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

Duiske Abbey and the Deacon’s cure for skin cancer

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

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.

Zen Buddhist retreat Waterford

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I might as well just be a tree

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.

‘Who said mass?’, ex-Muslims and Ramadan

I’m from the generation that bridged two very different Catholic Irelands. It went from a society where Catholicism was compulsory (if you were born into it, which most people were) to one where the fastest growing ‘religions’ are atheism, agnosticism and lapsed Catholic. In the Ireland of the 21st century we have religious choices. We have freedom.

I grew up in an Ireland of polishing shoes for Sunday mass, fasting before communion, hymns at school, rosary at home, and a holy water font inside the front door. As an adult – 90% (or thereabouts) of my friends are atheist.

On Twitter I follow a group called the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain. In Islam, apostasy (leaving the religion) can sometimes be punishable by death, particularly in Middle Eastern and African countries. The CEMB provide advice, help, support and solidarity for ex-Muslims. Including steps on how to make sure your internet activities cannot be traced – that’s how careful they believe they have to be.

Up to now I’ve extolled the virtues of Ramadan and heard only positives from Muslims about their fasting experiences. Following on from some exchanges with the CEMB yesterday I realise that Ramadan is not a positive experience for ALL Muslims. Particularly those who have no faith but yet feel compelled within their communities to join in the fasting and prayers for reasons of fear.

I headed off yesterday to Al Mustafa Islamic Centre to talk to Shaykh Muhammad Umar Al-Qadri about the issue. The centre is in the unlikely location of an industrial estate. It doesn’t look like a mosque or a place that has anything to do with religion. On the outside door there is a kid’s colourful drawing with the words ‘Eid Mubarak’.

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Al Mustafa Education and Islamic Centre, Coolmine Industrial Estate, Blanchardstown

I asked Shaykh Umar about the issue of apostasy. “My view on ex-Muslims is the same as that of the Quran, the same as in the hadith [stories about the Prophet Muhammad] – anyone who follows Islam, he is free to follow or not follow the religion.”

“There is a verse in the Quran which says “there is no compulsion in religion”. If someone does not believe anymore, then for me he is still the same. I respect him and love him the same as anybody else”.

I suggest that this is the moderate view, that others would not share his opinion. “This” he insists “is the scholarly view of any school of thought, they will all give the same answer. But you will have extremists who have no tolerance. There are people in Islam who call themselves Muslim who are terrorists. There are also Muslims who will say that those who left Islam are enemies. This is not backed academically, scholarly”.

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Shaykh Muhammad Umar Al-Qadri at his office desk in Al Mustafa Centre

Shaykh Umar is from a Pakistani background but was raised in the Netherlands. The first time I met him around six years ago I was afraid of him. Simply because he seemed important with a retinue of followers, and he wore a big black beard. At that time I knew only a little about Islam. Today I would say that he is probably the most approachable Muslim leader I’ve met in Ireland.

Shaykh Umar tells me that the mosque at Al Mustafa is the most diverse in Ireland. People from Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, Pakistan, the Ivory Coast and many other countries come here to pray. He also tells me that “in this mosque at least two people accept Islam (convert) every month. A lot of them are Irish”.

During Ramadan the mosque is busy, particularly for the Taraweeh prayers at night which don’t finish until after midnight. “In Ireland, people who wouldn’t normally come to the mosque during the year come every day during Ramadan.”

And are there Muslims in Ireland who don’t fast? “More Muslims in Pakistan don’t fast than people in Ireland” he tells me. He is just back from Pakistan where he says he saw people smoking (also banned in Ramadan during daylight hours) and not fasting but nobody was objecting. If a person doesn’t fast, that’s between him and Allah.”

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Inside the warehouse – this is the space used as a mosque

“Approximately 50% of the Muslim population don’t pray five times a day” he tells me. “Is there anyone who judges them? Nobody. Is there anybody who forces them? Nobody”.

Again I suggest that his view is the moderate view but he responds: “I would say this is the correct Islamic view. Any other view is an extreme view and is a wrong interpretation of Islam”.

It’s not the first time that the topic of extremism has come up over the past few weeks. Shaykh Umar is so outspoken and so seemingly moderate (to my ears anyway) that I ask him if he himself fears extremists.

“Yes. Well, not in the sense that they could do me any wrong but I have the fear that they could destroy the reputation of Islam in Ireland.”

He tells me that in Pakistan he is very well known because of his TV appearances. The TV station provided bodyguards for him round the clock because he “could be a target for the extremists”. Why? “Because I speak out against them and because the message we give of Islam is a message that does not benefit them”.

“Are there extremists in Ireland?” I ask him. “There could be extremists in Ireland. They are not organised but there are individuals. They have no scholarly background”.

I imagine that I’m not going to meet any Muslims in Ireland who will openly talk to me about any negative experiences of Islam or of Ramadan. There are mild parallels to the Ireland that I grew up in where anybody who didn’t have faith ‘belonged’ to the Catholic church anyway.

Ramadan has been a wonderful experience for me to date. The hunger and thirst are inconsequential in comparison to the new found appreciation of taste and food and the excuse to go out and visit mosques and meet people and eat with them and learn about their cultures, religion, experiences and life.

This whole discussion reminds me of the years when I was in my twenties and mam used to call me for mass every Sunday morning. I unwillingly rolled out of bed. I was an adult and either had my own car or the use of one. I ‘went’ to mass by driving around country roads or heading to the beach and the first question later, when I got home, was always ‘who said mass?’


This is a radio programme I made for WLRfm in 2005ish about Catholic Ireland in the mid-twentieth century. Funded by the BCI. Featuring catechism quotes from my dad. And my fake-newsy voice (apologies for the voice 🙂 )

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‘Who said Mass?’ – T-Shirts with this image are available from Irish company http://www.hairybaby.com

* My visit to Al Mustafa Islamic Centre was done as part of my research into the use of warehouses as places of worship for migrant groups. This research is funded by the Mary Raftery Journalism Fund. The radio pieces being made from this research will be broadcast on Global Village on Newtalk in September/October 2013.