Losing our religion

Catholic church sees huge drop as atheist and Muslim numbers surge

Tadhg Evans

The number of Catholics in Kerry has plunged since 2011 with a corresponding surge in the number of atheists and non-religious in the county according to the first tranche of results from last year's census.

According to the figures - which were published late last week and are likely to be a cause of concern for the church - the number of Kerry people who described themselves as Catholics fell by 4,123 to 123,514between 2011 and 2016, a drop of over three per cent.

Protestant churches also saw a sharp fall in Kerry with numbers falling by 133 to 3,134 - a drop of over four per cent.

This steep decline in the numbers of the main Christian congregations in Kerry is mirrored by a massive rise in the number of atheists and non religious in the county.

Between 2011 and 2016 the number of people who recorded themselves as having 'no religion' surged upwards by 3,530 to 10,414, an enormous increase of just over 50 per cent.

Among statisticians there is a belief that the number of non religious could actually be even higher as it is thought that many respondents likely recorded their religion as Catholic though they do not practice their religion or attend church with any regularity.

The number of Muslims in the county also appears to have increased dramatically since 2011.

Unfortunately - due to an historic quirk in how religions are recorded in the census - the number of Muslims is not provided on a county by county basis.

This is due to the fact that the initial census' results on religious practices in each county are presented in a form that dates back to 1891 and which does not include options - like Islam - that were not seen as 'dominant' religions in Ireland at that time.

Nationally there was an increase of 29 per cent in the number of Muslims and this is expected to be reflected in Kerry which has one of the largest Islamic populations outside the major cities.

The final results from the 2011 Census showed there were 1,501 Muslims in Kerry with the vast majority in Tralee (833) and Killarney (492).

If the 29 per cent national increase was reflected in Kerry it would equate to an increase of around 435 in the county's Muslim population.

While exact figures on the Islamic population will not be available until October other 2016 census figures do provide some guidance.

According to the Census the number of people living in Kerry whose first languages are Arabic, Urdu, Turkish or other dialects mainly spoken in primarily Islamic nations increased by about 20 per cent between 2011 and 2016.

While many of these people may not be Muslim the figures would seem to indicate a growth in the local Muslim population broadly in line with the national trend.

Meanwhile, the figures show there are 363 Presbyterians; 224 Methodists and Wesleyans and 58 Jews in Kerry. 3,998 people did not record their religion on the census form.

Census casts shadow over Gaeltachtaí

The Irish language finds itself at a crossroads in Kerry, after the 2016 census results on Irish language released this week showed Kerry's Gaeltacht areas shed almost 500 daily speakers between 2011 and 2016.

While Ireland's Gaeltacht areas combined lost over 11 per cent of their daily speakers in that time, the drop in Kerry was especially steep.

The number of people who use Irish daily outside of the education system in the Kerry regions plummeted by over 18 per cent, with only Mayo's Gaeltachtaí experiencing a sharper fall.

Conradh na Gaeilge Membership and Education Executive Edel Ní Bhraonáin, originally from Ballinskelligs, hit out at what she called the disinterest shown by the Government towards the language in recent years, but she admitted to having been taken aback at the results as a whole.

"The number of daily Irish speakers across the country had been increasing for ten years, and I expected that to continue," she said. "Disappointingly, that wasn't the case [it dropped by over 3,000]."

"I think the results from Kerry show we face challenges here. There hasn't been enough state backing - Údarás na Gaeltachta's Capital budget was cut by more than half between 2008 and 2015, which is a good example of what I'm talking about.

"We won't have statistics for the whole county until November so we don't have the complete picture yet, but I think it's quite clear that funding and economic issues have hit the Gaeltacht communities hard.

"Also, unless my personal experience is unique, I would think emigration has affected the Kerry figures. Of the 120 people that were in my class going to school, about 40 are at home right now. That has to have had an effect."

Figures on Irish usage across Kerry as a whole will not be issued by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) until November, but a detailed breakdown on frequency of usage for Kerry's Gaeltachtaí has been made available.

The total of people who can speak Irish in Kerry's two regions - located in the Corca Dhuibhne and Iveragh peninsulas respectively - has dropped by 5 per cent to just under 6,000.

There was also a 13 per cent dive in the number of people in Kerry who use Irish on a weekly basis outside of the education system, while just over 275 people in the regions say they never speak Irish, an increase of over 17 per cent.

Fine Gael Councillor and Údarás na Gaeltachta board member Seamus Cosaí Mac Gearailt said he was not taken aback at the negative results for Kerry's Gaeltachtaí.

"As someone who lives in the Gaeltacht, I can't honestly say I'm surprised. The language is always under pressure from external factors," he said

"If people who don't have Irish come into the locality, the locals might switch to English. Our young people are growing up with English-language television and media all around them, so the language is under pressure all the time."

He did however say that regardless of funding, it is ultimately up to people themselves to speak the language.

"I think blaming the government is only kicking the can down the road. The language has been under pressure for decades, under several governments. Funding can only do so much, and, at the end of the day, it's up to people themselves to speak Irish," he said

"Today's government has done a lot of good work too that we must acknowledge. They've initiated a 20-year 2010-2030 strategy that needs to be given time, and last week Údarás received funding of €735,000 for its language-planning process, which will be unfolding in Corca Dhuibhne and Uíbh Ráthach over the next seven years. Back in 2015 we received a wonderful language centre in Ballyferriter, and that's an example of one of many positive developments.

"Now, it's time to see how the language planning process unfolds in Kerry and in other Gaeltachtaí and how the national strategy develops in the years ahead."

Ms Ní Bhraonáin did sound some positive notes for the future also, pointing to examples from elsewhere in the country that she feels Kerry can follow, and a few of the census's more positive results.

"Kerry's Irish speaking community was much smaller than other regions anyway, so I think that has made the percentages from Kerry look more severe," Ms Ní Bhraonáin said.

"There are a few positives there; the number of speakers in the Waterford Gaeltacht increased once again, and in my time with Conradh na Gaeilge I've seen great work being done by groups in Kerry and elsewhere who are taking responsibility for the language's future, so there's no shortage of good examples out there for us to follow.

"But alongside the public's initiative in taking responsibility for Irish's future, the language needs meaningful State backing, and we need the Government to keep a door open to us. State support for the language planning process in the county's two Gaeltacht regions is important," she said.

Slight increase in Travellers

The number of Travellers living in Kerry has increased by exactly 100 between the 2011 and 2016 censuses.

According to the preliminary results of the 2016 Census there are now 960 members of the Travelling community living in Kerry. That equates to just under seven per cent of the county's total population.

Of the 960 Travellers now living in Kerry, 450 are men and 510 are women.

The Traveller community in Kerry is divided among 947 households - up from 836 in 2011 - with the vast majority of Kerry Traveller households (843) living in permanent private housing located around the county.

In all 67 Traveller households are living in temporary accommodation while 37 of the households did not give and answer as to their exact living arrangements.

While figures for Kerry were not available national statistics show that an average of one in three Travellers is married with about four per cent of Traveller men and women either separated or divorced and about two per cent widowed.

The Irish Travelling Community was officially recognised as a distinct ethnic group in the Dáil on March 1 last.