The Unanswered Questions: Why Three Former Irish Catholics Converted

DUBLIN - For 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."

An Afternoon of Katha

PLAINVIEW, N.Y. — The voice of the priest at the Sikh center grew louder on a recent Sunday afternoon as he delivered his final message. 

“God doesn’t reside in the room; God resides within us,” he said. 

As he spoke, the Guru Gobind Singh Sikh Center on Long Island was filled with approximately 200 people. After the children’s teachings had finished in the nearby school, it was time for adults to listen to the sermon, known to Sikhs as Katha. 

The members of the congregation sat cross-legged on the soft red velvet carpet that covered the ground of the large space. Women, dressed in robes and colorful scarves, sat left. Men, with long beards and turbans, sat right. In the middle of the space stood an altar where the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book, lies. At one side, a man, dressed in a white robe with an orange turban on the top of his head, delivered Katha. 

Katha can also be described as the oral delivery of the teachings of Sikhism. It means “to describe and to help someone understand,” said Satleen Kaur, a 24-year-old law student at St. John’s University, translating the words of the head priest, Giani Amarjit Singh, aged 57. Even explaining the meaning of Katha is Katha, the head priest added. Every Friday and Sunday, the priests in the Plainview Gurdwara at 1065 Old Country Road share historical or everyday context through which the teachings can be understood.  

On the walls hung several screens, on which a single line, appearing in the Guru Granth Sahib, was projected in Punjabi, accompanied by its phonetic and English translation. “This is the blessed opportunity of this human incarnation,” the screen read. This was the line the priest focused on. 

“It’s about recognizing that God is within you too and to never forget God: the one that created the universe and the one that created you,” Kaur said. “There may be differences between us all, but at the end of the day God still resides in us all no matter what.”

The priest built up his sentences, sometimes he spoke with a bouldering voice. Other times, he spoke softer, with long pauses. He switched between Punjabi and English, but spoke Punjabi most of the time.

Harwinder Singh, 22, is a consultant for Mastercard and explained that the changes in language are to make Katha more accessible for those who do not speak Punjabi. Singh said that the style of every priest is different: some only use historical context to explain certain lines, others strictly use everyday examples. 

The Guru Grant Sahib, the holy book, consists of poetry and music, but does not explain the meaning or historical background of the lines. Therefore, the contextualization of the holy scriptures must be done through scholars who have extensively researched the scriptures, Singh added. By spending an hour on every line, the readings are contextualized to understand the historical background and learn how to apply it to one's life. 

The men and women listened quietly. Sometimes they nodded. Sometimes they exchanged whispers. 

The teaching that day focused on the idea that God is within oneself. But in order to reach him, one must be attentive and intentional, Singh translated from the priest’s words. “If you want to do service, your mind should be with it,” Singh said. “If you do it for 5 minutes and go home, it does not work.” The decisions you make should not be just performative, Singh added. The priest used an example of a dirty house. In a dirty house, you cannot pay attention to what is holy within yourself, Singh translated. 

After an hour of Katha, the people moved downstairs to do seva, the selfless service part of Sikhism. Both children and adults cooked, cleaned and served food. It is part of a learning process, said Kaur. When we left, the kitchen was almost spotless, acknowledging the words of the priest. 

Observing the Akhand Path: A 48-Hour-Long Reading of Sikhism’s Holy Book at a Temple in Queens

NEW YORK — In the heart of Woodside, Queens, a pink building stands out against the gray January sky. The busy road outside contrasts the serenity inside the building. The Shri Guru Ravi Dass Temple is a Sikh temple, but here, next to praying to Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, people pray for Guru Ravidas, a holy figure known in Sikhism for his rejection of the caste system. It is the only Ravi Dass temple in New York City, and it is located at 6101 Broadway in Woodside, Queens.

On a Saturday afternoon in January, the large space is filled with three men sitting in a circle on a blue and white carpet. A Sikh altar – a palki sahib – stands in the center. Paintings of holy figures decorate the walls. Downstairs, the sharp smell of onions tickles the eyes as people are doing seva, the ritual of selfless service to stand for equality, show humility and help others. Anyone who visits the temple may enjoy a meal made by the volunteers. 

In the corner next to the large altar sits Amar Jipt Singh in a distinct space, wearing a yellow turban. His lips, almost hidden in his long white beard, move soundlessly as he shifts his head from left to right, reading the poetry that guides Sikhs in living a faithful life. 

Today, January 27th, marks the second day of the 48-hour reading of the holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib. The ritual is executed in honor of major life events, such as marriages, funerals or births. The reading today is in honor of the birthday of Baba Deep Singh, a martyr from the 18th century who devoted his life to the teachings of Sikhism. The continuous, uninterrupted reading of the holy book is called the Akhand Path and is executed by a team of granthis, ceremonial readers, who each read for two hours. 

When two women enter the temple and pray in front of Jipt Singh, he raises his voice and the rhythmic words of the Guru Granth Sahib become audible. As the women drop to their knees, Jipt Singh’s deep, low voice fills the room.

The prayer is not meant for Jipt Singh but is a way of paying respect to the holy book, Jipt Singh says after he finishes his reading shift. A young man has taken his place reading the book. “The Granth Sahib serves as a guide to human beings on how to live their life, to control desires and greediness,” he says. Jipt Singh, who is 72, was born in Moga, in India, but moved to New York in 2002. He recently retired from being a taxi driver and cashier at a gas station. With a cup of chai in his right hand, Jipt Singh describes what it means to read the Granth Sahib. “When you are reading and concentrating, you can get a happy peaceful mind,” Jipt Singh says. “But if you’re reading and you think about your car, then it means nothing.” 

Not everyone is able to concentrate so deeply, he adds; sometimes his own mind also wanders off. But Jipt Singh says that is okay, as no one can judge what is going on in your mind. He will continue his reading in four hours, from 7-9 p.m., and from 1-3 a.m. 

The young man who has taken the place of Jipt Singh continues muttering the Punjabi words written in the ancient book soundlessly. Tomorrow morning the last part of the reading will be done, and the Shri Guru Ravi Dass temple will be filled with 200-300 people who come together to sing, pray and eat, and celebrate the life of Baba Deep Singh. 

For Irish Muslims, Eid al-Fitr is a ‘Mixture of Happiness and Sadness,’ As All Eyes on Gaza

DUBLIN (RNS) — The Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland was decorated with festive lights on the inside and outside as Ali Selim was getting ready for the morning prayers on Wednesday (April 10), to celebrate the Muslim holy day of Eid al-Fitr. In the corners of the center, stations with sweets and tea and coffee were set up. Outside, smoke wafted out of white tents where vendors had gathered to sell food. Muslims from all over Dublin gathered after a night of celebrating Eid, which marks the end of Ramadan’s month of fasting, prayer and charity. 

This year, however, the normally festive celebrations of Eid held a bitterness to them — as in Muslim communities around the world, the month of Ramadan had been shaped by the ongoing war in Gaza. It’s been an omnipresent topic in the mosque, said Selim, an Irish theologian and spokesperson for the Islamic Cultural Centre in Dublin.

“Eid is usually a day that is marked with happiness and joy,” Selim said. “But the mind can never be clear from the sadness over what is happening in Gaza.”

For six months, as the war between Israel and Hamas has raged in Gaza, Irish Muslims, some with family in Gaza, have lived in daily fear as the death toll in Gaza has mounted, surpassing 32,000, according to Gaza’s Ministry of Health.

“Every night we had to offer condolences to someone who lost a family member in Gaza,” Selim said. “Tomorrow (the morning after Eid), they will be with us. It will be very unique in the sense that it is sadness and rejoice at the same time.”

Selim had been hopeful as many around the world called for a cease-fire during Ramadan. “Everybody hoped that the crisis would be over,” he said of the war that began in the aftermath of the Hamas attacks on Israel Oct. 7, which left an estimated 1,200 Israelis and foreigners dead and 250 taken hostage in Gaza.

A mural in solidarity with Palestinians painted by Irish artist Emmalene Blake in Rathmines, Dublin, Ireland, March 11, 2024. (Photo by Meghnad Bose)

On March 25, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution that demanded a cease-fire during Ramadan. On the same day, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres asked for a massive aid supply, with officials estimating that more than half a million people in Gaza are “one step away from famine.” No cease-fire was ever implemented during Ramadan.

Selim said that over the course of Ramadan, the Islamic Centre raised funds for people in Gaza and organized talks every night to heighten awareness of what is happening there. Several members of the congregation traveled to Gaza during Ramadan to deliver medical aid and returned with testimonies of the situation on the ground.

The purpose of Ramadan fasting, Selim said, is to “share the feeling with those who are deprived or marginalized.” This year, the “deprived or marginalized” on everyone’s mind are those in Gaza. Leaders of Muslim countries around the world made references to Gaza in their Ramadan announcements.

“There wasn’t a single day that Gaza was not part of our prayers,” Selim said.

It was not just Selim who focused his prayers on Gaza this Ramadan in Dublin, where just under half of Ireland’s more than 80,000 Muslims live.

“This Ramadan I think is more special than any Ramadan because of what’s happening in Gaza,” Lorraine O’Connor said. “We relate to what is happening to our brothers and sisters there.”

Lorraine O’Connor. (Video screen grab)

O’Connor is the founder and director of Muslim Sisters of Eire, a nonprofit organization in Dublin. With her organization, she provides a soup kitchen for the homeless of Dublin every week, provides educational training about Islam and aims for more dialogue between different religions. O’Connor was raised as a Catholic but converted to Islam in 2005.

Islam is the third-fastest-growing religion in Ireland, with the number of Muslims in Ireland growing 32% between 2016 and 2022

Ramadan has been different from the start this year, said O’Connor.

Normally, she said, Ramadan prayers are for personal forgiveness, or for your family and friends. O’Connor said that she had been suffering from a chest problem and prayed for it to be over during the first evening of Ramadan. But doing so, she said that she immediately wanted to shift the focus of her prayer to the people in Gaza. “I felt a little bit selfish,” O’Connor said. “You want to turn your focus on the genocide that’s happening.”

The Muslim Sisters of Eire has organized several evenings this month to raise awareness and funds for people in Gaza, she said.

At Trinity College Dublin, Ruman Riaz of the Muslim Students Association has tried to raise awareness as well. Riaz is 23 and originally from Kashmir, India, a place where Muslims have had long-standing tensions with the Indian government. Riaz said he finds it frustrating that despite the efforts his organization and others are making, there are few changes.

“There is a sense of helplessness, you know, we can’t really do anything,” Riaz said. At the same time, the solidarity of Muslims for Gaza makes the community grow stronger, he said. We all pray together for them, fundraise for them, and that just makes us even closer.”

The last 10 nights of Ramadan are believed to carry more reward than any day before, especially Laylat al-Qadr, the “Night of Power,” which this year fell on April 6. Muslims pray and ask for forgiveness the whole night of Laylat al-Qadr. Some do it privately at home and some attend congregations in mosques, Riaz explained.

“In mosques we usually end our prayers with a long supplication of asking God for forgiveness collectively,” Riaz said. “I’m pretty sure that every mosque will pray for Gaza.”

The faithful came to the Islamic Cultural Centre early Wednesday to sing the seven takbirs, or glorifications of God, until the time of the Eid prayer. The prayer was followed by a word from the imam, who began his Eid sermon by congratulating the community on finishing their fast. Then he turned to the continuing suffering in Gaza. Selim called his message “a mixture of happiness and sadness.”

“And it’s a mixture of thinking of those killed and those who are still threatened with death,” Selim said. “It’s a crazy situation.”

Ali Selim, right, speaks to Columbia Journalism School students on the first day of Ramadan, March 11, 2024, at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland in Dublin. (Photo by Ari Goldman)

The Islamic Centre organized two prayer gatherings for the morning of Eid. Each attracted approximately 3,000 people, according to Selim. Selim added that, despite everything, there was still a festive mood.

“I saw somebody from Gaza this morning. I know he lost extended family members,” Selim said. The man said to Selim that some had managed to go back to where their houses had once been, and though they live in tents now, they have managed to connect water.

“Their message is ‘You can’t finish us, we will rebuild what they have destroyed,’” Selim said.

First published in Religion News Service.

Day Seven: History, Hope and Homecoming 

BELFAST - The last day of our trip through Ireland started again with a traditional Irish breakfast in the Europa Hotel. The rainy, gray morning skies of Belfast contrasted the occasional green on the streets: a reminder that it was the eve of St. Patrick’s Day. Our class departed each our own way as our day was dedicated to individual reporting and some sightseeing.

Dina Katgara went to Best of 3, a live comedy show at the Black Box in Belfast, to report on comedians who weave the aftermath of the Troubles into comedy. It gave her a thought-provoking perspective into how people in Northern Ireland cope with stereotypes about religion, as well as trauma. There were some dark jokes that we have come to expect from Irish humor. One of the comedians held up his favorite toilet paper brand, Regina Blitz, and made a joke about cleaning up the blood from Bloody Sunday with it.

Renata Carlos Daou interviewed an asylum seeker from Iraq who works as a photojournalist in Belfast. They talked about his experience as a Muslim and immigrant in a country that still predominantly consists of both Catholics and Protestants. 

Natalie Demaree and Genevieve Charles spent the day reporting in County Down at a St. Patrick’s Day Prayer pilgrimage. More than 150 people from all over the world attended the rainy two-mile walk from Saul Church, the first church in Ireland, to Down Cathedral, where St. Patrick’s tombstone is located. This pilgrimage has roots dating back to the 1950s and was led by a combined clergy of both Catholics and Protestants. The walk was followed by a church service at Down Cathedral where both Catholics and Protestants participated.

Other students explored Belfast and other areas in Northern Ireland. Daniel O’Connor wandered around the city and was intrigued by the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) paramilitary murals he stumbled upon at Donegall Pass in South Belfast. After wandering through a few blocks in the quiet neighborhood, O’Connor crossed the train tracks and soon realized he was back in a Catholic neighborhood, just by seeing a Palestinian flag and a Gaelic school. 

Photo by Daniel O’Connor

Samuel Shepherd visited a recently completed mural on a peace wall — or, more accurately, a separation wall — in the predominantly Catholic area of Falls Road. It conveyed a poem by the late Palestinian poet Rafaat, who was killed in an Israeli airstrike in December. One section of the mural portrayed a child with a shamrock T-shirt, a child with a Palestinian keffiyeh and a girl with a South African flag holding hands in solidarity. On the other side of the wall, the West Belfast Cultural Society commissioned a placard honoring the close political friendship between the United Kingdom and Israel. While these etchings were physically close to each other on the wall, they were worlds apart in messaging.

Photo by Samuel Eli Shepherd

Meanwhile, Katie Moody, Meghnad Bose and Trisha Mukherjee took a bus tour along the northern coast of the country. Driving by shining green pastures and a turquoise ocean rippling with waves, our reporters were overwhelmed by the beauty of Northern Ireland. They saw natural sites that appeared as settings in the popular HBO series "Game of Thrones." They also visited an Irish whiskey distillery and saw the outline of Scotland in the distance. Eventually, they arrived at the Giant’s Causeway, a seemingly magical area with basalt columns formed by an ancient volcanic eruption. An Irish legend tells another story, of a giant named Finn McCool who built a path to cross the Irish Sea to face the Scottish giant Benandonner, his rival. Benandonner, afraid of the meeting, ripped up the path and fled back to Scotland — leaving the scene as how it looks today. Despite the rain and wind, walking along the cliffs and the many stairs of the Giant’s Causeway was one of the highlights of their time in Ireland.

Photo by Meghnad Bose 

I dedicated my last day to interviewing people who experienced personal loss during the Troubles. It was part of an article I am writing about a law enacted by the British government in September. It says that Troubles-related inquests that are not finished by May 1 will be shut down. During my time in Derry and Belfast, I spoke to both loyalists and Republicans on their losses. 

In the morning, I sat down in the Piano Bar of the Europa Hotel with Susanne McKerr, whose grandfather John was killed by the British Army during the Ballymurphy massacre. “Regardless of who the perpetrator was, what the incident was, what your identity is, the trauma is the same for us all,” said McKerr. 

I then headed down to southwest Belfast, which is one of the Catholic hubs of the city. I interviewed Paul Crawford, whose father was killed by the UVF in 1974. In 1977, a man with UVF connections was arrested for the murder of his father, but it was only last year that Crawford received an acknowledgement that the UVF was responsible. After an hour of talking, Crawford showed me around the Catholic neighborhood, home to one of the hunger strikers during the Troubles.

Photo by Indy Scholtens

During my journey back to the Europa Hotel, I crossed the “peace walls,” which flew Palestinian flags. I thought about the aftermath of the conflict in Northern Ireland and how it relates to ongoing conflict today  — the intergenerational trauma, the mental health struggles and substance abuse problems individuals told me about. It made me contemplate: Do we as journalists report on the aftermath of conflict enough? What does it mean to go back to normal? 

In the late afternoon, Dr. William Kitchen, a member of the political party Traditionalist Unionist Voice and an acquaintance of our guide Dr. Barbara McDade, came to the Europa Hotel to speak to some of us about the economics of Northern Ireland and the process of integration in the education system. Kitchen discussed the complexities of reaching a stable peace in Northern Ireland due to ongoing conflicting ideologies and economic conditions.

That evening, the class reunited for dinner at Deanes restaurant, where we were accompanied by Dr. Gladys Ganiel, who is a professor in the sociology of religion at Queen’s University Belfast. Ganiel talked about trends of religion and secularism in Ireland, after which we enjoyed our three-course meal in the private backroom of the restaurant. 

During dinner we each shared our most significant moment from the trip, and we toasted our fellow classmates and faculty. Dr. McDade ended our evening by reading a poem by Seamus Heaney about war and peace: 

Human beings suffer,
They torture one another,
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured

History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that further shore
Is reachable from here.

Believe in miracle
And cures and healing wells.

After a week traveling in Ireland and Northern Ireland, we learned about religious identity, conflict and the rocky path to reconciliation from a wide variety of speakers and local residents. The poem was a powerful reminder of the responsibility for us as journalists and storytellers to bear witness to other people’s stories and, while hoping for a “great sea-change”  in the future, to keep on reaching for that further shore.

Edited by Samuel Eli Shepherd