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Europe Tuesday, 5 December, 2000, 16:36 GMT
'Celtic Tiger' or Lamb of God?
Rush hour in Dublin: far from its earlier, sleepy image, the city is now choked with traffic
By Rosie Goldsmith

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It's ten years since I was last in Dublin and I couldn't believe the changes. This was once a sleepy, slow capital with high unemployment and traditional pubs. Now it buzzes with new cars, plentiful jobs and trendy restaurants serving New World wines and sun-dried tomatoes.

Dublin's reversal of fortune has come about thanks to the rapid growth of its economy. Ireland has been nicknamed the 'Celtic Tiger', in an echo of the 'Asian tiger' economies whose growth amazed the world in the 1980s and 90s.

Dublin's Temple Bar district is now a tourist magnet
In the last five years Ireland's GDP has doubled, and so has the number of cars on its roads. That's partly thanks to famously plentiful EU grants, and Irish emigrants returning home with new skills and money to invest, but mostly because of the great get-up-and go attitude of a young generation of entrepreneurs.

God and Mammon

This used to be a very traditional city, too: the capital of the Catholic Church in Ireland. The Church once entered every corner of people's lives: education, the arts, relationships and social welfare. When I was here last Dubliners were still going to Mass in droves; the thirty-somethings I met this time said they now only attended Church for births, marriages and deaths.

With its new prosperity, the city has become the battleground of God and Mammon, of tradition and modernity.

The tension is not just because of the new money. The image of the Church has been badly bruised by a series of scandals involving priests and members of religious orders accused of the sexual abuse of young children in their care. There have been 38 convictions already and new cases are being investigated as ever more victims of abuse dare to come forward.

The Church's manpower crisis

Once the priest was a respected and trusted figure; today he may be spat on in the street. Fewer young men want to be ordained and more and more priests are leaving the ministry. It is a very difficult time to be a priest in Ireland.

Father Damien Farnon, one of a new generation of Irish priests
Father Damien Farnon is a rare young priest: he is thirty-four and the parish priest at Aughrim Street in Dublin. This is a large parish - 21,000 people - and there's a lot do these days with fewer priests to do it all. Father Damien invited me to spend the day with him, attending Mass in the morning, watching him at home where he dealt with his piles of post and endless calls from parishioners on his mobile phone, then accompanying him on his parish walkabout, where he visits the sick and housebound.

He is a conscientious and popular priest, saddened by the sex abuse scandals, which he said had tarred all priests with the same brush. As we sat over cups of tea in his little house next to the Church (he calls this "living above the shop"), Father Damien confided that the job was stressful enough without all that.

He told me he sometimes feels like Basil Fawlty (his favourite comedy character after Father Ted), frustrated, stressed and ready to shout at all and sundry. The average salary for a priest is 11,000 and that's sometimes for an 80 hour week.

Is the Church out of touch?

Paul King found the Church too insular to stay a priest
One young priest who was not able to tolerate the pressures is Paul King. A year ago he left the ministry and is now an ex-priest, part of a growing number of men leaving the Church. I met him in the picturesque village of Maynooth, just outside Dublin. This is home to the world-famous Catholic seminary, St. Patrick's, and it's where Paul was ordained.

Ex-priests usually leave because of the celibacy clause but today they are also daring to be more critical of the institution, like Paul. "It is rigid and all the decisions are made from above," he told me. "It is often lonely and it's difficult to live in an all-male environment. Sometimes it seems that the Church hierarchy is out of touch with our needs as priests and with the outside world." When Paul left last year he had no money, no job and no help: he was completely unprepared for the world outside.

The Catholic Church is now tackling these problems: a group of bishops, medical and social welfare experts have drawn up a framework document to help Church leaders cope with the crisis over the sex abuse scandals. It is encouraging open debate on all issues. The Church has lost power and influence, but as one priest told me, "today it's not the quantity of priests that matters but the quality."

Presenter Rosie Goldsmith and Father Damien Farnon relax after a hard day in the parish
As Father Damien said, "The Church today is less clerical, but much more interesting!". At the end of his busy day, we went downtown to one of the new trendy bars for a welcome drink. It was clear to me that if there were more priests like him - hard-working, affable and able to reconcile the worlds of the Celtic Tiger AND the Lamb of God, then the Catholic Church would have have fewer problems.

Also in this edition of Crossing Continents: how the booming economy is choking Dublin's streets with traffic; and the survival of an older form of transport, Dublin's famous horses and horse markets. And in a website exclusive, Rosie Goldsmith talks to Derek Mooney of RTE (Irish television) about another national passion which approaches the status of a religion: Gaelic football.

Patrick Rabbitte, Dublin, July 1999
"the scandals have been a profound shock"
Father Damien Farnon, Dublin, July 1999
on how the priest's image has changed - and why he does his own shopping!
Derek Mooney, RTE, Dublin, July 1999
about Gaelic football...
See also:

04 May 99 | Entertainment
08 Jun 99 | Business
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