DUBLIN, Ireland—Population figures in more than half the parishes in the Tuam Archdiocese are in “serious decline,” according to a survey done by the western diocese. The Quo Vadimus report compiled over two years by sociologist Father Michael MacGréil SJ highlights the continuing social problems in rural Ireland, problems that have fueled Irish emigration to the United States and other countries for more than a century.

Before the mid-19th century Great Irish Famine, the population of the diocese stood at about 400,000. That figure had fallen to 118,814 by last year. Archbishop Michael Neary said he commissioned the survey because the sheer size of his diocese — Ireland's largest by area — made such a report necessary for pastoral planning.

Father MacGréil says that population decline due to low fertility and the emigration of young adults is “one of the most serious and fundamental problems facing numerous communities in the west of Ireland.” Not including changes due to emigration and immigration, the population of Aughamore parish in southeast Mayo fell by nearly 9.5% in six years. In the parish of Achill the population fell by 217 people, more than 7.5%.

Added to the natural decrease — the death rate is higher than the birth rate — populations continue to fall due to emigration. While urban areas in the diocese, including Castlebar, Tuam, Westport, and the outskirts of Galway, experienced population growth due to people moving to the area, the survey found emigration exacerbated population decline in eastern County Galway and central and eastern Mayo. In one parish, primary school enrollment fell by 27% between 1993 and 1996. In the same period several other parishes suffered school attendance decreases of more than 15%.

“Since the foundation of the Irish Free State, internal migration out of the west of Ireland has grown progressively while emigration to Britain and to the United States continues to drain our young talent away,” says Father MacGréil. “Without a policy of adequate job opportunities throughout the parishes of the west, the basic fabric of local communities and parishes will be under continuous threat.

“The future improvement of the communities in decline cannot happen without strategic and effective intervention by the state or the European Union (EU), at least in the short term — such as the implementation of a project-based, 10-year plan for the west of Ireland.”

The country's western bishops have long been calling on the government to produce a development plan for their area, but successive administrations in Dublin have not responded. The problem is worst in Achill, where the unemployment rate is 52.3%.

In his report, Father MacGréil says that those in the west who survive on state welfare “are not always given sufficient credit for their personal self-sacrifice.”

He says that because poor people's income from the state is so visible, they are perceived as “more parasitic on community resources.” But, according to Father MacGréil, the opposite is true: “The poor make relatively little demands on higher education, receive very little from the EU's common agricultural fund and make minimal use of other forms of expensive infrastructure. “The value to communities of those in receipt of income supplements, unemployment assistance, grants, etc., is enormous. Without their staying at home many communities would have collapsed for want of population. In a real sense, it has been better for the local community that many opted for ‘the dole’ rather than for migration or emigration.”

The survey found that religious practice is high among Tuam's population, which is 98.6% Catholic. More than 80% attend Sunday Mass. There is also a wealth of spiritual devotion. Every parish organizes an annual pilgrimage, and 41 of Tuam's 56 parishes organize three pilgrimages or more a year. The survey also finds: “The practice of the Stations [of the Cross] or neighborhood Masses is a feature of practically all parishes. The average number of homes in each station area is between 18 and 19, and the average attendance throughout the archdiocese is between 28 and 29 persons. Around one-third of those attending would be under 16 years.”

Despite this rich spiritual tradition, vocations to religious life are at their lowest level this century. In a six-year period, there wasn't one vocation to the priesthood in more than half the parishes of Tuam. While Tuam had a total of 54 new vocations between 1990 and 1995-96, Father MacGréil commented: “When one considers that only between one-third and one-half of them will reach ordination, one gets a very stark picture of what is happening.”

Statistics on congregations of brothers and sisters revealed that in six years only eight women in the archdiocese followed a call to religious life and no men entered life as a religious brother. “The findings present an amazing picture of the current decline in people's desire to embrace the religious life practiced in the archdiocese since the time of Sts. Brigid, Patrick, and Jarlath,” the report says. “The decline of support for the vocation of the religious brothers and sisters marks a rejection of something that was a central feature of Irish Catholicism.

“Why have these congregations ceased to be positive reference groups for believing and committed young men and women? Thankfully, there are sufficient numbers of sisters (at least) to facilitate a recovery of a situation — that is, if the current demise is transitory. It appears to be still possible to rescue the situation, [and to achieve] a continuity and a rebirth.”

The survey, meanwhile, found that a temperance organization, the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association, is the most popular Church-based organization in the archdiocese with branches in nearly 70% of parishes.

The next most popular organizations are the Legion of Mary, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, St. Joseph's Young Priests' Society, and the Order of Malta. “It is significant that a Church-based peace movement or organizations addressing ecumenical and other issues of pastoral concern have not emerged at the parish level in the archdiocese so far,” the report says. Without such structures, it continues, “it is difficult to enable committed Christians to address the concerns of the current situation in an effectively collective manner. It is more difficult to organize collectively in a culture that emphasizes individualism and in a time when religion in the Western World tends towards a privatization of practice.”

Cian Molloy writes from Dublin, Ireland