Ireland is asking what role the Catholic Church should play in public education

The World
secondary school Colaiste Raithin

The old building of secondary school Colaiste Raithin is seen in the County Wicklow town of Bray, Ireland, Jan. 25, 2018.

Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

Ireland is not as Catholic as it used to be. It’s a trend that goes back many years, but recent events have been chipping away at the church’s hold on Irish society. 

In 2015, Irish voters chose to legalize same-sex marriage. Last month, they rebuked the church again by voting overwhelmingly to legalize abortion. 

One part of life where the Catholic Church remains very powerful to this day, though, is in education. Around 90 percent of the schools in Ireland, for example, are overseen by the Catholic Church. And that includes many public schools. 

But that might be changing, too. 

Emily McKenna, who lives outside of Dublin, said she felt pressured to get her kids baptized just to secure a spot for them in the crowded public school system.

Emily McKenna, who lives outside of Dublin, said she felt pressured to get her kids baptized just to secure a spot for them in the crowded public school system.


Matthew Bell 

Emily McKenna is in her 30s. She didn’t want to tell me exactly how old she is, and just like everybody else she grew up with in County Cork, she was raised Catholic. 

“There really wasn’t another option for us,” she told me. “I can’t even think of a non-religious school in Cork,” at least when she was growing up there.  

Same goes for McKenna’s partner, Diarmuid. They met at 19, have two kids now, and they live outside of Dublin. But they both stopped going to church years ago. 

When they had their first child, Alice, they decided not to get her baptized. Why bother, if they’re not religious? At least, that’s what they thought at first. 

A couple of years later, it came time to start thinking about finding a school for Alice. At that point, McKenna said she and Diarmuid had changed their minds about baptism. 

“Basically, what it came down to was, after doing our research, we decided we had better get her baptized, just in case.” They were worried about finding an opening in a local kindergarten. 

Most schools in Ireland are Catholic schools, from primary schools up through high schools. When the schools fill up and start a waiting list, sometimes the kids who’ve been baptized get priority. 

Usually, Catholic parents get their babies baptized in the first six months or so. McKenna said her daughter was already 2 by the time she went to a local church to ask about scheduling a baptism. McKenna said she wasn’t surprised when a parish priest came to the house to visit. 

“It put me in a really uncomfortable situation. I could totally understand why he came to visit and asked us why we were choosing to do this as an unmarried couple who were not church-goers who he had never seen before,” McKenna said. 

“I told him a lie basically. I told him that, you know, we had decided that we wanted to bring Alice up in the same faith that we were brought up in.” 

McKenna said the whole experience made her feel like a hypocrite. She and her partner have no interest in going back to the church. Nonetheless, they decided to get their second child baptized too, just to boost his chances of getting a spot in the local Catholic school. 

This family’s experience is not unique. In fact, it has a nickname: “baptism barrier.” And it’s come to be seen a real problem in Ireland. 

The Irish education minister recently said it’s “unfair” for publicly funded religious schools to give preference to kids from a particular denomination. And now, Irish lawmakers are working on legislation that would put an end to the baptism barrier. 

But Seamus Mulconry is sort of scratching his head over all of it. Mulconry is with the Catholic Primary School Management Association. 

“The so-called baptism barrier only exists where a school is oversubscribed, and about 95 percent of our schools are not oversubscribed,” Mulconry told me. 

“We will take anybody who walks up to the school. If Damien from 'The Omen' arrived to a Catholic school, we’d take him in.” 

Mulconry said the real issue here is about resources, not religion, especially in parts of Dublin. 

“What occurred in Dublin over the last couple of years is that there has been very rapid growth in some areas of the city and there is a lack of school places,” he said. 

“One school I spoke to recently has enrolled 245 children and there are still 111 children looking for a school place. And I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know what religion they are.” 

“I have never met anybody who had to get their child baptized to get into a school,” Mulconry said.  

It’s not just baptism, though. Some parents in Ireland are just not comfortable with the central role that the Catholic Church plays in public education. 

In many cases, the church owns the school buildings and the property where they sit. Catholic officials have influence over the curriculum, where religion classes are a daily part of learning. The law says that kids don’t have to attend religion classes. But in some cases, it’s hard not to.

Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh is all about her Irish identity. She plays and sings traditional Irish music. She speaks Irish at home with her husband and their two daughters. They live in a tiny town in a rural part of southwest Ireland. Though it’s not really a town.  

“It’s just a little area of houses and it has a tiny, tiny school with about 26 students in it and two teachers,” she said.  

It too is a Catholic school. 

“Well, that’s kind of a given. So, yeah. It is. There’s no choice,” she said. 

And that’s the part of her Irish heritage that Nic Amhlaoibh is keen to let go of. Years ago, she and her husband decided to leave the church. She’s an atheist. And she’s not happy about the fact that the only school for her two girls is a Catholic school. 

“I don’t mind them learning about Catholicism, but I don’t want them to be indoctrinated. Even though they’re technically allowed to sit out religion class, there’s no one to mind them when they do so, because it’s such a small school,” Nic Amhlaoibh said. 

“They don’t have the resources. It’s not their fault. So, I either remove them from school from that time, or they are in religion class. And they might be coloring, but they’re still hearing.”

Nic Amhlaoibh herself was baptized, had First Communion and Confirmation and went to Catholic school and all the rest of it, she said. But she and her husband see themselves as a new generation of Irish people who just want to opt out of Catholicism. And they want the same for the public schools. 

“I don’t want my kids to feel different,” she said. At the same time, Nic Amhlaoibh said, “we have to be different and we have to be a bit troublesome.” 

Ireland is most certainly changing, said Seamus Mulconry, the Catholic education official. But no one is more aware of that than the people who work in the Catholic schools, he said. 

About 15 to 20 percent of primary school kids in Ireland were born outside of the country. Most of them are not Catholic, Mulconry said. And that’s a big change. 

But Mulconry worries that public pressure to force the Catholic Church out of the Irish education system could be shortsighted. 

“People underestimate the contribution that a Catholic ethos makes to education. Because it is actually a very inclusive ethos and it is dedicated to service,” he said. 

“That Catholic ethos has actually served education very well, and being one of the factors which has allowed the system to adapt to an extraordinary level of change over the last 20 years.”

The Irish government is now asking members of the public what they think. At the end of this school year, parents around the country are being asked in a survey if they want more non-Catholic education options for their kids. 

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.