Finding Faith in Ireland

Finding Faith in Ireland

A Barna Report Produced in Partnership with Christ in Youth

Under Pressure

Ireland is globally recognised for its long history of Christianity. There is debate over when people in Ireland first became Christian in large numbers, but most sources agree that Christianity had made inroads by the early 5th century AD, during the lifetime of Augustine of Hippo. Over the centuries, Ireland’s religious reputation was further formed by its monasteries, missionaries and Roman Catholicism. The Republic of Ireland emerged during the 20th century as one of the most Catholic countries in Western Europe.

Religion in Ireland is changing, however, as a global shift toward secularism gradually and inevitably makes an imprint on a population where Christianity has long been the dominant religion. One example: “Regular mass attendance has fallen significantly since the early 1980s, when some parishes recorded rates of up to 90 percent,” reports The Irish Times. “In some of the poorest areas of Dublin, it has fallen as low as 2 percent, while in more middle-class areas it is between 30 and 40 percent.”1 Barna has observed similar phenomena in studies conducted on primary faith segments in England and Scotland: While many remain very and sincerely engaged with the majority religion, others maintain it merely as a social or nominal faith—meaning,in the context of Ireland, a large body of Irish Christians are Catholic in name only.

In the midst of these changes is a young generation that is anxious and searching. This report, based on qualitative and quantitative studies conducted in partnership with Christ In Youth, examines young people in the Republic of Ireland between 14 and 25 years old, with a specific emphasis on their faith, worries and perceptions of Christianity.

As a precursor to research with young people, youth workers were gathered from a variety of denominations in Dublin for focus groups. Then, local interviewers conducted 96 face-to-face interviews with young people all over Ireland. At the same time, interviewers asked youth workers about their ministry and faith. Youth leaders who weren’t interviewed in person also had the opportunity to respond to the same survey online, contributing to a total of 51 online and 12 in-person interviews with youth workers. In addition to these qualitative methods, Barna conducted a randomised, representative survey of youth. Seven hundred fifty young people responded to questions in an online survey, and an oversample of 40 youth involved in church activities responded to the same questions.

For the purposes of this report, “teens” refers to respondents ages 14–18, and “young adults” refers to respondents ages 19–25. In addition, data and analysis refers to those who are “Irish” or in “Ireland,” though this is within the context of the study’s sample—nationally representative of the 26 counties of the Republic of Ireland—and not the six other counties that comprise Northern Ireland. Beyond historical divergences between the two countries that share the island, the difference is key to Barna’s analysis, as the Republic is much more associated with Catholicism (84%, compared to Northern Ireland’s 41%). In addition, the Republic of Ireland’s population is growing at more than twice the rate of Northern Ireland (17% and 7%, respectively), but the density of its population is only half of Northern Ireland’s, at 78,000 people per square kilometer2—geographical and sociological differences which can greatly affect young people and their future, as this report will detail.

Christian Practices by Age Group

January–February 2017, n=790 young people (ages 14–25) in the Republic of Ireland.
Those who “seldom do this or stopped” = those who report never doing this activity more than once every six months + those who used to do this and no longer do.


In interviews with youth workers, Ireland’s young people are commonly described as “lost” and “curious.” Those characteristics are accompanied by a drive toward morality and befuddled by image-consciousness and the ubiquity of technology. Even as young Irish people are drawn toward big and important questions about their faith, purpose and identity, they are susceptible to any number of conclusions.

As Barna’s study reveals, developing a deep and lasting faith is not an easy task, even in a culture long associated with the Church. More young adults— nearly half (48%)—than teenagers (40%) say they are less spiritual today than when they were 12. Young adult Christians are less likely than teenagers to agree with the statement: “It’s important to me that the way I live reflects my relationship with God.” Nearly half say this is not at all true of them (48%, compared to 35% of teens).

Teens are also more likely than young adults to have been to church in the last week (31% vs. 20% of young adults). Young adults confirm that their church attendance has declined over time; two-thirds of them (67%) say they are less active in church than when they were children. Meanwhile, half of teenagers (51%), only newly out of their childhood years, report they are less active in church today than at age 12. Still, a significant number (21%, compared to 12% of young adults) says they are more active now than they were a few years ago.

Church Attendance by Age Group

January–February 2017, n=790 young people (ages 14–25) in the Republic of Ireland.


There has been a reduction in young practising Christians—defined by Barna as those who identify as Christian, say their faith is very important in their life and have attended a religious service in the past month—similar to that of Irish citizens of all ages. The older youths are, the less likely they are to have continued practising their faith.3 There are likely generational differences at work, tied to the ideologies and behaviors of this specific group rather than only the spiritual transitions of growing older.

Age by Affiliation
January–February 2017, n=790 young people (ages 14–25) in the Republic of Ireland.


Each chapter of this report explores some of the formidable pressures that burden Irish youth searching for a sincere faith, including:

  1. Pressures of religious legacy and identity. Irish youth face a conflict over religious heritage. Most Irish youth, like the rest of the nation, consider themselves Christians, usually identifying as Catholic. But this label becomes an awkward fit as some grow up and struggle to see Christianity as more than a series of required ceremonies. Nominal Christianity presents a threat to thoughtful Christianity. Other countries in the region do not have quite the same conflict, given existing low rates of Christianity.
  2. Pressures of popular morality and culture. Young people in Ireland face a conflict similar to young people worldwide: the struggle to anchor their sense of morality at all, let alone to God or teachings of the Church. Broader youth culture and public opinion can make religious devotion and faith practice seem irrelevant, posing great social and ethical challenges to maturing Christians.
  3. Pressures of purpose and success. Individuals presently coming of age in the Republic of Ireland experience a pointed fear of the future. This group of Irish youth were born during or after the Celtic Tiger years, when Ireland rose dramatically from being one of the poorest to one of the richest western European countries, but the economy has not kept up. Since the global recession of the early 2000s, Ireland’s economy has contracted, then recovered somewhat. The pressure to succeed academically and then professionally can complicate the pursuit of a purposeful life and contribute to feelings of anxiety and aimlessness.

In this report, Barna combs through the reports of youth workers and firsthand accounts from Ireland’s young people to determine what makes the difference in developing an enduring and meaningful spiritual life.


At a Glance

  1. A Majority of Irish youth are Christian…
    70 percent are Christian, and 60 percent are Catholic specifically. 89 percent have attended a church service at some point.
  2. ...in name only.
    Despite the long-standing presence of the Church, 63 percent of young people in Ireland qualify as nominal Christians.
  3. One in four young people in Ireland is currently going through a crisis of faith.
    Church attendance, Christian practices and interest in spirituality are on the decline among young adults.
  4. Just three in 10 young people feel confident about their knowledge of theology or the Bible.
    Accordingly, even Christian respondents indicate a muddled understanding of core Christian teachings.
  5. The generation feels increasing conflict between progressive values and Christian morality.
    Even among practising Christians, three in 10 say Church teachings on sexuality are completely wrong.
  6. Attending Christian events is linked to a more personal and active faith life.
    Christians who go to such programmes are more likely to report a personal prayer life, attend church monthly and say that Jesus has deeply transformed their lives.
  7. Academic and professional pressures weigh significantly on the minds of young Irish people.
    Teens are most concerned about test scores, while young adults stress about finances and job security.
  8. Young Christians in Ireland are eager for a closer relationship between Catholic and Protestant communities.
    51 percent say there is too much tension between the Churches, and 79 percent agree someone can be a good Christian regardless of their denomination.
  9. Parents, church leaders and teachers are identified as influences who can make Christianity more appealing.
    Yet more than half of Christian youth do not know an adult who regularly talks with them about their faith.
  10. Seventy-one percent of young practising Christians in Ireland want to find a way to follow Jesus that connects to the world they live in.
    Who will help them?
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