Jana Riess: Irish Latter-day Saints face dwindling numbers, but researcher finds their community inspirational

The struggles of Mormonism in a country where to be Irish is to be Catholic.

(Peter Morrison | AP) A man dressed as St Patrick walks past a closed bar in Dublin in 2020. A new book examines what it's like to be a Latter-day Saint in Ireland.

What’s it like to be a Latter-day Saint in the Emerald Isle? On a trip last week to Dublin and Belfast for a conference, I learned a bit about that by interviewing Hazel O’Brien, a lecturer in sociology at South East Technological University, about her book “Irish Mormons: Reconciling Identity in Global Mormonism.”

The Republic of Ireland has a small but committed core group of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, mostly concentrated in and around Dublin, the capital. The republic doesn’t include the six counties of Northern Ireland, which remained part of the United Kingdom when Ireland left in 1922.

O’Brien isn’t a Latter-day Saint. Raised Catholic like the majority of people in Ireland, she describes herself now as nonreligious. But she spent a year doing deep-dive ethnographic research in two Latter-day Saint congregations — one an established ward with about 70 attendees and the other a smaller branch with around 30.

Those numbers themselves tell part of the story. If you look at the church’s official statistics, membership growth in Ireland looks healthy over the past decade; there were 3,013 members in 2013 and 3,980 in 2022, a 32% increase in just under 10 years. On the other hand, no new congregations have been created in Ireland over that period, which suggests poor retention of new converts and other members.

What’s more, according to the recently released 2022 census, only 1,111 people in Ireland said they were Mormon, a figure that includes both adults and children. This means that 72% of those the church lists as members do not declare themselves as such.

But that’s not the only challenge facing Latter-day Saints in Ireland, I learned. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s talk about the origins of your research. Why did you choose this topic?

It’s a mix, I think, of the personal and the professional. From a personal perspective, I definitely was a Celtic Tiger baby. I came of age when Ireland’s economic growth was at its highest — we were one of the wealthiest and most successful nations in the world in the late 1990s and early 2000s. And I was very much struck by this social and economic change that had taken place in Ireland from when I was a child. What would that feel like on the ground for people who maybe experience life as an Irish person differently than I do?

And then, from a professional perspective, I was reading around the sociology of religion and religion’s relationship to race in Ireland, and one of the things that struck me was that a lot of the studies that had been done in Ireland previously very much focused on religious minorities who were also racial or ethnic minorities. That meant we had a lot of information emerging on the likes of Hinduism and Islam, but less from small religions whose members would be majority white. I was intrigued by that. It’s important to tell the story of that experience, too, because otherwise we are getting a monolithic narrative that all non-Catholics in Ireland are also foreign-born, or not white.

You note that it can be hard for people to convert to Mormonism, and that it can drive a wedge in families, because the Catholic identity is so synonymous with Irish identity.

(Amazon) “Irish Mormons: Reconciling Identity in Global Mormonism," by Hazel O’Brien.

The U.S., I think, is just so much more familiar with religious diversity and accepting of religious diversity, and to seek out new parts of yourself is something that’s often celebrated there. The same is not necessarily true in the Irish context. For some reason, we still penalize those we think are different.

I think the reason Ireland has become that way is tied up with our history. The formation of our nation as an independent state separate from the British in the early 20th century was very much based on a deliberate decision to create a new, culturally Catholic national identity. We very deliberately tried to focus on what the British were not. So if the British were Protestant, we would be Catholic. And if they spoke English, we would try even harder to reclaim Irish as our language. This worked so well that as the 20th century progressed, the two things were really interchangeable: To be Irish was to be Catholic, and vice versa.

That leads us into a situation where, all these generations later, even in the midst of a lot of liberalization and the decline of the Catholic Church, it can still sometimes be seen as a huge loss to the family if somebody converts to a different religion. It’s leaving something of Irishness behind if you’ve chosen this other religion that’s often viewed as foreign.

And being foreign — specifically, American — is a problem for the LDS Church in Ireland?

With Mormonism, having a strong association with the U.S. is a particular challenge. As I spoke to people, I was really struck by how part of the challenge for the church in growing its membership in Ireland is going to be to truly represent itself as a global religion, as opposed to an American religion. And whiteness is very much in view with that. There is a presumption that when we speak about it being an “American” religion, we’re talking about a white American religion. That’s the bit that often goes unsaid.

And that’s a real challenge because in Ireland, the bulk of conversions to Mormonism are coming from those who are recent arrivals into Europe. Often those people are not white, and they don’t have an Irish or a European cultural heritage. So, if the church continues to present itself as being a white American religion, it’s going to struggle to hold on to those people.

Ireland has a complicated and bitter history with its former colonizer, England. You write how it can be hard for Irish Latter-day Saints that the church’s administrative structure lumps it together with the U.K.

Ireland’s position is a fascinating debate even within the scholarly literature. Some will argue that Ireland does not fit the criteria of a colonized nation, that Ireland was not one of Britain’s colonies in the same way that many other countries would have been historically. But there’s no doubt that there was huge resource exploitation, and a control of the Irish and their cultural identity in a similar way that we might have seen in other countries.

I was really quite surprised at the extent of some of the bitterness I encountered from some people towards how the church bundles Ireland with the U.K. Many Irish church members were saying they felt that Ireland and the U.K. were already overlooked, because the church still has such an American focus. This also affects missionary efforts. Ireland is bundled with Scotland as a mission area. This means the church does not always fully appreciate how member recruitment might differ in the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland, or Scotland, because of cultural differences.

What do you think the Irish Mormon community has to offer potential converts today, even with all the challenges?

I was struck by the consistent efforts to work at maintaining community within the congregations. The two congregations I researched for the book differed from each other, but both were solidly working hard to develop something, to overcome challenges, to maintain friendships. That struck me as very inspirational. There are lessons in that work that members can use outside of church, too, particularly in a social environment which is increasingly polarized.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Religion News Service columnist Jana Riess.

(The views expressed in this column do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)