Struggle with church continues after emigrants leave Ireland
A case study at USC by journalism students there
Where Micheal O'Leary sought churches in America two decades ago, John Corr now looks for pubs. Both of them left Ireland for the United States during times of limited job opportunities at home. But the contrast in their emigration stories illustrates the growing gap between the Irish diaspora and the Catholic Church, say journalism students at USC who have been studying Ireland and Catholicism this year.
For O’Leary’s generation they found the church was integral to smoothing their transitions abroad. He planned to stay in America forever. He opened pubs in Los Angeles and won election to Culver City's city council.
Corr sticks to patronizing pubs. He dreams each day of returning to Ireland soon. And he sees no place for the church in his life. Many from his generation had their ties to Catholicism frayed by two decades of scandals. He barely entertained the idea of going to a developing country where both the economy and Catholicism are flourishing. Instead, young Irish emigrants are mixing with increasingly secular cultures overseas. They also view emigration as a short-term fix. So as they return home, the imprint of religion in Irish life stands to further fade.
On a recent weekend, as O'Leary tapped the shoulder of the priest at St. Augustine Catholic Church to thank him for a good sermon, chances were that Corr was jabbing elbows with friends at an Irish pub a few miles away.
O'Leary grew up with positive depictions of the church in films, activities and everyday life. Nothing could shake his faith – not even the realization that he narrowly escaped what likely would have been an uncomfortable situation with a priest. After coming to America in 1987, he joined decades of emigrants before him in fitting right into the Catholic community. Though he quickly found a job, he was living in a public housing project where strangers refused to strike up conversations.
“When I had nothing else and nobody else, the one thing I could turn to was the church,” O'Leary said.
Beyond kinship, the church also offered basics such as education and healthcare.
“It was a community that offered a basis of support through which immigrants could advanced socially,” said Peadar Kirby, professor emeritus of international politics at the University of Limerick.
Corr's generation, however, has tenuous links to the church, Kirby said.
“Everything they hear, it’s all very negative and every report is a shock to the system that erodes the Catholic Church in their minds,” Kirby said.
Corr, 25, came to Los Angeles in April 2011 to work in the construction industry. He left behind his parents and their farm in County Kilkenny.
When Corr's mother visited, she quickly noticed a nearby church and said he should go make friends there.
“I don’t need to go to a church to meet a new people,” Corr said. “Now, the Irish find the nearest Irish bar and go and talk to people.”
In his time in America, he said he hasn't set foot in a church.
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