MORE than 90pc of our primary schools are still under the patronage of the Catholic Church but religious observance is declining here. The number of non-Catholic parents continues to grow, and these parents face a big dilemma this time of year as Holy Communion and Confirmation season gets under way.
In many cases kids just want to be like their classmates when Communion and Confirmation fever hits and want a nice dress or smart suit for the day. This can cause pressure for parents who wish to balance personal convictions with their child's happiness.
Dalkey-based mum Lynda Vard couldn't even escape the Communion pressure in her local supermarket.
"There is even pressure from the wider community. We were in a supermarket and a lady there asked my daughter Abby (who is now 11) was she making her Communion. She said, 'No, my mum won't let me.' For Irish people it is what we know, and it is hard to step outside of that."
Lynda, an atheist, sent her children to a multi-denominational Educate Together school, but there were still issues at Communion-time.
"There was no pressure from the school when it came to Communion, even though the majority of kids were Catholic. The pressure came from our daughter!
"Only three girls out of the class didn't make their Communion. Abby wanted to but there was no way we could go down that path. We tried to shield her from that pressure by sending her to an Educate Together but it still happened," says Lynda.
"I had heard of some parents who just went ahead and did it to keep kids happy. So many people don't subscribe to the church but have the day anyhow. I think it would be disrespectful to the Catholic Church if we went ahead with it because it is not what we believe in," she adds.
Lynda believes the pressure is even greater for girls than it is for boys.
"Our son Louis (who is now 10) didn't mind as much not having a Communion. He was much more relaxed about it. The thing he missed was the free sweets and money.
"But there isn't the same pressure on boys because with girls it's all about the dress. In my view girls tend to get very holy too around that age."
For parents with different beliefs, Communion time is a real test of their convictions.
"My husband Gavin and I are very sure of what we believe in and Communion just wasn't on the cards. I had another friend who is atheist and they had no problems with their kids not making their Communion, but it was a real sticky patch for us."
Atheist parents also have to deal with enquiring minds at home.
"My mum suggested I take my daughter down to Mass and that she would hate it. I took her and she took it so seriously, kneeling and standing and trying to follow the priest. When we came out she said 'mum that was brilliant,' so it totally backfired.
"But now that she is older and mature she understands more and there is the pay-off she doesn't have to go to Mass every week," says the mum of two.
Schools like Educate Together try to ensure nobody is left out when Communions and Confirmations are happening.
"The school was great and had a party on the day and kids who didn't make their Communion could go to it," says Lynda.
"We also had 'Abby day' on the Communion day as a kind of rite of passage. Both our families got together and we celebrated her as part of the family and the wider community."
It was tricky but Lynda feels everyone is more comfortable now and ready for challenges ahead.
"You can have morals and values and not be faith-led. We are happy with who we are and hope the children won't face too many more challenges by going against the grain. We feel we handled it as best as we could for Abby. Roll on Confirmation!" she says.
For the non-Catholic new Irish Communion season also presents challenges. Abdullah Moktar is Muslim and has four children, Hana (13), Moez (12), Hmeed (seven) and Basma (five), three of whom attend a Catholic school -- the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Huntstown in Dublin.
"We haven't been involved in Communion or Confirmation and the school has been very open-minded about it. We haven't found any discrimination because of our religion and the kids have been fine about not making their Communion.
"When the other children are doing their preparation for Communion the kids just read a book or go to another class when they are down in the church. There is a party in the school afterwards that all the children can attend," says Mr Moktar.
The Libyan-born dermatologist feels it is easier as kids get older. "They are more mature about it when it comes to Confirmation. We call their school the international school because there are so many children from different nationalities, like Americans, Libyans and Syrians."
Sean O Diomasaigh is the principal of the school attended by the Moktars.
"We are a Catholic school and make no apologies for it but we welcome with open arms children of all faiths. There are 900 children in the school and 37pc of those would be newcomer children of various different faiths.
"About 30pc of the class will not be making their Communion or Confirmation in an average year. Most will stay in the religion class but will do other activities. For the church visit some will go along and read a book. Where there is an issue other arrangements are made," he adds.
"Most parents don't mind. Parents and children are invited along to the ceremony and the reception on the day. A lot of kids and parents do take part. We take group photos involving all of the class," says Mr O Diomasaigh.
Some groups are calling for a clearer split between religion and education.
"We don't believe in state funding for people's religions and we believe children should be taught the difference between what people believe and what is fact," says Ann James of the Humanist Association of Ireland.
"The Catholic Church has a hold on education and parents are compromised. They are told, well if you don't like it -- find another school.
"People are different with differing beliefs. A good education makes children think about who they are. I think it is better to teach philosophy rather than religion," adds Ann.
Around Communion time there's an increase in the number of parents contacting the Humanists.
"We've had emails over the years with parents getting in touch and saying they are having problems. Kids want 'the do' and the dress. Non-religious parents can find themselves under pressure where Communion is being prepared in the class. In school there is pressure not to be different."
Ann grew up Catholic so knows what it's like. "I was different when I was a child. I was very holy and Catholic in England, which wasn't the norm. I got a hand-me-down dress and didn't know about the money thing. I agree that it's nice to make kids feel special."
Humanists believe it's important to mark turning points in a child's life.
"We need to encourage children to care and respect and to know what the right thing is. When parents get in touch they ask what other parents do during this time. It is about recognising the child.
"Children are moving up a gear so it is about making them feel special and valuing them as part of the community," says Ann.
The Educate Together schools have tried to find a balance between the sometimes conflicting needs of education and religion. The group was first established in 1977 to provide a multi-denominational and co-educational school model.
"We deliver an ethical and moral curriculum in the religious space. We explain all the different types of religions and provide facilities for faith development outside school hours," says John Holohan, Head of Communications with Educate Together.
"People are free to hold their own beliefs, it's just removed from the school space. In most other countries faith is taught outside school," says Mr Holohan.