While the move has been largely welcomed, there are still less than 100 non-denominational schools operating in Ireland, while there are almost 3,000 Catholic schools.
The Humanist Association of Ireland says this puts increasing pressure on non-religious parents to go against their beliefs and baptise their children, just to get them into a nearby school.
“I can understand why some parents would feel pressurised into having the child baptised,” said Norma McElligott, one of the humanist celebrants in Cork.
“It’s a huge problem in rural areas. Even in the city you don’t have a huge choice but in rural areas you have no choice.”
Going one step further, Ms McElligott, a retired secondary school teacher, also thinks religion classes should be removed from schools completely — or at least be held at the end of the day so non-religious children do not have to attend.
“If it were taken out of the school curriculum, if religion were after school or before school or on Saturday or Sunday, we’d get a much clearer idea of how many Catholics there were in the country,” she said.
“If parents are committed Catholics, there’s no problem with them encouraging that and taking their children to the different preparation for communion, preparation for confirmation. But I think it’s very unfair for children who are non-religious to have to sit in a class where the ethos for the whole year is about communion or confirmation.”
While Ms McElligott, who has presided over hundreds of humanist ceremonies, believes religion should be taken out of schools, she says she is not against Catholicism or any other religion.
“It’s not anti-religion at all. It’s about tolerance, it’s about inclusion,” she said.
“But no matter what way you look at it, in Ireland our schools are dominated by the Catholic Church. That is a fact. And they might pay lip service to diversity and inclusion, but when it comes down to it religion is very much part of the ethos, it’s part of a school day. It’s very hard to escape from it if you’re not a Catholic.”
Over the last few years, more and more people in Ireland have been coming around to this point of view. Ever-increasing numbers of people are identifying with the humanist way of thinking, and demand for the services of celebrants has skyrocketed.
Humanist celebrants preside over weddings, funerals, and naming ceremonies — giving the non-religious a chance to mark special occasions without having to compromise their beliefs.
At the moment, the demand is largely in relation to weddings. Humanist weddings can be held anywhere as long as the venue has an address and is open to the public. It can also take place any day of the week, at any time of the day or night.
“They can happen outside as long as there’s an identifiable address,” Ms McElligott said. “So, outside of a hotel, or in the garden of a hotel. It couldn’t be on a beach because the beach wouldn’t be affiliated to an address.”
Funerals, or end-of-life ceremonies, are also growing in popularity, albeit at a slower rate.
“Increasingly I find people are contacting me or saying: ‘Look, I have a terminal illness, I haven’t got long to live. I’d like to talk to you about my funeral.’ There’s a great sense of peace for that person — it’s the last bit of control they have. They’ve no control over the fact they’re going to die, but they do have control over this,” said Ms McElligott.
“It’s about celebrating a life. It’s not so much about being consumed with sadness. There’s a grieving, of course there’s a grieving, but there’s also really taking on board the celebrating of a life. Everyone’s life is worth celebrating.”