We in Ireland are in a strange system of living at the moment. Our society, for the most part, is secular, and has been becoming more so this way in the last 20 years than ever before. Our media has been filled with tales of horrific abuses within church-led organisations, regressive attitudes towards things like reproductive rights and same sex marriage, and somewhat of a wall being put up against changing to fit in further with our new century views within the way it has always been. Ireland is known through the world as being a Catholic country, a religious state, despite the fact that our percentage of Roman Catholic citizens has been dropping (a drop of 3% to 84% of population in last census, 2011) and attendance at churches is hitting all time low levels. There is, for the most part, a great deal of separation between Church and State – the two major ties remaining being the health system (in particular reproductive rights issues) and our education system.
Over 90% of Irish primary schools are run by the Catholic Church, with a further 6% by Protestant Churches. Despite being publicly funded from the tax payers pocket through the Department of Education, and while obeying all state laws regarding discrimination for both pupils and staff, a large level of control is not in the hands of the state but rather a private, religious body, using the term “religious ethos” as grounds to do as they please. The main components of this “religious ethos” which can guide the rules, the do’s and don’ts, of these schools generally go by “must fit in with our faith system”. Fair enough, you’d say, if it was as simple as that, but when you look into it further, it really is questionable how a system funded by taxes paid by all employees in the state, regardless of their religious standing in society or belief system, can choose to discriminate who they employ or teach based on their choices of religion, marital status or sexual orientation.
I was born into a Roman Catholic family, I was baptised, I made my sacraments in school at the ages of 7 and 11 just like the rest of the children in my class. In primary school, I remember spending half an hour a day on religious education for the 8 years of my schooling (just under 92 hours of religious education per year, 30.5 days in my 8 years of Primary school). This was made up of learning stories, prayers, poems and songs about Jesus, biblical stories, sacraments and other Catholic religious practice, as well as a more general rounded approach including community, things like growing up, charity work etc. The parish priest was a regular visitor to the school, he would often call into class where he would discuss with us different religious topics – my memory of what exactly was discussed is fuzzy, but I am on good information that pedantic little me at the age of seven corrected him on something and did somewhat get a kick on being more up on Theology than the man in charge of saying mass. In secondary school, for my Junior Cert I received an A in Religion. I was good at it, the examinable subject was a lot more broadminded and taught about other religions and different world views. I found it interesting, different from other things we’d been taught previously. I definitely feel that the addition of a young enthusiastic teacher who had a genuine love for the subject was key here – as with any subject, if the teacher themselves does not like the topic, her students are unlikely to grow a love for it and then to do well in it. For Leaving Cert I continued with the same teacher, this time not as an examinable subject but rather a more rounded look on society and topics that may have been controversial or more out there than other topics would touch – things like disciplining children, relationships, cults, belief in the Supernatural. There was a lot of film watching (We got to watch Ghost with the potters wheel scene fast forwarded as it was “irrelevant”), a lot of stand up debating which I loved, and a couple of nice day trips as well as meditation. To this day, I find it difficult to meditate without being worried Jesus is going to join me on the beach, since he did it EVERY time in school. I’ve also got a good working knowledge of the Hail Mary in three languages, and the Our Father in two, as well as a variance of hymns and religious songs thanks to an emphasis placed on prayers before every class (thats about 40 prayers a week, without any extra religious events). Room taken up in my brain by non examinable content which I have found no greater use for in life after school – not that Pythagoras and me are old buddies by any stretch, but at least he contributed to my points in the Leaving Cert. Just saying.
Since leaving school, my involvement in religious life has dulled considerably. The main reasons for my attendance of mass at any time in the last six years has been an occasion – Christmas Eve mass with my family, funerals, weddings, the odd prayer service to support someone else. Church is not where I find my salvation, it is not where I turn to when times get tough. I understand a lot of people have an incredible amount of faith, but that is not me. There are a lot of things that the church I was joined into as a child has done and said that I disagree with completely, some of the viewpoints expressed by church leaders do not fit in with the way I live my life and the way I want to raise my child. I do not hold that against any of my friends, family members or anyone else who does hold a much stronger belief in this church – these are merely my views and I feel that it is important that I am allowed to have them alongside those who have the faith having theirs. This can often be a controversial topic which can get hot headed very quickly.
When my son was born, it was not my initial thought to baptise him – getting through the first couple of weeks was enough to be thinking about, instead of deciding his spiritual future for him. I didn’t feel that baptising him into the same religion which I have lapsed out of just for tradition, or just so he would have a church to belong to was a good enough reason to go ahead with it. Making older relatives happy, despite being something I do like to do, was also not high on my priority list for this task. Religion can be a major thing in people’s lives and I didn’t feel it was something I could do without feeling wholly hypocritical, to stand up in a religious building and say I would raise my child within that faith, bring him to mass on a weekly basis and all that goes along with it, when I know that I don’t intend to do such a thing. A further complication in the tale as such is that my lovely Himself, E’s Daddy, is of a different Christian church to myself. Again, quite lapsed, but different. Thus starts the questions as to if we were to go down a route, which route would it be to go down. The easiest answer so far has been to not take a route at all.
My child is 16 months old. The average starting age for school in Ireland is between four and five, with all children over six having to be within an educational framework. On the outset, I thought, grand so, ages to go before worrying about that. Then the talk about waiting lists began. Putting names down. People mentioning being number 170 on a list when they put the child down at the age of 4 months old. The fear kicked in. I started looking at enrolment policies. For someone who isn’t sure where she’s going to be living for the next five years (to be honest, the next five weeks is looking shaky!), it does make life a lot tougher to have to consider what schools may or may not be in the area when we are looking to move house. Not only do we have to like the school, considering convenience and proximity to other children in classes, but we also will have to fit within some form of a catchment area. And get our names down retrospectively, since despite all the worrying, his name still isn’t down on any lists. Oops.
In my search through enrolment policies, a similar theme came up in most of them. The vast majority of schools in the area were run with a Catholic or Christian ethos, with one or two being multi-denominational. We are lucky in Cork to also have a growing number of Educate Together schools within close reach – though these do face long waiting lists as many more parents search for a secular education for their child. In the religious run schools, a common request with the enrolment form was that it be submitted with a copy of the child’s baptismal cert. Some put it down as “if applicable”. Others did not, intending it to be a requirement for entry. Further to this, when looking down the list of criteria which would decide which child, if a school was oversubscribed as so many are and will continue to be thanks to the latest recession baby boom, would receive a place and in what hierarchy they stood in. For the religious run schools it was cut and dry, pupils who were baptised and practicing the religion from within the parish were top of the line. Next came siblings of the current pupils, which seems like a good idea to enforce for less stressful mornings. Then the baptised children of that faith from outside the parish. After that, it becomes a bit more clouded dependent on the school – some give next priority to non-Catholic/whichever faith pupils from within the catchment areas, others extend the courtesy further to other groups including children of staff and children of past pupils. Those who do not hold the baptismal certificate as a pre-resequite for entry for the most part do however state that if their ethos is one of a religious nature, they will not cater for the education of other faith systems and parents are in agreement with the teachings of their church being taught to their child by enrolling them. There is little wiggle room from the indoctrination and this has led to a large movement towards changing the laws regarding policies around who gets into what school and what that is based on.
I seem to be left with few options, like so many people I know and so many whose stories I have heard lately in newspapers, on the radio and in interviews I’ve seen online. I can choose to baptise my child into the religion which my parents imparted on me, feeling a little hypocritical, but safe in the knowledge that my child will not be put further down a waiting list for a school place based on his lack of a piece of paper. I can choose to baptise him into my partner’s faith, with roughly the same consequences (though I may need to learn a few more prayers and try to partake in community events). Or I can choose to wait it out, stick his name down and hope for the best. At the moment, I want to do the third option but as the time gets closer to when I absolutely have to have his name down for different schools and they’re asking for certificates I don’t have, I am feeling the pressure to put a religion on my child that I don’t quite believe in for the sake of ensuring that he gets an education. Our own education minister, Jan O Sullivan, has questioned the policy in recent days calling the practice of baptising a child for a school place, as so many parents do, “disturbing”.
How this will all pan out is yet to be seen. I am just hopeful that Ireland’s government will move with the times and realise that our society has changed from the predominantly Catholic population to a large multicultural body with many creeds, beliefs and practices different from what we are used to and act upon it accordingly. I guess we just have to wait and see.