am I doing this anyway?’ Hitting at the edges of persuading myself out of going any further. I visited my sister-in-law’s house just for the company and there were glasses of prosecco on the go and people slagging me munching on the final bits from the bar-b-q. Kids were running around waving chocolate cookies in their hands. Taunting me.

Today was the toughest yet. I was really beginning to feel foolish and questioning the whole experiment of fasting for Ramadan even though I’m not Muslim. As consolation for the challenge I think to myself ‘ah surely I’ve lost a few pounds in the process’. But I’m not getting onto the scales to face the fact that probably – no!