DUBLINFor the last several decades, the Catholic Church of Ireland has been losing its followers at a rapid pace. Historically, the percentage of Catholics in Ireland has been among one of the highest of European countries. But between 2006 and 2022 the percentage of the Irish population that self-identifies as Catholic dropped from 90% to 69%, Census data showed. Most people who casted off their Catholic identity shifted away from religion as a whole, experts say. But where did those who didn’t want to lose their faith go?  

On a recent trip to Ireland I tried to find the answer to this question. Among former Catholics I met were a Protestant leader, a pagan practitioner and a Muslim woman. 

Despite having such starkly different backgrounds and religions, the three struggled with an inner conflict around their Catholic identity. 

The struggle around Catholic identity has become more common in Ireland, especially after the church’s sexual abuse scandals became public, according to Hugh Turpin, an anthropologist and cognitive scientist and the author of a book about the religious decline of the Catholic church in Ireland. Turpin added that after the abuse, the public opinion on the church shifted, and more people began to oppose the institutionalized influence of the Catholic Church on issues such as abortion and same sex marriage. Turpin called these “moments of awakening”: when people casted off their Catholic identity. “They don’t want to be associated with [the Catholic Church] anymore,” he said.  

For the people I spoke to, their moments of awakening were driven by questions that they felt could not be answered by the Catholic Church, inspiring them to go on a spiritual quest to find their answers. These are the stories they told me. 

From Catholicism to Islam 

For Lorraine O’Connor shifting away from Catholicism came when she couldn’t find the answers to the questions she was looking for. She converted to Islam in 2005. 

O’Connor is now 57 years old. She is the founder and director of Muslims Sisters of Eire, an organization committed to helping those in need and promoting inclusion, diversity and women’s empowerment. When she is not developing religious education programs, participating in interfaith discussions or running the soup kitchen, she works from her office in South-West Dublin.

O’Connor has the kind of face that reveals the toll her work is taking on her: a vertical wrinkle deepens as she frowns and she has bags under her blue eyes. She wears a taupe pink hijab that covers her hair, and contrasts her black jeans and boots. 

Born in a Catholic, patriotic Irish family O’Connor grew up with a strong Catholic ethos. Her parents taught her early on about spiritualism: that there is someone to pray to, and “to fear the wrong and do the right.” “My mother used to be able to say to do good, you will have a blessing in this life or even the next life,” O’Connor recalled. “But to do bad, you need to be repentful.”

Praying and going to mass were central aspects of her life. In her late teens and early twenties, O’Connor said she attended conferences and went to mass almost every single night. “Except when I was at a club,” she said. “I’m not saying I wasn’t a little rebel.” At the same time, the spirituality she had been taught was omnipresent. “There was always a connection of knowing that there’s something else there,” O’Connor said. “So ‘What is there?’ was my question.”

As O’Connor grew older, she gradually became dissatisfied with the answers Catholicism gave to this question. “Am I praying to Jesus? Am I praying to God? Am I praying to the spirit?” she said she thought. O’Connor was confused by all the different versions of the Bible; by that you had to go to a priest to forgive you for your sins; by that priests couldn’t get married or have children; by that you had to be seven years old and wear a white dress for communion as a girl. And then there were the sexual abuse scandals of the Catholic Church. “There were just too many unanswered questions for me,” she said. 

In 1987, O’Connor met a man from Libya. “I was infatuated,” she said. “With the whole other being, the other person, the other language, the other color, the other religion: the other.” She fell in love and married him. That was the first time she ever heard about Islam other than what she would have seen growing up in the 80s. “To me, Islam connected with terrorism, because that’s what you see in the media.” 

When they had four daughters together, she wanted to provide them with some religious education. As she was no longer practicing Catholicism actively and given her husband’s faith, she decided to introduce them to Islam. “So I studied a little bit about it, to be able to give them, my daughters, some kind of backbone,” she said. But she wasn’t convinced just yet. 

In 2004, her marriage broke down and she got a divorce. “And then I was, like, at a kind of part of my life where it was dark,” she said. “I didn’t know which way to go. And I had four children. I was on my own.” She said that one night she found herself crying, and started reading the Quran. “And it was like, this is it,” she said. “And so I divorced a Muslim, and then I became a Muslim,” O’Connor said laughing. “It had to be for me, not for a man.” 

O’Connor said that in Islam she found her answers. “When I started looking really deeply into it, I was like, oh my God, this religion is absolutely beautiful,” she said. “You just want to pray, you want to have that connection with God.”

In comparison to the Bible, she added, the Quran has never been changed. The text is still the original text from over 1,400 years ago. “It’s about recognizing you know yourself and trying to discipline yourself to do good when in your life,” she said. “The biggest thing is don’t judge other people.”

Most of the time O’Connor’s organization receives positive reactions, but at times she faces difficulty running a Muslim women’s organization. Sometimes their Facebook posts get anti-Muslim reactions. Especially after Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, and the following war, O’Connor said tensions have increased. On a personal level, she has had similar experiences: she rarely speaks to her brothers, who aren’t practicing Catholics anymore, but did not approve of her choice to convert to Islam. She occasionally speaks to her sister, who still practices Christianity. Nevertheless, O’Connor never lost her ties to her Irish identity and her family history. She tries to transcend that attitude to her four daughters, who are all Muslim. “I want them to be very proud of their identity,” she said. “Yeah, you’re Muslim, but you’re also Irish.”

For O’Connor, Islam brought her to an end of the journey of what she was looking for. She said it has brought her completion, stability and a new purpose in life. “I’m very blessed,” she said. As the founder and director of Muslim Sisters of Eire she now tries to educate Irish people about Islam, and facilitates interfaith discussions. “Everything I do is for my religion,” she said. “I work to create a better understanding in the beauty of the real Islam.”

From Catholicism to Protestantism

For Dermot Dunne the conversion to a different religion also came at a later time in life. Dunne is the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin. He is now 65. Dunne has gray short hair and a trimmed beard. His friendly blue eyes are covered by a pair of black glasses. At the top of his black shirt a part of his white collar is visible. Despite being raised Catholic — and being ordained as a Catholic priest — Dunne converted to Protestantism in his 30s.

Born in 1959, Dunne grew up in Southern Ireland in a family of eight. His family attended church every Sunday, but wasn’t very religious in its traditions. In the 70s, when Dunne grew up, about 93.9% of the Irish population identified as Roman Catholic, according to Census data. When he was about 7 years old, Dunne started helping out his family by looking after his aunt, who was handicapped, and very religious. “One of her favorite occupations was going to church,” he said. “I think after that I was influenced by it.” 

Dunne said he was attracted to the spirituality of the rituals. “It drew me deeper into trying to understand who God is,’ he said. “And a search began to find within myself that depth of spirituality.”

He became an altar boy, went to church school and in secondary school, he decided that he wanted to follow the path of the church. Dunne was ordained a priest in 1984, when he was 25. It opened up a whole different world of how to approach religion, Dunne said. During seminary he was taught to recognize that everyone has an individual faith and spirituality. “That is what has been the guiding principle of my life ever since, that questioning and the quest for deepening spirituality,” he said.

Dunne started as a priest at the Roman Catholic Diocese of Cloyne, a rural parish, and a very devoted community. The community came to church every Sunday. For the first time he started hearing confessions of people. “In the confession box, I learned a lot about people’s lives and their faith,” Dunne said. “And how religion tended to be in millstone around the neck.” Dunne learned that especially sexuality was a huge issue for many: the issue of the Catholic Church and contraception, abortion and the general position of women in the church. Soon he became disillusioned. “I started questioning the whole position of human sexuality within the church,” Dunne said. “The church wasn’t developing in a way that I thought it should be.” 

Although Dunne enjoyed the preaching and executing the rituals, he became uneasy with being a priest. An inner conflict unraveled. “The agenda of being a priest was that you held the teachings of the church,” he said. “And I was having big doubts about the teaching at the church at the time.” For Dunne it was impossible to live a double life in which he pretended to believe something which he didn’t, he said. 

He got an opportunity to become a chaplain in the Whittington Hospital in London, and served two parishes, St. George’s Cathedral and St. Mary’s Church. In London, Dunne connected with different faiths: Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism and the Church of England. He shifted away from Catholicism further. “I began to understand my own spirituality as developing and going along the lines with anglicism,” he said. “Which doesn’t have the static dogma, but always interprets the Bible through experience.” 

Dunne left the active Catholic ministry, started working in an office job and began training as a psychotherapist. He felt that his journey, transitioning directly from school to seminary and then to parish as a priest, combined with his inner conflict, had left him emotionally stunted. “[I] needed an avenue to explore my own emotional life,” Dunne said. “That provided the balance and the grounding for developing my own spirituality.”

In his four years outside the ministry, working in a secular job, there were moments that Dunne felt that if he left Catholicism, God wouldn’t love him anymore. But gradually his relationship with God started to change. It became about the person he was, not what he chose in life. “That’s what caused me to move beyond where I was,” Dunne said.

Dunne, who had been a celibate as Catholic priest, married a woman and moved back to Ireland. Still, his quest to serve in ministry remained strong. He approached the Archbishop of the Church of Ireland. “All this time I was feeling that ministry was really what I wanted,” Dunne said. “We had a long conversation and he said to me ‘there’s nothing barring you from coming into the Anglican Church or being an Anglican priest.” Neither his family nor his siblings had any problem with him converting. Dunne was accepted into the church. He started as an assistant to the dean of the Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin, served Parishes in the Diocese of Ferns, to eventually return to Dublin and become the dean of Christ Church Cathedral himself in 2008. 

“I look back and think it’s the best decision I made in my life, apart from getting married,” Dunne said. “It was what I needed to do.” 

Dunne said his journey has changed his approach to faith. “The cathedral offers me this opportunity to meet people of all faiths and none, and accept them for who they are,” Dunne said. “We are all on a spiritual journey, in trying to make out what the world is about.” 

Dunne said that he wants to help people with developing their own language of spirituality. “The way I see my job. It’s not promoting a particular religion or a particular faith,” Dunne said. “It is to empower people to seek their own spirituality.” 

From Catholicism to Paganism 

Luke Eastwood started shifting away from Catholicism earlier than O’Connor and Dunne. Eastwood has blonde eyebrows, blue eyes and thin lips. He is almost bald and wears one ear knob in his left ear. In the back of his office hangs a guitar next to staples of books. Eastwood, who is now 54, grew up in Scotland with a Protestant mother and a Catholic father. His father wasn’t very religious, but when Eastwood was 11, and his father divorced his mother and married a Catholic woman, things started to change. 

“I went to Catholic school and started going to mass,” Eastwood said. He became increasingly interested in religion and became an altar boy in school. He started questioning his father on the meaning of life, the reasons to exist and how the universe got here, but wasn’t satisfied with the answers his father gave him. He couldn’t answer the questions Eastwood was asking. “What’s the point of being alive if none of it matters at all, you know?,” he said. “So I just thought, no, this can’t be the answer.”

In his teenage years, Eastwood started being frustrated about the church’s answers to the questions as well. “The priest consults a book they got from the Catholic Church that tells the answers to give you about all these problems,” he said. “I don’t think life is that simple.” In addition, Eastwood questioned the role the church had on sexuality. You know you can’t do anything. You mustn’t touch yourself. You mustn’t have sex. You mustn’t do anything, blah blah blah,” Eastwood said. “You have to wait for everything till you get married.” 

When Eastwood was 16, his uncle gave him a book about Buddhism and showed him how to meditate. Eastwood recalls himself sitting in his room, meditating with a candle when his stepmom walked in. She gave the books back to his uncle, but Eastwood was already shifting away. 

When he went to university, Eastwood tried out other religions. “So I thought, well, okay, I don’t want to be Catholic anymore, but what do I want to be?” Eastwood went to classes from Indian priests about Hinduism, studied Jewish mysticism, Islam, and Daoism. “All these things had elements of them which were very appealing. And some of them had elements that weren’t very appealing,” Eastwood said. “I wanted something that wasn’t full of, like, ridiculous rules.”

Eastwood moved to London, started being involved in the Greenpeace environmental organization and learned more about Paganism. “From a religious point of view it really worked in the mysticism around nature,” Eastwood said. “I think if I hadn’t done that, I think I would have become a Buddhist.” But he said being from this part of the world, he felt that Paganism fitted him better. 

To Eastwood the Pagan understanding of gods as being benevolent and capricious at the same time, in opposition to Catholicism, which sees God as all good and evil as the work of the devil, was appealing. “The reality of it is a lot more complex,” Eastwood said. “I’m much into what you call Gnosticism,” he added. “Where you have a direct relationship with whatever you think God is.” In other religions, he said, there is someone in between. “There is a priest who’s telling you what to think, what to say, what to do, how to do it, when to do it,” Eastwood said. “Who’s to say I can’t just decide how I want to interact with whatever God is?”  

Eastwood married a woman who had also converted from Catholicism to Paganism. Her parents were devoted Catholics, and opposed Paganism – Eastwood and his wife got married in church. They got a daughter together, who was raised “nominally Catholic” because of her grandparents, and moved to Ireland. Eventually, their marriage did not hold. 

Eastwood executes his religion through daily prayers, invocations and meditations. During larger moments such as the lunar cycle, the full moon celebration or equinoxes he tries to make a moment of it. For him the most important thing is to try to do something good with his life, to try to make an impact, through action rather than words. “I wouldn’t say Paganism is better than any other religion. It suits me,” he said. “And I feel that I’m more able to be a better person through this religion.”

Eastwood is happy with the decision he made. “If I’d stayed Catholic, I think I would have been very frustrated and unhappy,” he said. “I think it’s harder to do a good job of being a good person if you’re unhappy, you know?”

Eastwood added that within every religion there are good and bad people, and it doesn’t really matter which religion you follow. “It’s more down to your own ethics and how you interpret your faith, you know,” he said. More importantly, he added, it’s about the question of who you want to be and what you want to do with your life. “I suppose there’s a different answer for every human being, you know,” Eastwood said. “But I think ultimately, maybe that’s part of our purpose is to find out what we’re here for.”