In Belfast, Catholic Artists Support Palestinians With Transformed Murals

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — The walls that separate the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods of this Northern Irish city are officially known as the Peace Walls, not so much because they are peaceful places but because they have historically helped keep the peace in a divided city. Muralists have used these walls as a canvas to express political causes both local and international. 

With a war raging in Gaza between Israel and Hamas, the Irish have largely taken the side of the Palestinians. They have done this both politically and artistically. One such project is called “Painting for Palestine.” It uses images originally made by Palestinian artists that have been recreated here in Belfast by Irish artists and volunteers.

These images occupy a 160-foot section of a Peace Wall known as the International Wall. To create the project, artists spent about seven weeks painting over several older murals that commemorated the 30-year period of Irish history known as The Troubles. The finished “Painting for Palestine” project was unveiled on March 3.

The project includes 12 murals, each with a different scene. In one, a man in a keffiyeh hugs a child in front of destroyed buildings. In another, fireworks light up over a city. A third mural shows two small children, painted in black and white, sitting in shock. 

“Painting for Palestine” was inspired in part by Irish muralist Danny Devenny, who painted the famous Bobby Sands mural on the side of Sinn Fein’s Belfast office. 

For months, even before Oct. 7, Devenny had been seeing artwork online by Middle Eastern artists that supported Palestine. 

The work of these artists, Devenny said, came “from the heart.”

“These images were so hauntingly beautiful,” he said. “They were dealing with issues of death and destruction.”

Devenny began by sharing the Middle Eastern artists’ work on social media with his followers, but then decided he could have an even bigger impact.

“Instead of just sharing their images on Facebook, why don’t we paint their images on our wall?” he said. “Our wall is photographed daily. There’s thousands of people, tourists come here from all over the world.”

Devenny’s hope was that the tourists would take their photos home and share the images of the wall — along with their support for Palestinians — with their friends and family.

‘Giving Them a Space To Say It’: How ‘Painting for Palestine’ Came Together

While Devenny was figuring out how to make his idea a reality, a Palestinian artist reached out to Bill Rolston, a retired sociology professor at Ulster University and a mural expert, with a similar idea.

The artist, Rana Hammoudeh, first saw the Peace Walls when she visited Belfast in August 2023. She was inspired by the International Wall to create a similar wall in Palestine, with artists from all over the world participating in the project. 

“Then Oct. 7 happened,” Rolston said. “Everything went pear-shaped. Her plan was out the window.”

Around December, Devenny decided he wanted to use the artwork of Palestinians specifically, rather than general art that supports Palestine. 

“I thought to myself, a lot of these images we’re looking at on the Internet and Facebook, they’re not all by Palestinian artists,” Devenny said. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could get Palestinian stuff and just show their work?”

The Irish people have felt a connection to Palestinians for decades, “because of a collective memory,” Rolston said. 

“Palestine and Ireland’s stories weave in and out of each other in various ways,” he added. “[There are] so many similarities between settler colonialism in Elizabethan Ireland and in 1940s to 1960s Palestine, including that the proportion of settlers at the time of partition was almost identical in each case.”

A car drives by the “Painting for Palestine” murals on Divis Street in West Belfast. (Photo by Ann W. Schmidt)

The two groups also had similarities in their resistance. Including that the early Provisional IRA trained alongside the PLO in the early 1970s, Rolston said.  

Despite their similarities, Rolston said that doesn’t mean the Irish artists should have been the ones creating their own artwork to support Palestine. 

“People who go through similar political struggles in the world, other people’s struggles resonate with them, but it is only a resonance.” Rolston said. “It’s not the same experience.”

“If we do it, who knows what words we’re putting in people’s mouths, as it were,” Rolston added. “Things that were supremely important to us, may not have been supremely important to them… And also, the real risk is that we’d be patronizing in some way or other, even totally inadvertently.”

In order to get Palestinians’ artwork, Rolston reached back out to Hammoudeh, who was back in Palestine, for help. 

“Rana burst into action and within a couple of days, we had a whole pile of stuff,” Rolston said. 

That was around Christmas 2023, Rolston said. Devenny and other muralists decided to start the actual painting soon after the new year. 

“Within days of us setting up at the corner of the Falls Road, we had dozens of people coming along and volunteering,” Devenny said.

A black cab tour pauses in front of the “Painting for Palestine” murals in the Catholic neighborhood in West Belfast. (Photo by Ann W. Schmidt)

Rolston said the support from the community was “spectacular.” 

“I think maybe the best of all was the buy-in from all sorts of groups in the community,” Rolston said.

A man who runs a printing business made copies of the artwork so the painters could have physical prints for templates. A local business catered food for the unveiling. A community center across the street from the wall gave the painters and volunteers full use of their bathrooms and space to warm up when it was cold outside. And the paint shop up the road sold paint at cost price, Rolston said. 

“And so on and so on,” Rolston said. “The closeness of the community, that meant that’s the way they reacted.”

In the end, Painting for Palestine included 12 murals, painted by three expert muralists and dozens of volunteers, Rolston said. When it was unveiled, there was a celebration with music and interviews with TV stations. 

Rolston said he loved the Painting for Palestine project for two reasons. 

“Firstly, this is not what we think of Palestine,” he said. “This is what Palestinians think of Palestine. So we’re just giving them a space to say it. The second is that there were over 30 people involved at some point or other in painting those 12 murals. Only three of them were muralists.”

None of the other people involved were painters, Rolston said. 

“And yet, with guidance and support and a bit of clean up afterwards, they got it together,” he said. “To me, it’s a wonderful message to say, look, you can do this. Collectively, you can do this. You don’t need to be experts. What you need is to have an expert or two with you and you can do it. So I love that aspect of it.”

‘Are You With Us?’: Political Murals in Belfast 

Despite a light drizzle on a Friday morning in March, tourists still stop by the Bobby Sands mural on Falls Road, right on the corner of Sevastopol Street. 

Sands’ face fills the entire side wall of the building, where Sinn Fein has its offices in Belfast. 

This mural was painted by Devenny in 1998 to memorialize Sands, a member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army who was elected as a member of parliament in 1981, one month before he died while on hunger strike in a British prison. 

Visitors gather in front of the Bobby Sands mural on the Falls Road in Belfast. (Photo by Ann W. Schmidt)

Devenny got his start as an artist when he was in prison. He had been arrested for robbing a bank for the IRA in 1973. He started drawing political cartoons that would get smuggled out of the prison to be printed in newspapers. 

Later, other artists started recreating his cartoons and drawings on walls around Belfast. The murals became popular. Devenny realized that his work of creating and disseminating artwork would be much easier if he just painted the images on walls.

“What I realized was murals, you get a couple of tins of paint, you get a gabled wall, you paint the image on the wall,” Devenny said. “All the newspapers and all the camera crews, all the television crews come.”

They either take photographs or videos of the murals — and the message the muralist is trying to send — and that message gets disseminated to people all over the world, Devenny said. 

So Devenny started to paint murals himself. 

Rolston first became interested in political murals in 1981, during the hunger strikes. Before that, Rolston said, there weren’t many murals made by Irish Republicans. The murals were mostly done by Unionists — though he wasn’t aware of them at the time. 

“In the spring of ‘81, some young people just up the road from here began painting murals and the whole thing burgeoned,” Rolston said. “Probably 300 murals in that spring and summer of 1981, where there hadn’t been murals before.”

Rolston started photographing the murals. 

Even after the hunger strikes were over, Republicans continued to paint murals, so Rolston continued to photograph them. Rolston later learned about the Unionist tradition of murals, so he started photographing them, too. 

The earliest murals in Northern Ireland’s history were mostly Protestant, according to the Imperial War Museum. Nationalist, or Republican murals started after the hunger strikes. 

Today, there are an estimated 700 murals in Belfast, according to Extramural Activity, a blog documenting murals and street art in Northern Ireland.

But when it comes to political murals, not just street art, Rolston has a rigid definition. 

“They have to be articulated as political,” Rolston said. “And secondly, it has to be done as part of a movement, even a putative movement. You know, you’re part of a collective or you’re doing it for the collective and not just to say, ‘Hey, look at how good I am.’”

Globally, political murals have one main purpose, according to Rolston.

“Political murals, throughout the world, are about drawing support,” he said. “They’re about saying to an audience passing by, that this is where we stand. Are you with us?”

On a Friday morning, the Painting for Palestine murals were achieving their purpose. 

Across the street, dozens of tourists had stepped out of their black taxis and tour buses. They took photos and chatted with their guides about the paintings. And whenever the tourists went home, their photos and stories went with them — maybe even to be shared with others. 

When Walls Break Barriers: How an Artist’s Murals in Ireland Forged a Life-Saving Friendship From Dublin to Gaza

DUBLIN — Kneeling down on the ground, Palestinian journalist Samia Alatrash wrapped her arms around the lifeless body of her two-year-old niece Masa. Israel’s bombing of Rafah in southern Gaza had killed Masa, her four-year-old sister Lina, and both their parents — in one day. October 21, 2023.

As images of Samia hugging the tiny shroud were beamed across the world, more than 4,000 kilometers away in Dublin, it prompted Irish artist Emmalene Blake to pick up her colors and paint murals of Samia and Masa.

Samia Alatrash holding the lifeless body of her 2-year-old niece Masa (left, photograph posted by Mahmoud Bassam), Irish artist Emmalene Blake painting a mural in Dublin based on the photograph (right, screengrab from video posted by Emmalene Blake)

What followed was the forging of a friendship between two strangers halfway across the world, from Dublin to Gaza. Now, more than five months later, that unlikely connection is what has proved instrumental in helping 26-year-old Samia finally evacuate Gaza and escape the war that has killed so many members of her family.

This is the story of their friendship, from Ireland to Palestine, and how it helped save Samia’s life.


The Night Samia Prayed Endlessly

Samia remembers the night of October 20, 2023, all too well, and painfully.

It was almost a fortnight into the war, and Israeli forces were bombing Samia’s hometown of Rafah. Samia says she couldn’t get in touch with her sister, Samar, after 11 p.m., when the bombing intensified.

“They were bombing everywhere, so no one could get to my sister’s house,” she recalls in an interview over the phone.

Terrified, Samia began to pray. “From 11 p.m. to 6 a.m., I was praying to Allah, can this bombing stop?” She couldn’t sleep. All she did was think about her sister Samar and her nieces Masa and Lina. “It was so difficult, it’s not fair. I was waiting for the morning, to go and hug them.” 

But the morning would only confirm Samia’s worst fears. “Around 7 o’clock, I found out that I have lost all of them — my sister, Samar; my beautiful nieces, Masa and Lina; and my sister’s husband, Dr. Loay Khader. I felt that I had lost a part of my heart, my soul.”

Samar had helped raise Samia and their brother, Mohammad, after their mother died when Samia was only six years old. Even months after Samar’s passing, Samia struggles to speak of her sister in the past tense.

“Samar is not only my sister, she is my mother and my friend. With her death, I felt for the first time that I am orphaned. I cannot imagine that I have lost them forever. I want to hug them, and go on a picnic with them.”

As Samia embraced Masa, unwilling to let her go, photographers nearby clicked what has become one of the defining images of the ongoing war. 

When Irish artist Emmalene Blake saw the photograph, it moved her deeply. “I keep crying the last couple of weeks. It’s all I can think about,” she told a friend.

Emmalene, who teaches art, design and mathematics to early school leavers, was so moved by the image that it made her want to paint Samia and Masa on a wall in Dublin. And so, the 36-year-old artist picked up her spray paints, reimagined the photograph, and recreated it as a mural in the city’s Harold Cross neighborhood. 

The only change she had made to the photo: The shroud covering Masa was painted as a Palestinian flag.

News of the mural in Dublin traveled far and wide, and a picture of Emmalene's artwork reached Samia. In early November, on an Instagram video of Emmalene painting the mural, Samia wrote in memory of her niece, “My heart is broken without you.”

Touched by her artwork, Samia also reached out to Emmalene. "You painted me and my sweet niece Masa," she told her. 

Emmalene recalls, “I told her I’ll sell t-shirts and sweatshirts and try and raise funds for her.”

Samia was beyond grateful. She says Emmalene was the first person to connect with her during the war and offer to help her.

In the face of unspeakable tragedy, Samia had found what felt like a personal solidarity across borders. And so, in those most unfortunate of circumstances, the Palestinian journalist and the Irish artist forged a friendship.

“I talk to her pretty much everyday now,” says Emmalene.


Mission Evacuation

Emmalene and Samia would keep in touch regularly, and Samia would update her friend about the situation in Rafah. It was rarely good news, but one day, Emmalene noticed that Samia seemed especially fearful.

“She got in touch with me and said there was a family 10 meters from where she was staying that was bombed and killed. And she was getting really scared.”

Upon getting that SOS from Samia, Emmalene sent over the funds she had raised till then by selling copies of her artwork on Palestine. They hoped that the amount would be enough for Samia to evacuate Gaza.

By then, Samia’s other surviving relatives had decided they wanted to escape from Gaza, too. That would need more funds.

Emmalene was ready to double down on her efforts, and she wasn’t alone.

Emmalene Blake, the Irish artist who has painted several murals expressing solidarity with Palestine on the walls of Dublin, wearing a ‘Free Palestine’ T-shirt (Photo by Meghnad Bose)

She says, “I was getting messages from a few different people on Instagram about how they could help Samia. So we set up a WhatsApp group with everyone who wanted to help with evacuations of Samia and her family.”

Soon, there were around 10 people in the group, from Ireland and Palestine, all involved in planning and coordinating the efforts to relocate Samia and her family out of Gaza.

Emmalene said, “At the moment, we’re trying to raise funds for her brother and her cousin and her cousin’s family and her uncle to evacuate as well.”

“What's the WhatsApp group called?” I asked Emmalene.

“Evacuations,” she replied.

At the time of writing this, ‘Help The Alatrash Family Evacuate’, the fundraiser organized by Emmalene, has received more than 370 donations, and raised over $33,000 for Samia's family.

The fundraiser for Samia’s family (Photo courtesy: Screengrab/GoFundMe)


Leaving Home Behind

When I met Emmalene in Dublin in mid-March, she had said that Samia was “just waiting now for her name to be called at the border.” 

She was waiting to flee the war. And as she waited, she would often break into tears. “I was crying, crying, crying… all the time.”

After waiting for weeks on end, hoping against hope that her name would be next, Samia’s name was finally called earlier this week.

On Sunday, April 7, at around half past seven in the morning, she got on a bus in Rafah and began the journey away from the place she had always called home — Gaza.

Almost 24 hours later, at around 5 am on Monday, she reached Nasr City in Egypt.

“I am so confused… I don’t know how I feel,” she tells me hours after her arrival in Nasr City. 

She says, “I am feeling sad because I am leaving Rafah, because I am leaving my family, my only brother, my grandmother…I am so, so sad.”

She hopes that her 20-year-old brother Mohammad will also be able to evacuate to Egypt. Emmalene and the others are working on it, but none of them know how long the process could take.

Nasr City is a little over 300 kilometers away from Rafah. But the distance feels much longer for Samia. She mourns the loss of leaving where she belongs, “I don’t have a home now because it was destroyed.”

She says she hopes this is her chance for a life “without bombing, without genocide, without killing.” And she looks forward to getting back to working as a freelance journalist.


The Irish Bond With Palestine

In Ireland, Emmalene isn’t an exception when it comes to expressing a strong solidarity with Palestine. The country has had a deep history of support for the Palestinian cause.

Ahead of St. Patrick’s Day last month, at a meeting between then-Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) Leo Varadkar and US President Joe Biden, the Irish leader said, “As you know, the Irish people are deeply troubled about the catastrophe that’s unfolding before our eyes in Gaza.” 

He added, “When I travel the world, leaders often ask me why the Irish have such empathy for the Palestinian people. And the answer is simple — we see our history in their eyes. A story of displacement, of dispossession, and national identity questioned and denied, forced immigration, discrimination, and now hunger.”

“We were occupied by Britain for 400 years, so we definitely have a kinship or solidarity with Palestine,” says Emmalene. She compares the Great Famine of the 1840s, when Ireland faced years of hunger during British rule, to the current widespread starvation in Gaza.

Speaking of the Irish famine, she says, “The potato crops failed, but there was plenty of other food. But Britain was shipping all of the meat and all of the other food out of Ireland into Britain. So the famine wasn't a famine, it was a genocide.” Around a million Irish people are estimated to have died during the famine, and millions more emigrated from the island.

Comparing it to the situation unfolding in Gaza, Emmalene says, “Hunger is being used as a weapon of war at the moment. They're not letting the aid in. It's a man-made famine.”

“They can feel my pain,” says Samia. “I have received so many messages from people in Ireland, they send me voice notes in support. That makes me feel stronger. I love them because they are supporting me and the people in Gaza. The people in Ireland are with the people in Gaza, every day, every night.”


What the Two Friends Hope For

Upon reaching Nasr, Samia reunited with her cousin Soha, who had managed to evacuate a couple of days earlier. The two of them recorded a video for Emmalene and the others who had helped them flee Gaza. Soha began, “Hi Emma, Ciara and everyone, this is the hotel we are staying in…” Samia looked on and smiled.

In Egypt’s Nasr City, Samia (right) and her cousin Soha recording a video update for Emmalene and the others who have helped them evacuate from Gaza (Photo: Screengrab/Instagram)

Emmalene shared the video on Instagram and wrote, “Samia is out! We have them booked into this hotel in Nasr City in Egypt for a few more nights until we can get an apartment sorted where they can wait for the rest of their family.” She added, “We still need to raise more funds to get the others out.”

Now in Nasr, Samia hopes to get back to working as a journalist. And she hopes for an end to the war. “Stop the war. Stop killing. Stop destroying houses and dreams,” she says.

And Emmalene, in addition to selling her artwork to raise funds for Samia’s family, plans to keep painting for Palestine. She says, “It’s the biggest atrocity over a lifetime. So, I’m going to continue painting for as long as it goes on.”

The two of them have never met. Samia hopes she can change that someday. “I hope I meet Emma face to face and all the people in Ireland as soon as possible.”

Her gratitude for Emma, as she calls her, knows no bounds. “Emma is a kind and beautiful woman,” she says. “Emma is now my best friend. Because everyday, she calls me and asks about me.”

And like she does every so often, Samia recalls the mural of Masa that Emmalene had painted. “She painted my sweet niece Masa.” She says it gives her strength to think that people in the world remember Masa through that painting.

Samia is referring to another mural in Dublin that Emmalene had created — a massive mural of Masa on a wall painted pink. 

A photograph of Masa (left) and Emmalene’s mural of her on a wall in Dublin (Photos courtesy Samia Alatrash and Emmalene Blake)

Emmalene had also written a poem for Masa to go along with the mural, titled ‘Second Time Painting You’. Here’s an excerpt of the poem. 

“Two year olds don’t worry about time.

I didn’t know this about you,

when I painted you before.

Didn’t see it.

Didn’t see your smile.

Didn’t see the feather in your hair.

Didn’t see your flowery runners,

that match your flowery jeans.

Didn’t see the baby hairs

all along your forehead

you had yet to grow out.

See when I painted you before,

You were shrouded in cloth,

Your auntie clutching your lifeless body,

Rocking back and forth,

Whispering words meant only for you.”

For this mural, Emmalene chose to not paint a Palestinian flag or anything on the mural to denote that Masa was a Palestinian. “The reaction I had been getting while painting it was people going like, “Oh my God, such a gorgeous child!” So, I want people to have that reaction and then see the plaque with information about the mural — for them to read the poem and then for it to hit them.”

Emmalene adds, “I think there’s a creche down the road from where I painted it. And once it was nearly finished, a good few mothers who had kids around the same age would go by and would tell their kids, “Oh look at that lovely little girl, isn’t she just like you!””

“That’s the reaction I wanted,” says Emmalene. “It’s just a child, it could be any child.”

Another mural by Emmalene in Dublin, this time a painting of 2-year-old Masa (right) along with her 4-year-old sister Lina (Photo posted by Emmalene Blake)

Next to her first mural of Samia and Masa too, Emmalene had painted three children, one of whom was wearing a Jewish kippah and another a keffiyeh. “What I was thinking was — kids are kids. It doesn't matter where they're from, what religion they are. All any kid really wants is to be safe and be happy. So, whether it's Palestinian kids, whether it's Israeli kids or Jewish kids, whether it's any other kids in the world, that's all they want.”

The mural of the three children showed them playing with letter blocks. The children had built two towers with the blocks. They read, “Peace please.”

(Photo by Meghnad Bose)

A Different Kind of Clergy Rises With Entheos Ireland

DUBLIN — On an overcast January afternoon in Kildare, Ireland, Úna-Minh Kavanagh, a journalist, married Pádhraic O'Hanrahan, a math lecturer, in a short but sweet wedding ceremony by green fields in the outskirts of town.

Gathered at the on-site chapel of the Clanard Court Hotel, about an hour’s drive from Dublin, Kavanagh stood in a wavy, red Vietnamese Ao dài dress with gold sequins and a rounded, red khăn vấn headpiece. Across from her stood the groom, O'Hanrahan, clad in a dark green tuxedo with a cranberry-colored boutonniere. 

“I want to take a moment to really welcome, first of all, our couple, Úna-Minh and Pádhraic, as you prepare to cross the threshold of life together,” said the wedding’s officiator, a secular celebrant named Karen Dempsey. She stood between the happy couple in a white, vernal dress.

But, as soon became clear, even secular ceremonies have moments of sanctity. Midway through the wedding, Dempsey led the couple and their families in an elaborate candle-lighting ritual. The mothers of the bride and groom lit red candles in honor of their children. Later, Kavanagh and O’Hanrahan took the two candles and at the same time, they used the flames to light a single larger “unity candle,” symbolizing the light and love the two will bring into the world. 

Ireland, once a bastion of Catholicism, is becoming a more secular, pluralistic nation. In the 2022 Ireland census, 14% of respondents reported having no religion, according to the Central Statistics Office of Ireland. That’s a rise of nearly 100,000 people since the 2016 census.

With more Irish people moving away from organized religion, non-religious weddings, like the one celebrating Kavanagh and O'Hanrahan, are becoming increasingly common. 

In 2022, over a third of weddings in Ireland were non-religious ceremonies, either conducted as civil marriages or by the Humanist Association: the only secular body in Ireland empowered by the government to carry out weddings. In the past five years, the number of non-religious weddings have almost reached parity with the number of weddings performed by the Catholic Church, according to CSO data.

Kavanagh, 32, explained that like many Irish millennials, she grew up in a transition period in Ireland in which church and state were in the process of separating. Both she and O’Hanrahan were raised Catholic, but over time, “religion became less and less important to us,” she said.

Many of her friends opted for traditional, Catholic weddings to appease older generations, but she and O’Hanrahan wanted something more personalized that honored every facet of their identities and heritages. 

This resulting wedding blended both religious and non-religious rituals. The reading of vows stems from medieval Chrisitianity, but the lighting of remembrance and unity candles is a more modern tradition not associated with any particular faith. 

Kavanagh’s dilemma raises a question typical of a generation in transition: for life milestones as personal as a wedding or funeral, are the options of whether to include faith elements in a secular person’s ceremony ever so cut and dry?

Enter Entheos Ireland: a not-for-profit organization that serves this growing segment of Irish society who live outside of traditional forms of faith. Dempsey, who orchestrated O’Hanrahan and Kavanagh’s wedding, launched Entheos Ireland out of her home office in Dublin in 2021. 

Over lattes in The Outhouse LGBTQ+ Centre in Dublin, Dempsey, 45, explained how Entheos Ireland was designed to meet the needs of the most vulnerable members of Irish society. 

“So anybody who's been ostracized, marginalized or otherwise left behind by traditional faith paths, on the grounds of gender, sexual orientation, family status, race, gender identity, religion, any of that kind of thing,” said Dempsey.

For example, Entheos organizes “Died With Pride” funerals for LGBTQ+ people, which involve LGBTQ+ solemnizers overseeing the ceremony. Some queer people may have experienced discrimination from institutionalized religion in their lifetime, explained Dempsey, so the initiative allows the deceased to be memorialized on their own terms. 

Karen Dempsey, the founder of Entheos Ireland. Photo: Samuel Eli Shepherd

Dempsey’s journey to founding Entheos is personal. At 26, shortly after giving birth to her first son, Dempsey developed alopecia and lost all of her hair. The experience made her re-evaluate her life goals to that point and consider the many privileges she previously took for granted. She decided to dedicate herself to a career of helping others. 

While working as an end-of-life nurse and discussing religion and death with her patients, Dempsey wrestled with some of the big questions that led her to founding Entheos in 2021. 

“People were having these big existential questions with me that they are not sure what they believe, especially as they face their own death or they encounter the death of another person,” Dempsey said. “And they would ask me, what do you believe?”

The organization’s name originates from the Greek word for “Enthusiasm,” which literally means, “inspired by the divine within,” said Dempsey. Instead of believing in an external, anthropomorphized version of God, Entheism believes that the divine exists internally within all of us, allowing for a view of sanctity that encompasses everyone, regardless of faith.  

Entheos is only three years old, but Dempsey emphasized that alternative faith paths in Ireland are nothing new. 

For example, a popular Entheos ritual, “handfasting,” which involves participants stretching out their arms and wrapping their hands together with a ribbon, originates from the ancient Irish Brehon Laws, which long predate Christianity. The Brehon Laws’ emphasis on gender equality and immaterialism make them “one of the fairest forms of marriage we can have,” Dempsey said in a training video.

Even the term “Entheism,” is itself an ideology coined by the 16th-century Irish philosopher John Toland, who vocally criticized the Catholic Church. While Dempsey did not know about Toland’s life when devising the name, she later embraced the coincidence. 

“The Church didn’t always have that tremendously strong grip,” said Dempsey, “And the Irish people were always very powerful in our creativity,” she added.

While Entheism is not a religion, per se, the government of Ireland’s registry of solemnizers lists Entheos Ireland solemnizers as “Religious.” 

“I would rather not have the word religious involved with us,” said Dempsey. Instead, she views Entheism as a philosophy, whereas belief in a specific deity is irrelevant. 

But the designation as religious is a useful loophole. It allows Entheos’s celebrants to incorporate elements of faith into people’s ceremonies if they so desire, such as a Hindu mehndi ceremony, or Christian vows, in a way that a totally secular officiating body could not.

As of March 2024, there are 65 celebrants at Entheos, who perform ceremonies in every county of the Republic of Ireland. Dempsey says there are already over 80 people on the waiting list for their September training session. Many celebrants at Entheos were raised with traditional faith.

Keith Thompson, 38, is an arts worker in Galway and a recent graduate of Entheos’ training program. He explained how he was raised Protestant, but he later embraced Buddhism while traveling through southeast Asia in his twenties. After returning to Ireland, Thompson became fascinated with how ancient Celtic religions intersected with eastern faiths.

​​Keith Thompson, a celebrant at Entheos Ireland, outside the Remembrance Gardens in Dublin. Photo: Samuel Eli Shepherd

“There seems to be a burgeoning movement of people who are searching for a spiritual connection but finding it in much older traditional things,” said Thompson. “An odd mix of Pagan, Buddhist, with yoga, like they’re finding the links with them,” he added.

Thompson worked as a secular pastor for the Humanist Organization for some time before eventually discovering Entheos. To him, Entheos was the better fit, because it still valued spirituality, rather than total, clinical rationalism. 

“I was like, okay, here's a group that is not specifically saying we are, you know, supporting one religion or another, but it's inclusive of all,” he said.

Another celebrant, Mary McGarry, 64, finished her training at Entheos in June last year. Over tea, McGarry, explained how she was raised Catholic in Dublin, but she left the church two decades ago after a sour experience with a priest, as well as disillusionment with how the church fueled sectarian violence during the Troubles.

Nonetheless, McGarry said she still often visits churches in Dublin today “just for the silence, just for the energy that Churches provided,” she said. “I also love that my ancestors would have knelt and prayed in these churches as well,” she added. 

McGarry’s wish to satisfy her desire for spirituality and connection without what she saw as religious dogma eventually led to her enrolling to become an Entheos Ireland celebrant in 2022.

“I just hopped on board and it was one of the most in-depth, heart-wrenching, gut-wrenching, tearful experiences in my whole life,” said McGarry of Entheos Ireland’s training program. “It literally shook me to my core,” she said. 

If that sounds like an intense training program, that’s because Dempsey says it is designed to be. 

Similar to how becoming a Catholic or Anglican priest can involve enrolling in a divinity school, the process to becoming a celebrant at Entheos Ireland is around the length of an academic year. Dempsey says it is an emotionally challenging process that involves signing a commitment to challenging heteronormativity, racism and homophobia.

The training for Entheos costs about €2500, but Dempsey also offers scholarships to celebrants who self-identify as part of a marginalized community.

“So that everybody can have a ceremony held by a person that they resonate with from within their own community,” Dempsey said. To her, having a team that reflects the reality of a diversifying Ireland was paramount.  

Back in County Kildare, three months after her wedding day, Kavanagh expressed gratitude and joy for Dempsey for providing a personal touch to her January ceremony.

“We knew that Karen would be non-judgmental about any aspect of our wedding,” said Kavanagh over email. “We were allowed to create a celebration that was truly 'ours’,” she wrote.

In a modern move, Kavanagh gave Dempsey a personal shoutout after uploading her wedding video on Instagram in early April. “Karen is phenomenal,” she wrote in the video’s caption, tagging Dempsey’s social media moniker: The Bald Priestess. In the comment section, Dempsey responded with an expression of love fit for a twenty-first century spiritual leader: heart emojis.

In Northern Ireland, a Long-Awaited Gurdwara Opens with a Wedding

LONDONDERRY, Northern Ireland (RNS) — On a cloudy fall day in 2021, about 100 people were praying in Derry’s only Sikh temple when smoke suddenly choked the prayer hall. Worshippers covered their mouths and noses and ran outdoors as flames consumed each room. Amerjit Singh, the president of the Northern Ireland Sikh Association, made sure that everyone was safely outside before running back inside the burning building to rescue the Sikh Holy Scripture known as the Guru Granth Sahib.

On Thursday (April 11), after years of renovations — completed in the spirit of “sewa,” the Sikh principle of selfless service — the temple, known as a gurdwara, reopened with a joyful wedding celebration, welcoming worshippers of all faiths and backgrounds once again. The multistory beige building, resting on a sloping road near the eastern bank of the River Foyle, bears a long history: An old sign indicates it was constructed in 1915, and a newer one introduces it as the Sikh Cultural Centre established in 1995. Jimmy Singh, a longtime worshipper at the gurdwara, says the reopening feels like “the light at the end of a long, long, tunnel.”

Although everyone, including the Guru Granth Sahib, was physically safe after the gurdwara fire, Sikhs in Derry mourned the loss of their beloved temple. The space where they convened at least once a week to pray, sing, eat and serve each other through sewa had become a shell of a structure. The gurdwara leadership determined at the time that it would stay closed until renovations were completed.

In the meantime, Derry’s Sikhs gathered in each others’ living rooms and kitchens to continue their weekly Sunday prayers and the tradition of “langar,” the free meal gurdwaras offer to any visitor without question. The gurdwara was one of two in Northern Ireland and the primary place of worship for Sikhs all over the country as well as for other minority religions, like Hindus, who don’t have a nearby temple of their own.

Sikhs attend a wedding during the reopening of the Sikh Cultural Centre and gurdwara in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, April 11, 2024. (Photo courtesy Amerjit Singh)

In the gurdwara’s absence, families were forced to hold funerals in their homes for elderly relatives who died of COVID-19. Hosting weddings and other communal festivities, too, felt incomplete without the gurdwara. Sitting cross-legged on floral carpets with the Guru Granth Sahib propped on a piece of furniture, the community managed to continue gathering and worshipping, all the while eagerly waiting to return to the new building.

It was like decades ago, some recalled, when only a few Sikh families lived in Derry. In those days, they could easily gather in each other’s homes. But since then, the Sikh population in Northern Ireland has grown from a few dozen to just shy of 400, according to the 2021 Census — a number no one’s living room could fit.

“On my way to work, I always drove past and stopped for 30 seconds outside,” said Jimmy Singh of the gurdwara. The space, he said, always brought him a sense of peace and meaning, even when he couldn’t go in. “I just can’t wait to come here every Sunday,” he said.

“It’s a lifeline for older people,” said Kalbinder Kaur, a trustee of the Sikh Association. The gurdwara’s closure, she said, exacerbated the loneliness and isolation of the elderly, who found comfort in the shared language and culture of the Sikh community.

Although the Sikh community has struggled without the gurdwara, Amerjit Singh says the fire may have been a blessing in disguise. The cause of the incident has not been officially determined, but he suspects it was faulty wiring in a building that’s over a century old. The damage revealed dry rot in the walls and floors of the building that could have compromised its structural integrity. Plus, the fire was an opportunity to rebuild the gurdwara to better accommodate the needs of the community.

Amerjit Singh, left, and a volunteer at the gurdwara in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, ahead of its reopening. (Photo by Trisha Mukherjee)

About a month before the reopening, Amerjit and Jimmy Singh, who are cousins, stepped onto a brand-new elevator platform, clutching the railings. “It’s just been commissioned today,” said Jimmy Singh with excitement. “It’s our first time using it.” He pressed a button, and a soft whirring sound filled the echoing space as the platform smoothly drifted toward the lower level. The elevator for the elderly and disabled is one of the newest additions to Derry’s gurdwara.

Around them, the building buzzed with activity. Sawdust covered the floors, while ladders and tools lay scattered around the building. Volunteers from all walks of life and a number of faiths — Irish Catholic, Irish Protestant, Irish Sikh and Indian Sikh — paced in and out of rooms, scrubbing countertops and drilling into planks of wood. A group of men, some wearing turbans and others with buzz cuts, carried building materials down the staircase and through a doorway as Irish rock music reverberated upstairs. In a city with a long history of religious conflict, the intermingling of cultures and religions in the gurdwara epitomizes Amerjit Singh’s belief that welcoming others is the “single most important part of Sikhism.” 

As he strolled around the gurdwara surveying the progress, he listed off the many people, from the architect to the construction workers, who helped rebuild the gurdwara for free or for a discount as an act of sewa. One woman wearing heavy-duty gloves introduced herself as a former employee of his who has volunteered her afternoon to help out at the gurdwara. A carpenter measuring wood in the prayer hall said he has been doing business with the Sikh community for 30 years. Gurdeep Singh and Samser Singh (no relation), two university students from the Punjab region of India who had met for the first time that morning, spent the day at the gurdwara doing sewa, lifting heavy materials side by side as if they’d been working together for years.

Gurdeep Singh, another Sikh man from India who has now lived in Ireland for several years and is not related to the others, said he is looking forward to the prayer, the langar and, of course, the gossip. “We feel very good when we come here,” he said. “We feel relaxed.”

The community is also largely united by their support for the Sikh farmers’ protests in India. Through Khalsa Aid, Derry’s Sikhs send money for food, clothing and medicine for the farmers, who, they believe, are being smeared and targeted by the Indian government. The gurdwara also donates funds to local initiatives. “Sikhs are givers,” said Jimmy Singh. “Baba Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, was a giver, and we want to follow that tradition in our hearts.”

The new building is tech-savvy and accessible. While Sikhs traditionally sit on the floor for langar and prayer, the gurdwara will have benches for the elderly and others who have trouble sitting cross-legged. An expertly planned opening near the kitchen allows volunteers to easily transport groceries inside from a car, reducing the intense prep work for langar, during which volunteers serve hearty meals of daal, roti and prasad to hundreds of people at a time. The building is more insulated and energy-efficient, critical in Northern Ireland’s soggy year-round weather. A guest room with three beds in the basement is built to host Sikh musicians, called ragis, and other visitors.

A group of Derry Sikhs raise the Nishan Sahib flag ahead of the reopening of the local gurdwara in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, March 24, 2024. (Photo courtesy Amerjit Singh)

On March 24, about two weeks before the reopening, a group of Sikh worshippers hoisted the Nishan Sahib, a triangular orange flag with a dark-blue khanda symbol. The crowd stood barefoot around the silk-wrapped flagpole. One woman began a melodic prayer, and others closed their eyes in meditation and joined in.

A wedding seemed the perfect celebration to open the new gurdwara. Amongst traditional Punjabi music and sparkling chandeliers hanging from the newly finished ceiling, over 300 people gathered to celebrate the newlyweds — a non-Sikh Irish bride and a Sikh groom — with music, prayers and a langar of pakora, three different types of curries, gulab jamun and laddoo. Men wore suits and patkas, while women wore a rainbow of elegant salwar kameez. 

“It was full of color,” said Amerjit Singh, after the daylong ceremony. “I saw a vision of a much more diverse Northern Ireland in the gurdwara today.”

First published on Religion News Service.

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.