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.
“My dad would go to church in a new city to get a lay of the land, to understand his surroundings,” Corr said. “That wouldn’t even cross my mind.”
O'Leary also never worried about finding a church when he landed because he expected one to be on every corner.
“It would have been something I didn’t think about,” O'Leary said. “There would be air, there would be water, there would be a church.”
Most Irish emigrants – about 20,000 each year – go elsewhere in the European Union. The next largest groups head to the United Kingdom and Australia. About 3,000 Irish each year come to the United States. With job growth invisible during the past five years, people have left Ireland in numbers unseen since the mid-1800s Great Famine.
Kirby said the primary factors in choosing a country have been economic opportunity and cultural affinity. O'Leary saw the church as being interwoven with culture. Corr's generation would rather not associate with the church, even as a last resort.
Though Catholicism is booming in the emerging economies of Latin America and Southeast Asia, newer Irish emigrants aren't taking much notice. The mix between Catholicism and culture might be stronger in those countries than say New Zealand or the U.S., but emigrants are going to where the Irish always have gone. They've limited themselves to English-speaking countries despite the receding religiosity in those nations.
To be sure, there are some Irish pushing for more immigration to less familiar locales.
Steve Lydon, a doctoral student at Harvard University who grew up in Ireland, has visited Colombia on numerous occasions. He said both Ireland and Colombia have similar checkered pasts filled with sectarian violence. And for young adults looking for more cultural freedom, he said South America's the perfect place.
One of the stumbling blocks is the lack of second-language education in Ireland. Ireland and Scotland are the only two countries in the 27-state European Union that don't require students to learn a second language. Overall, 54 percent of Europeans say they are able to speak one additional language other their own compared to 40 percent of people born in Ireland, according to a 2012 Eurobarometer survey. The 2011 Irish census says it's just 25 percent among people actually born in Ireland.
“We tend to focus on things that are financially productive,” Lydon said. “Language doesn’t fit under that perception. It’s more of an irritation.”
So the chances of emigrants recapturing their Catholic faith diminish as they head to countries such as America, Australia or Canada. In a sign of their secularization, those developed, Westernized countries have twice the proportion of atheists as some countries in Latin America or Asia, according to a 2009 compilation of data by Pitzer College professor Phil Zuckerman.
To add on, the younger Irish generation plans a comeback. Kirby said recent emigrants see emigration as a temporary solution because they tend to be more skilled. As a result, they are poised to further secularize Irish culture upon their return.
“People who see a bit of the world for a couple of years and see some diversity, they come back and don't want to have every little thing in life center around the church,” Corr said.
Corr was at Sonny McLean's, an Irish pub in Santa Monica, Calif. on a recent Friday night to hear an Irish band touring Southern California. Chatting with members of the band only deepened his urge to return to Ireland once his family's farming business is able to sustain the whole family.
“It'd be nice,” he said.
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