Rethinking Religion in Northern Ireland 16 February 2015

John Roberts explores the diversity of religion in Northern Ireland beyond Protestantism and Catholicism.


Northern Ireland’s history is one of Protestant and Roman Catholic communities in bloody and political conflict, and whose present is dominated by their old pseudo-theological tensions. This turbulent history, and the focus on Protestant-Catholic reconciliation since the Good Friday Agreement, has meant that the reality and experience of religious diversity is often ignored or simply forgotten. As highlighted in Robbie McVeigh’s publication ‘There’s no Racism Because There’s no Black People Here’, this results in the assumption that multiculturalism and religious diversity do not exist in Northern Ireland.

A Protestant/Catholic dichotomy has long been the norm – from personal experience I have seen this being transmitted through growing up in religiously segregated communities, schools, and social circles. “Are you a Pig or a Cow?” was a frequent question – a Pig being a Protestant and a Cow being a Catholic – but there did not seem much option for someone to reply that they were neither, or that they belonged to a particular branch. This creates a world view that there are only two categories: Protestant and Catholic. If someone did not fit this binary, attempts were occasionally made to connect alternative forms of religion to an existing framework, such as “Are you a Catholic Jew, or a Protestant Jew?” Even non-religious identities are positioned to the divide.

Northern Ireland needs to be talking on a greater scale about its religious and cultural diversity, for the continued and seemingly exclusive emphasis on the Protestant/Catholic dichotomy goes against the grain of a growing multicultural Northern Ireland. As we build a better society for future generations, it should not simply be one of Catholics and Protestants working and living together, it should include immigrant cultures and a variety of religious traditions. Writing in an academic journal, scholar Chris Gilligan and his colleagues note that acknowledging diversity is one thing, but for it to be meaningful, “there is a need for more public debate on what is meant by ‘integration’ and ‘diversity’” and its importance in Northern Ireland. The province is rife with racism, stemming from its own sectarianism and the disdain for the ‘Other Side’, mixed with the general lack of public awareness and education about diversity.

Northern Ireland’s Religions

“Religious diversity” as an umbrella term can be used to also describe Christianities such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS Church or Mormons), Jehovah’s Witnesses and other movements, and is a major contribution to the question of religion in Northern Ireland. These movements are labelled as Christian denominations and while Christian identities have historically played an important role in the society, these groups are not usually connected with being “Irish” or “British”. Their separation is reflected in the region’s census which has Roman Catholicism, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Church of Ireland (Anglicanism), and the Methodist Church in Ireland in four different boxes, and traditionally these have been the dominant forms of Christianity. The latter three make up the mainstream Protestant population, with some others such as the Free Presbyterian Church. The first census in Northern Ireland in 1926 has the total population at 1,256,561, of which 73,204 persons are “Other and Not Stated Denominations” which includes 100 Seventh Day Adventists, 55 Latter-Day Saints, and 22 Greek Orthodox. This tells us that in Northern Ireland’s early years there was a portion of the population who did not subscribe to the major Christian denominations. Unfortunately, their experience is not well documented at present and remains an area for future research.

According to the 2011 census in Northern Ireland there are 104,380 people who were registered as “Other Christian”, of which 1,256 people were classified in “Other Christian Denomination”. Some of these denominations such as Brethren, Salvation Army and especially the Free Presbyterian Church, fit into the dominant “Protestant” side of the divide, but others such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons do not. These latter traditions are often viewed as peculiar by the rest of society, although both have sizeable numbers (totalling almost 3000 across both groups) and are not recent additions to the religious milieu.

The LDS Church, for example, has been present in Ireland since the first half of the nineteenth century with Apostle John Taylor preaching to an audience of 600 people in Newry in 1840. In September of that year, Elder Theodore Curtis established a branch of the Church in Hillsborough, Co. Antrim with 35 members. In 2014 when we talk about the history of religion, or more specifically Christianity in Northern Ireland, we know there is an opportunity to include groups outside Protestants and Catholics that have only grown over the years.

Beyond Christianity

In 1926, there were a number of Jews living in the province; in 1937 there were Jews, Muslims and Hindus noted on the records; and in 2011 14,859 people indicated they belonged to “Other Religions”. The three largest groups currently are Muslim (3,832), Hindu (2,382) and Buddhist (1,046). Since the beginning of Northern Ireland, there has been an array of religious faiths present which, clearly, over the years have only increased. Aside from the three largest, Baha’ís have been recorded on the census since 1961, and Sikhs since 1951, and both of these groups have places of worship and cultural centres for their members. While songs may be sung or jokes made about going to Mass or Church, a significant number of Northern Irish individuals are attending other places of worship. The cultural milieu is changing, which is why it is important to talk about religious diversity instead of relegating it to a marginal phenomenon in relation to the political and religious divide.

Louise Harrington’s assessment of South Asian literature, culture and belonging in Ireland discusses the inclusion of Ireland’s Sikh community in Dublin’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade, which includes “martial arts and bhangra troupes, in addition to huge turban-wearing puppets in the symbolic blue and orange colors of the Khalsa”. While acknowledging the positive aspect of this, she does mention how the audience will see these “signs of a religious culture”, but will “have no original marker for” them. This is a positive inclusion of a migrant religion and culture into Ireland’s social and cultural milieu, but at the same time, there is no real exploration of Sikhism, and the focus is rather on Irish people being “exposed to their presence in Ireland at a national parade”.

This connects with the idea that the conflict between the Protestant and Catholic communities was “pseudo-theological”, because while religion was part of the conflict, it was always more of an identity marker for those of certain backgrounds. Indeed, much of the cross-cultural community work done for youth over the past years has focused more on getting individuals to work, socialise, and integrate with one another and not about the doctrines of the other’s faith. “Interfaith” can hardly be used to describe the process of building bridges between Protestant and Roman Catholic communities, and it could be argued that religion is even downplayed, despite being the major barrier. This means that despite social relations, Protestants are not always sure what Catholics actually believe, and the same could be said about the display of other religions in Northern Ireland.

What is important is “the recognition that Northern Ireland is and has long been a multi-ethnic, multicultural society”, leading to improved education about various histories and cultures, which can happen with events such as the annual Belfast Mela. I asked the former Lord Mayor of Belfast, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, why he thought it was important that he worked with different faith communities during his term as mayor; he said “‘Vive La Difference’ is the best motto any city can have.”

Hidden Histories

So what of the other Abrahamic faiths in Northern Ireland? We know that there have been individual Muslims in Ireland as far back as the 18th century, but it was not until the 1950s that the island began to see more permanent religious organisations. The first organisation, Dublin Islamic Society, was established in 1959 by a group of South African Muslim students who were studying medicine in the Royal College of Surgeons, and they continued to carry on in a lead role until the 1970s. The first established mosque was in South Circular Road, Dublin. As for Northern Ireland, the Belfast Islamic Centre was established in 1978, again by students who were in the area for education. At present, Islam is the province’s largest religion that falls outside Christianity, with nearly four thousand adherents according to the census statistics. It is an example of a religion that has an active religious and cultural life, offering much to the diversity of areas such as Belfast, and Islam is definitely much in the forefront of any discussion about the future of religion in Northern Ireland.

Judaism is arguably the island’s oldest minority with a continuous presence several centuries old, and is a particular example of a successful immigrant culture. On a pan-Ireland scale, Irish Jews have contributed much in terms of citizenship through the arts, politics (two mayors of Dublin and one of Cork have been Jewish), education, and even in the Easter Rising. Although Irish Jews have mostly been centred in the Dublin area, and Jewish life in Northern Ireland can be said to be dwindling with only 335 individuals on the 2011 census, there was still significant settling in the north which can be seen today, including the Belfast Hebrew Congregation in Belfast.

The first synagogue in Northern Ireland was established in the 19th century in Great Victoria, and there have been synagogues in Derry and Lurgan, with some Jewish settlement in other towns and cities. Jews in Northern Ireland are an example of just how important minority religions can be in our society, as in 1969, during the Troubles, a Jewish councillor Sam Daly offered his assistance as ombudsman at Stormont. According to McVeigh, Daly believed “he would be the ideal choice to adjudicate between Protestant and Catholic” communities. This is part of the deconstruction of the Protestant/Catholic dichotomy. Máirtín Ó Muilleoir also said he believed that non-Christian faiths and communities have an important role to play in our society, as “they will probably save us from ourselves.” Islam, Hinduism and Judaism, as well as Sikhism, the Baha’í Faith and others, are religions with histories in Northern Ireland that can add chapters not only to books dedicated to those religions, but also to books about Northern Ireland and Ireland at large.

Breaking Dichotomies

Religion in Northern Ireland cannot be simply seen as Catholicism or Protestantism; these are complicated and general terms that are often more indicative of political and cultural backgrounds, rather than religious confession. The religious scene is diverse, in terms of its forms of Christianities as well as ‘world faiths’. While communities may be divided between chapels and churches, we can find in between, past and present, synagogues, mosques, temples, and meeting houses. In terms of their presence, their integration and interaction with both one another and secular society demonstrate that the province is vibrant with diversity, and through immigration various forms of religion are found in Northern Ireland, far too numerous to mention here.

If we are going to continue talking about religion in Northern Ireland, this diversity can deconstruct the Protestant/Catholic dichotomy, but we can only do this through future research and educational programs for the general public. Consequently, this may help bridge a new path to thinking about religion in Northern Ireland.

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About John Roberts

John Roberts is a graduate of Theology and Religious Studies from the University of Leeds, and he is now currently a Moses Maimonides Fellow at Paideia - The European Institute for Jewish Studies, Sweden. He is interested in religious diversity in Ireland and Israel; Irish Jewish history, gender in Jewish thought and Jewish multiculturalism.

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