No longer merely lapsed: In Ireland today, we are choosing our religion

Joyce Fegan asks four people to open up about how they left one faith behind, and about their new lives
No longer merely lapsed: In Ireland today, we are choosing our religion

Retired Archbishop Diarmuid Martin suggested that many pre-Covid worshipers will never return to Mass. Picture: Sam Boal/

In the first day of a two-day special report, Joyce Fegan asked four people to open up about how they left one faith behind, and about their new lives. And, despite the stereotype that people merely fade from a particular practice of religion, she discovered that each of them has been on a spiritual journey towards the life that is right for them.

“THE POST-pandemic church will look significantly different to the church we traditionally knew," these were the words of Diarmuid Martin, the Archbishop of Dublin at the end of 2020 (now retired).

And he suggested that many pre-Covid worshipers will never return to Mass.

While the pandemic has been a major catalyst for change in people's behaviour, the Archbishop acknowledged that the country had already gone through a sea change in terms of religion in our lives.

“The fact that there are in Ireland today more civil weddings than religious marriage ceremonies is not by imposition. The fact that, according to the last census, ‘no religion’ is the second largest population group after Roman Catholics is the fruit of choice,” he said last November.

The 2016 Census showed us just how big that sea change had been.

In 2016, Roman Catholics accounted for 78.3% of the population compared with 84.2% in 2011.

While the proportion of Catholics declined in 2016, the total number also recorded a fall of 132,220 people from 3.86m in 2011 to 3.73m in 2016, the first such fall in absolute numbers for five decades.

In the 2016 Census, 468,421 people in Ireland declared themselves as having "no religion".

Another change in 2016, was a rise in the number of Muslims in Ireland — 63,443 people declared themselves as Muslims. That's almost double since 2006.

Among other non-Christian religions, the next largest in Ireland in 2016 was Buddhism which grew by 12.1% between 2011 and 2016, from 8,703 to 9,758. Over half (53.7%) were Irish by nationality.

Joyce Fegan has asked people who have changed religion, faith and spirituality, to explain why they left catholicism for Buddhism and other religions. There are some people who left the priesthood and others who became atheist and pagan.

Here are their stories.

Joe Armstrong — Catholic priest to humanist celebrant 

Joe Armstrong: Two of his cousins  were priests, and his mother was fanatically religious. Picture: Simple Tapestry
Joe Armstrong: Two of his cousins  were priests, and his mother was fanatically religious. Picture: Simple Tapestry

Joe Armstrong, 58, was 18 when he joined the seminary. He spent nine years training to be a priest, and during his whole time at Mount St Mary's seminary in Dublin's Milltown, he grappled with leaving.

After much internal struggle Joe left the priesthood and is now a humanist, as well as a humanist celebrant.

"I am from the northside of Dublin. I was from a very religious family, it was part of the air we breathed. I had two cousins a priest, and my mother was fanatically religious," said Joe.

He described catholicism as "so much" part of his "psyche" by this stage, that by the time he was 18 the seminary seemed like the only place to go.

However, for those nine years in the seminary, right up until the "cusp of ordination" he knew in his gut he didn't believe in the faith and god he was following.

Joe went back and forth in his resolve to leave the seminary, either talking himself or being talked by others into staying. Finally leaving was the "hardest decision" of his life.

"It was unquestionably the hardest thing I’ve ever done because from my childhood I had absorbed this whole way of thinking, it was your feelings, your identity, your salvation," said Joe. "Leaving my priestly path, it wasn’t just leaving a job — you were leaving what you thought your role in life, your meaning in life was."

I had taken my final vows, I had committed to it for life. I was leaving financial security too. I had all this guilt stuff, I had these public vows.

He described being "torn" by this inner duel between his "faithful side" and his "non-believing side". 

His first attempt to leave came when he was about three years into his training, and a second one when he was about six years in — on this occasion he was threatened with maybe not being "let back" in. 

Eventually it was a frank conversation with a counsellor that gave him his exit.

"There was this inner fight between faith and doubt. I used to be through the mill between believing and not believing. I was led to the point of doubting everything. 

"I was about three years in when I tried to leave the first time, and a priest said it wouldn’t be a free decision. I thought he knew me more than I knew myself, so I stayed.

"The second major crisis I was about five or six years in, and I had actually decided to go. This was a decision from the gut, and I was crying my heart out. 

"But they challenged me on it and asked me to stay. 'If you leave, you mightn't be let back, if you leave you’re leaving against our advice'.

"For the second time I abandoned my choice and I stayed. Then I went to counselling, this woman was utterly magnificent. 

"She basically challenged me to realise that I knew myself better than anyone else, my superior didn’t know better. It was so scary for me to trust my gut, but it was the turning point of my life.

"The counsellor pressed me and asked: 'Do you believe?' I said: 'I don’t know, I don’t know'. She pressed again and asked: 'In your gut?'

"And I thought: 'Do I have to make my life decision on my gut and on my gut alone? And then I said: 'In my gut I don’t believe.' I said it out loud: 'No I don’t believe'," recalled Joe.

How do you go from a vow of obedience, celibacy, poverty, and believing in an afterlife, to no belief at all?

While Joe fundamentally did not believe any longer, when he left the seminary in 1989, he did get married in the church and had one of his two children baptised in the church too.

He slowly drifted away from the church completely, and became a humanist.

I joined the humanist association in 2010, and I’ve been a humanist celebrant since 2013.

He describes the association as a "group of people who don't believe in god, but who have an ethical base".

"After joining I realised they did ceremonies, marriages, funerals and baby naming — that was fascinating. 

"I thought as a priest I would be with people at important points in their life — birth, marriage, death, and now here I am years later able to be with people at these turning points.

"I absolutely love being a celebrant — it's great to be able to do it without the artefact of religion. Here I can lead a celebration as best as I can, be that with a couple with friends and family, celebrating love and the human commitment, there are so many human stories where the meaning of life is at play," said Joe.

Joe has written a memoir about this entire experience of being stuck between believing and not believing, of staying and going, where he eventually relied on something as abstract as his gut, to make such a major life decision.

His book is called In My Gut, I Don't Believe: A Memoir.

"It is scary, but it is my truth, that’s what I learnt doing counselling — do I have the courage to base my life on this, my gut, and this alone, and not to base it on what I learnt as a kid, or the church or family? It is a hard won integrity, and it is my truth," said Joe.

In My Gut, I Don't Believe: A Memoir by Joe Armstrong is available in paperback or as an e-book on Amazon now.

Kate Gaffey — from catholicism to using HER menstrual cycle and the Celtic calendar as spiritual practices 

Kate Gaffey is the founder of Workplace Wellness and she  regularly leads yoga surf trips, Celtic women's circles and cyclic wisdom courses. Picture: Moya Nolan
Kate Gaffey is the founder of Workplace Wellness and she  regularly leads yoga surf trips, Celtic women's circles and cyclic wisdom courses. Picture: Moya Nolan

"I follow the wisdom of the menstrual cycle as a spiritual practice and the Celtic calendar," says Kate Gaffey, a Dublin-based yoga teacher.

Born in Drogheda to a family of seven, like many other Irish girls, she went to convent schools for primary and secondary and went to mass every Sunday.

"There was a great mass at 1.15pm at St Augustine's Church, it was nice and busy and Fr Iggy was the man of the day. He was really progressive, but it was us getting together and that was spiritual," said Kate.

She did her communion and confirmation without a "second thought" but explains that there "never was a Catholic thing at home".

However, her rich inner life as a child led her to worry she would be called to serve god.

"I had a rich inner life growing up, I thought a lot about God and why we are here, there was something in me, and I feel it stronger now as an adult.

"I was afraid I would get the call to be a nun, it felt almost like a threat: 'I'm sitting here and I'm going to get to the call, please god no, I really, really don't want to be a nun'.

"I was afraid it was in me and I would have to lead a life of solitude. There was a level of intensity there as a child, but it was because I had that rich inner life," said Kate.

This intensity dissipated in her teen years, where she became more "hippy".

"As a teenager I was more hippy. I got my first set of tarot cards — my grandmother bought me my first set, and I had crystals. 

"I remember getting a book on crystals and spells, and starting secondary schools, I didn't consciously let it go but I didn't rock the hippy vibe whole way through school or college," said Kate.

But come her mid-20s she came back to that rich inner life she'd had as a child, and began practising yoga.

Yoga means union, and it just brought me back to myself, and it brought me on a journey into me, then into surfing, then nature. 

"I went from being a 25-year-old wearing heels and tan who didn't want to leave the city to surfing and connecting with the land," says Kate.

From here she did a course in the Dublin Buddhist Centre, in loving kindness meditation, then yoga teacher training and then mindfulness.

"I love the feeling in savasana (the resting pose at the end of a yoga class), I love thinking the divine is within me," said Kate.

The yoga, mindfulness and meditation opened up a path for her and by the end of her twenties she was tracking the wisdom of her menstrual cycle.

"In my late 20s, I began tracking my menstrual cycle and learnt you can break it into four seasons, through Red School, and instinctively I knew that. 

I was working with that cyclical energy (menstrual cycle being on average 28 days in length). I would call it a spiritual practice," said Kate.

Now, at 36, she has been tracking her menstrual cycle for nine years.

"It has given me a deeply embodied sense of my self, of my womanhood, and a permission to work with my ebb and flow. 

"To take on challenges when I am feeling like superwoman, around ovulation, and embrace when I want to pull back from the world and restore. 

When I listen to that I'm building a lovely level of trust, a connection to a really deep wisdom, the contraction and expansion. It's such a gift as a woman because it's in us.

"The hero's journey is an outward one and the heroin's is an inward one — to me it makes such sense," states Kate.

She married this tracking of her menstrual cycle with the Celtic calendar, once the calendar used on this land for hundreds of years.

"The menstrual cycle is mirrored in the seasons and cycles in nature and mirrored in cycles of the Celtic Wheel," explains Kate.

The Celtic Wheel is the calendar the ancient Celts followed, marking celebrations like harvest or Lughnasa in August, spring or 'Imbolc' at the beginning of February and Bealtaine in May.

"I had been working with solstices and equinoxes. I did Mari Kennedy's Celtic Wheel training, you go from Samhain, to winter, to Imbolc, and so on, and those seasons embody what we are doing with the monthly menstrual cycle," said Kate.

Both following her menstrual cycle and the Celtic calendar felt like a "knowing" to her and she "dove into it".

"The Celtic Wheel provides a role for the ritual and celebration that we are missing, there is one every six weeks, what a great time to tap into yourself?

"You learn to ride those natural rhythms. That's why people like a yoga class, you light candles, it's a ritual, it feels sacred," says Kate.

In terms of religion or faith, how would she describe herself now on the country's Census form?

I'd probably pick pagan if pagan was on it, the word spiritual is thrown around a lot, but what does it even mean?

"But I have a rich inner life, connection with the divine and in tending to that inner life, contentment is one of the first words that comes up. There is a connectedness that wasn't there in my teens, I certainly feel more connected and more clear and content as a result," says Kate.

She now brings her experience to corporate settings and delivers wellbeing workshops in workplaces around Ireland. She also runs women circles and cyclical wisdom courses as well as teaching yoga and running yoga and surfing retreats.

Much of this has gone online due to Covid 19. But it has meant she has gone from having 13 women in a room, to 80 people on a call.

For anyone who might read this and think it's a bit "out there" what would she reply?

"To anyone who thinks this is mad — we are cyclical beings, we live in a circadian rhythm. Imagine if we ignored the need to sleep? 

"It's the same with the menstrual cycle, it's the same within nature. Just watch it, but we live in a linear way, nothing else in nature does," said Kate.

Dealing with the public, both in classes and in retreats or in corporate settings, the menstrual cycle awareness has always been well received, by both men and women.

"There is a small part of me when I say 'period bleed' or 'menstrual cycle' to a man that winces. But I don't know anyone in Ireland who wouldn't carry a little bit of that [shame].

"I've done menstrual cycle trainings in corporate settings and men have come to support their daughters or wives. 

"There is a spark in people's eyes. I know people want and need this, people are longing for this. It deeply resonates," said Kate.

"I was raised Catholic, but I don't identify. What I do now — this is native to the land. I'm not going to India to take from their culture, it's a native innate wisdom that's here," she adds.

Kate is on Instagram at

Ibrahim Noonan — from orthodox Catholic to Muslim imam

Ibrahim Noonan: His family found it very difficult initially to accept his change of religion.
Ibrahim Noonan: His family found it very difficult initially to accept his change of religion.

Ibrahim Noonan, was born Michael Noonan to a "strong Catholic GAA Republican family". 

While he grew up in Waterford, his father was from Cork and his grandfather was GAA legend Daniel O'Keeffe, the first player to hold seven All-Ireland medals. His grandmother was shot by the Black and Tans when they were burning Cork.

The idea that Michael would become the first ever Irish Catholic man to convert to islam, having been born into "a very orthodox Catholic family", was not part of his family's playbook.

Today, he is the national Imam of the Ahmadiyya muslim community both in the Republic of Ireland and of Northern Ireland. He is also the Imam of Galway mosque.

This is a man whose family was so devoutly Catholic that he was not "allowed to even look inside the door of a Protestant church". 

And Ibrahim was devout too, but not by force, but by faith.

"I definitely did feel something spiritual in the church, I did feel a love for God, a love for Jesus, I had a great affection towards the blessed virgin Mary," remembered the Imam.

His love was so strong that he considered becoming a priest, however, he discovered that the idea of celibacy was not something he believed in.

"I was very attached to the order of the Dominicans. Fr Fitzgerald was a huge influence on me as a young Catholic man. He said to me: 'I feel that god is calling you, you should consider the priesthood'. And I did. I went to retreats and everything.

"But one day we were preparing for the St Patrick's Day parade float. There were all these girls beside me — cheerleaders," said Ibrahim. "And the priest with me was staring at them. I said: 'What are you doing?' And he said: 'Michael, I am a human being'. Then I realised afterwards I didn’t believe in celibacy.

Here was a pious priest serving the community and he had emotions too. I was 15 or 16 at the time, and I couldn’t see myself not having a relationship. 

This realisation knocked Catholic priesthood on the head for him, but not religion.

He went on to study theology in the University of Wales, and this is where he came across Islam. 

He moved to London in 1986, which he describes as "not at all like Ireland" and where he "came across actual Muslims". He did a Master's in Philosophy next and then took a break from religious studies.

"I was living with a beautiful Irish girl, but I got in trouble with my lifestyle — my grandparents wouldn’t have approved of it. 

"I was happy but I was unhappy that I was living with a girl and not being married. I was pushing her saying: 'We should consider marriage'.

"We were 23, and she was just looking at me. I said: 'I know, I know. I know what I am asking you'. I was troubled by this, people have to understand I came from a very devout family. 

"I was doing all the things I was supposed to be doing, going to Mass but things declined," says Ibrahim.

Then the relationship ended and he met another Irish girl, this time a friend, who was married to a muslim.

"She praised him as a husband, and he was a good example of a husband. I met him and I was inspired by him. Hyde Park has a speakers' corner and he brought me there so I could see and listen to discussions about everything from secularism to atheism," says the Imam.

It was here that he heard a conversation between a muslim and a christian that really impressed him. So he decided he would "really investigate Islam".

His journey took him to mosques in London and then to Tunisia, North Africa, Libya and Morocco.

There is no compromise in their faith, they believed in one god, they practice their religion, they prayed five times a day, I really felt this is the way a faith should be and I was taken.

"I started investigating how I could do that. I saw the discipline and I could see the radicalism in some of the mosques, but that didn’t defer me from the faith, it was about finding the right community," says Ibrahim.

This is when he found the Ahmadiyya muslim community, which has 200m  members worldwide. He was 24.

There was just one problem. How do you tell your devout Catholic family that you're converting to Islam?

"I mean I was literally practising the whole way back from London to Ireland what I was going to say," says the Imam. But his family's joy at seeing him overrode his ability to tell them his big news.

Instead he started leaving hints around the house, including refusing a full Irish breakfast.

"Every day my dad was making me eggs and rashers and I was refusing them. I said: 'Just give me eggs. No one refused a full Irish then. One morning my dad said to me: 'I’ve made your favourite, black pudding', which I refused. 

"He became angry with me and said: 'You’re acting very strange, your mum is finidng you doing weird exercises in the room, which was Islamic prayers, have you become a muslim?' 

And oh my God there was a big explosion, I could hear my mother upstairs saying the rosary," remembers Ibrahim.

His family intervention involved priests being brought into the house and having holy water poured over him. His friends even came around to "convince" him. These friends have not spoken to him in the intervening 30 years.

When Ibrahim realised he needed to leave Ireland to follow his new faith, his mother literally fell to her knees as he left the family home.

My mum was literally hanging on to my knees, she was down on her own knees, they were scratched, she was begging me not to go.

He returned to London and went to Islamic university and became an Imam and served all around the world before returning here in 2003.

Ibrahim's family realised he was not "going through a phase" by this point and their relationship was restored.

"My mother gave me a lot of love and affection, and my father was always nice and kind to me. I think he wishes I had remained in the Catholic faith. He loves me and he makes it clear to me.

"One of the greatest moments in my life was visiting my parents when my mother was dying. My father grabbed me and hugged me and said he loved me," said Ibrahim.

He went on to marry a muslim woman; the couple have a family now and he runs the Galway mosque.

"I’m very happy spiritually, the only word I can use is to say I found my calling, my vocation. My family all love me, I'm so lucky. 

"My father said: 'I observed you and your family offering your prayers and I have to say your life seems meaningful'. That was profound for me," says Ibrahim.

Robert Freese — from Buddhist to baptised 

Robert Freese being baptised with godparents Justyna and Stephen Flynn (Happy Pear) and Fr Conor McDonough.
Robert Freese being baptised with godparents Justyna and Stephen Flynn (Happy Pear) and Fr Conor McDonough.

Robert Freese was born in America and was raised in Texas without any religious orientation. 

In his early 20s, he drifted towards Buddhism, a journey which led him to Ireland. He became a meditation teacher and ran Vipassanā meditation courses here, the same meditation taught by the Buddha 26 centuries ago.

However, his life here was going in two different directions, and he found himself thinking about Jesus in meditation. He has just been baptised a Catholic and has had his communion and confirmation.

But before Catholicism there was Taoism, astrology and Zen Buddhism, thanks to his siblings.

"My sister was into Taoism so I got some of that and my brother was going to a Zen monastery and had started meditating," said Robert. "We took a big road trip, and he was ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk and moved to France. 

"When I finished college I followed him, I spent some time at that monastery, living in their daily life and practising with people from all over the world," explains Robert.

While in Europe he was also tracing his ancestry and moved around places like England, Ireland, Wales and Germany.

I went to a Japanese Zen place, I went to a Tibetan place in Spain. I was doing the tour of Buddhist places, while going to these places where my ancestors were from.

"When I came to Ireland, I met the woman who would become my wife. We did Vipassanā meditation training. I felt a strong click, it's a very deep pure practice, in the training you're up at 4am, it's 10 hours a day of meditation for those 10 days."

The couple travelled to India and Burma visiting meditation centres in that tradition.

"When I found Vipassanā, I felt I found my spiritual home, I felt it fit," said Robert.

The couple settled in Ireland, with him getting a job in the bank while also running Vipassanā meditation courses voluntarily.

He describes the meditation as life-changing.

"It frees you up from a lot of baggage. The essence of the teaching is to come out of the reaction of either craving or aversion. I was on that path and was transformed in many ways," said Robert.

So how do you leave a life-changing Buddhist meditation practice to become a Catholic?

I was living a life where I was trying to be a monk and a management consultant at the same time. 

This conflict emerged around the same time as his 18-year marriage was coming to an end. Then around this time he experienced Jesus coming to him in meditation.

"I was meditating and it was this experience of Jesus coming to me, when you're practising Vipassanā you're not trying to visualise anything and I was imagining Jesus and him on the cross and I had this profound feeling of acceptance. I was with him, whatever I was suffering, he took on and transformed it.

"I had this feeling that the scaffolding of my spiritual life was being dismantled," said Robert.

A friend said she was praying for him at this time, and Robert also felt he wanted to "keep moving forward spiritually".

"I felt I needed to find some guardrails around my life, and I had a desire to be baptised and a desire for confession. I said this to a friend of mine and she was really happy to hear it, and she introduced me to my current fiancée," he said.

Then last September he went into St Saviour's, on Dublin's Dorset St, where he had his baptism, communion and confirmation.

While he still meditates, he now also prays, and he also does not feel he turned his back on Buddhism.

"It doesn't feel like I'm renouncing or turning away from meditation, what was missing from Buddhism was a personal relationship with god. I've a more personal relationship with god now, a deeper connection with God," said Robert.

"I've sat with a lot of people who've come from Catholicism to Buddhism, but I've done a figure of eight," he added.

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