Ireland’s New Religious Movements: Book Review & Book Launch

imageThe recently published book, Ireland’s New Religious Movements (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011), co-edited by Olivia Cosgrove, Laurence Cox, Carmen Kuhling and Peter Mulholland, provides a fascinating snapshot on this island’s increasing religious diversity.

Dr Marion Bowman will launch the book with a talk on ‘Contemporary Celticity’ on Wednesday 30 March at 6.30 pm in the Gutter Bookshop, Cow’s Lane, Temple Bar, Dublin 8. The event will also mark the launch of an Irish research network on alternative spiritualities, the New Age and new religious movements (contact: olivia.cosgrove AT

Admission is free and refreshments will be provided. For more information on the event, please contact Ciara at 086 3678501.

Dr Bowman is Senior Lecturer and Head of Dept. of Religious Studies at the Open University and a leading researcher on contemporary paganism, Celtic spirituality, the New Age, folk religion, place and tradition.

The book is a product of an interdisciplinary academic conference on ‘Alternative Spiritualities, the New Age and New Religious Movements in Ireland,’ held in October 2009 in Maynooth.

It features 18 chapters, from the editors’ general overview of Ireland’s contemporary religious landscape, to chapters on Celtic Buddhism, the religion of Irish Travellers, evangelicalism in the Republic of Ireland, the Fellowship of Isis, and Islam as a migrant religion, amongst others. The editors’ introduction is available online.

The book looks set to become a landmark publication, as there are no other volumes that provide the breadth and depth of analysis offered here.

As the editors point out in the introduction, for an island often known for its religion, scholarly analysis of religion in Ireland has been somewhat limited. Apart from Tom Inglis’ seminal book Moral Monopoly: The Rise and Fall of the Catholic Church in Modern Ireland, there have been few systematic studies of religion on this island.

There has been, of course, significant research on the role of religion in Northern Ireland’s Troubles (a debate to which I have contributed). But this work has been framed largely in terms of the conflict.

The editors are keen to emphasise that religious diversity is not just a by-product of immigration and the Celtic Tiger; rather, it has a long history in Ireland (p. 6-9). That said, the main concern of the book is contemporary religious diversity, the demographics of which are ably detailed by Malcolm Macourt in his chapter, ‘Mapping the “New Religious Landscape” and the “New Irish”: Uses and Limitations of the Census.’ It’s here that we have confirmed oft-repeated phrases such as: there are now more Muslims than Presbyterians in the Republic of Ireland.

But beyond its scholarly contribution, what makes the book enjoyable (and of interest to a more popular audience) are the chapters which provide detail and description about what lies at the heart of these various expressions of religion.

One of the exemplary chapters in this regard was Jenny Butler’s ‘Irish Neo-Paganism: World-View and Identity,’ a richly illustrated contribution that provided plenty of space for the practitioners to speak for themselves about what their religion means to them.

I was also fascinated by two chapters on what might be considered ‘fringe’ aspects of Irish Catholicism:

  • Attracta Brownlee’s chapter on ‘Irish Travellers and “Powerful” Priests: An Alternative Response to New Age Healing Techniques.’ It provided insight into how Travellers ‘select’ priests – usually considered marginal within the Institutional church – as healers and counsellors.
  • And Peter Mulholland’s chapter on ‘Marian Apparitions, the New Age and the FÁS Prophet.’ It contextualised and analysed the contemporary career of Joe Coleman, latterly known for predicting Marian apparitions at Knock, who in 2001 trained as a spiritual healer with the Irish government’s National Training and Employment Authority, FÁS.

Finally, as a researcher who specialises in evangelicalism, I appreciated the inclusion of a chapter by Ruth Jackson Noble on ‘The Changing Face of Irish Christianity: The Evangelical Christian Movement in the Republic.’

Research on evangelicalism on this island has been dominated by work on Northern Ireland, and Jackson ably demonstrates how distinctive southern Irish evangelicalism is from its northern cousin. Jackson also proposes ‘four underlying values of Evangelicalism,’ enhanced by the words and websites of Irish evangelicals.

These values – experience, security, community and democracy – not only help the reader to grasp what’s important to evangelicals, but also to understand what it is like to be an evangelical.

The book also provides a substantial, integrated bibliography, which should serve as a useful resource for scholars from many disciplines. However, I was dismayed to find that some sources cited in the chapters were missing from the bibliography.

To give just one example, Jackson cites Pete Rawlings (2009) on page 138. I suspected that this was the Irish emerging church thinker Peter Rollins, but when I checked the bibliography, neither Rawlings or Rollins was there.

I am not sure how widespread this problem is, as I only checked bibliographical references that were of interest to me. But even with my very un-systematic checks, I am sad to report that it happened on several occasions in other chapters.

But putting that aside, I’m excited about this book because I think it will become an essential resource, and a starting point for further conversations, about religious diversity in Ireland.

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