Imam Ibrahim Noonan is the main religious figure of the Ahmadiya Muslim community in Galway. Born as Michael Noonan and raised Roman Catholic, he is from a family steeped in Ireland's independence struggle — hearing his accent and seeing his very Irish look — conversion to Islam is the last thing you would expect.
The Ahmadiya is the third largest Muslim sect and originated in Pakistan in the 19th century, but members are now found worldwide.
“Basically all my family are from Cork,” the 58-year-old explains. “We come from Crosshaven. Everyone in my father’s family were in the Irish republican brotherhood (IRB) and were very active in the struggle. So, when I converted to Islam, his family were upset, but in a loving sort of way,” he said.
Both his grand-uncles, Richard and Robert Noonan, were commanders in brigades and worked with independence legend Tom Barry from Cork City. His grandfather Bartholomew Noonan’s job was to pass messages to different battalions and houses about British forces' movements.
He added: "As for my own great-grandfather, Daniel Noonan, I have a feeling he was heavily involved but I can’t confirm this. He was married to my great-grandmother, born Katherine Collins; Now, I heard a rumour that she is a third cousin twice removed of Michael Collins but I can’t verify this.”
“My grandmother from my father’s side, Peggy Noonan was shot by the Black and Tans in Cork city when she was 14. Obviously she survived or I wouldn’t be alive to tell you this.” His mother is a Murphy and both sides are devout Roman Catholics.
Noonan became a youth leader for the Catholic Church and later went to study in Wales. He was going to become a priest and at the end of his studies had "a difference of opinion" on theological issues including celibacy. He did consider Judaism — according to Yanky Fachler, chair of the Jewish Historical Society of Ireland, “we almost got him!”.
First, he converted to Salafism, a strain of Sunni Islam known for its orthodox interpretations then eventually, Ahmadiya. He had been to every mosque in London before coming to this point.
After trying the many Islamic schools, he was at a wedding and witnessed “a massive argument” about the Islamic interpretation on 'the coming of Jesus' between two Muslims. He took the side of the person with a more metaphorical interpretation (an Ahmadiya) rather than that of a Sunni member who took it literally. The latter turned out to be none other than London Mayor Sadiq Khan.
From there, he studied in an Islamic University in Rabwaw, Pakistan. He founded Galway Interfaith Alliance and has reached out to different religious groups including the Jewish community. “I encourage Muslim children to get a Holocaust education,” he said.
In the 1960s, some Pakistani Ahmadiya lived in Galway but most have since moved to other places. The current community is comprised of recent immigrants and a few ethnic Irish converts. Since Noonan’s tenure began in 2003, the community has grown. Noonan is conversant in Arabic, Urdu and Irish.
“I have been called all the insults: 'Bin Laden, ISIS, Taliban, Ayatollah' you name it. And I have also been threatened by Muslims from other sects.” Extremists from other sects have even told him "if this was the Middle East, we'd kill you.” He said: “You can say I’ve got it from all the ‘extremes’ angles.”
He recalls an incident back in 1996, when he was targeted by the BNP while he was in London. He was in a mosque alone and was confronted by a gang of seven. They heard him yelling back in his Cork accent and growled “F***ing hell you’re not just a Muslim, you’re a f***ing IRA terrorist as well.”
"My Irishness took over, being a Cork boy,” he says, “being trained in martial arts and having some bamboo sticks with me, everything just happened so fast and I was covered with blood, a lot of blood, not mine. I don’t know what I was thinking!"
"Then one night a group of men came and abused us badly and when the police were called and asked who would identify them personally, none of the Pakistanis would come forward but I did. The policeman said 'Mr Noonan you have to come and point at every one of them' and so I personally went with the cops and identified all of them at this one bar. The BNP members were subsequently fined.”
He initially thought of setting up a mosque in Dublin. The second option was Cork because of his family ties. But ultimately he decided on Galway. "There are members from all over Ireland, but many people gather in Galway for the celebrations.” he said.
“This year, the Ahmaddiyas in Dublin, Cork and other places will be holding Eid celebrations in their own cities.”
In 2003, when there were only eight Ahmadiya Muslims in the city, “being a boorish Irishman, I approached the mayor who said to me 'A mosque in Galway, are you mad?'”
“Imam Noonan is very dedicated and has truly done a lot for the community, helping it grow and be actively involved,” says Kaleem Ahmad, a community member.
In 2019, far-right thugs attacked the Galway mosque, causing thousands of euro in damage. It was also vandalised in 2017.
The community has plans to build a mosque in Cork one day and are currently working on a full Irish language translation of the Quran, but this is hindered because, Noonan says, there are very few people who can speak both Gaelic and Arabic fluently and having an intermediate isn't efficient.
Noonan says: “A few centuries ago the only religious groups here would have been Catholicism, Anglicanism and Judaism, but now Ireland has a lot more change, but it’s still a very devout country.”
As the month of Ramadan begins this week, ending with the celebratory Eid al-Fitr on April 21, Noonan says: “We invite all visitors including non-Muslims to come break the fast with us.”