April 25, 2005

The communions frenzy

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It must look strange if you have never seen a first communion before. The sight of dozens of little girls dressed up in white frilly dresses, tiaras, dainty shoes and veils accompanied into a packed church by dozens of little boys kitted out like miniature Nickys from Westlife.

Mass attendance has fallen progressively, but the communion business has flourished. It appears that the less privately observant we are, the more publicly ostentatious our expression of religion becomes. While this begins at over-the-top baptisms (christening parties in the Four Seasons are not unheard of), the first communion frenzy remains the exemplar.

Every May, suburban Ireland turns into a bonanza for the bouncy castle vendors, parasol-floggers and three-star hotel owners who cash in on the chicken and chips circuit. Indeed, if you have children whose birthdays fall in May, the chances of getting a bouncy castle for the day at a decent price are slim.

The great Irish communion splash-out has been the subject of much debate on the airwaves, largely because poor people tend to spend more than rich (and in the extreme get into debt).

This vignette of Irish society consists of a fusion of the two aspects of our lives that the last and the new Pope have been emphasising. One of the key messages of the Catholic Church has been that individualism and consumerism are not healthy.

The church urges us to be more spiritual and community-driven.

However, the communion frenzy allows us to be both: we can be communitaire by celebrating together, while at the same time we can compete in the consumer arena by allowing our kids to out-parasol each other on the big day.

Ireland is rapidly becoming a highly child-centric society. In the past five years we have seen an explosion in small families. Whether people are married or living together, Ireland is experiencing a new baby boom that is totally different in structure to anything we have had before.

In the past, our baby booms were driven by a few women having many children. In the 1960s and 1970s Irishwomen who were having kids had four children on average. An amazing statistic is that one third of all births in Dublin’s maternity hospitals in 1960 were the fifth birth or higher.

By the late 1990s that figure had plunged. Today, only one in 20 women has five or more children. Instead of a relatively small number of large families, we are now seeing a boom in small families.

Our new baby boom is characterised by one and two-child families.

More than half of the women giving birth this year in our maternity hospitals will be having their first baby – way ahead of the EU average.

Today, according to the CSO, 30 per cent of all families in Ireland are termed �young families’ – with children under five. This contrasts starkly with the rest of Europe. The majority of these are living in the new suburbs in the commuter belts around Dublin, Cork, Galway and Limerick.

The latest figures indicate that Kildare and Laois are the most child-productive counties in Ireland, with the number of births increasing by 15-18 per cent between 1996 and 2002 alone.

Despite the impressive birth rate, the single biggest factor driving the population explosion in commuterville is still affordability. Although we all know this anecdotally, and as we see our friends, family and colleagues moving into the commuter counties, nonetheless a quick look at the figures is startling.

For example, the 2002 census revealed that 62 per cent of the population change in Carlow since 1996 was the result of people from outside Carlow settling there from the first time, with no previous connection to the county.

For Westmeath, the corresponding figure was 69 per cent, for Wexford 66 per cent, Meath 73 per cent, Kildare 61 per cent.

This is not just a greater Dublin phenomenon. In Clare, 66 per cent of the increase in the population since 1996 is a result of non-Clare people moving in, reflecting the spread of the Limerick conurbation.

As we have had a housing boom with no commensurate efforts to create lasting jobs in these new suburbs, we have seen an explosion in commuting. Take three large towns from the now inappropriately described midlands. In Mullingar, 51 per cent of its residents do not work in the town. This figure rises to 57 per cent for the residents of Athlone and drops somewhat to 47 per cent for Tullamore.

The message is clear: these formerly large standalone towns with independent histories, local cultures and local economies are now fast becoming dormitory towns.

It is the new commuterville parents who are caught in the traffic. Many are spending over an hour and a half commuting each way and rarely get to see their children. Parenting is outsourced to grandparents, child-minders or creches (such as the grandiosely titled Little Harvard outside Naas).

Due to the rising birth rate and the influx of commuters with young children, the populations of Meath, Laois, Westmeath and Kildare have grown by more than 25 per cent in six years. That’s a lot of communions!

Communions are serving a number of disparate roles, which is why the ritual is so fascinating. First, a big splash for the communion allows absentee parents – who are guilty at not seeing the children all week – to give something back.

What better way to make up to little Chloe? Knackered, overworked parents display their own �good parenting’ badge (so important these days) via the lavishness of their eight-year-old’s communion party.

The �no bouncy castle is big enough for his communion party’ syndrome comes into its own. This combination of guilt and lavishness can be termed �bouncy castle syndrome’, and it afflicts many outwardly normal young Irish parents.

The second role for a communion is to get family and friends together, because the stresses of mortgage, sales targets and commuting mean that you never get to see your friends. So a communion, far from being a religious event, acts as the catalyst to an afternoon session with old mates.

Third, the communion is a chance to show off. This is typically driven by mothers and passed on to daughters, who in turn will pass it on to their own daughters. Communions are fashion statements.

If you don’t believe me, just explore the website of the thoroughly fashionable Off the Rails show. The section on communion makeovers for eight-year-olds is quite the eye-opener. There is an eight-year-old girl, modelling dresses from Clerys, Baby Bambino and Little Angels.

Let’s take for example the offering from Baby Bambino, which tells us that �at Baby Bambino in Clarendon Street, Dublin, they go for something a little less traditional. Maria Fusco suggests buying separates which can be worn again. They don’t do any of the accessories such as veils, tiaras and socks.

�A basic linen dress can go from �90 up to �450. For this model they chose a Linen Jacket with Silk Organza Skirt and two feathers in her hair.�

So there you have it. The great communion frenzy is upon us, with child models, bouncy castles, parasols and Chicken a la King. The first Irish communion season of the new papacy will be a flamboyant affair � as was the recent gathering of the cardinals in St Peter’s.

We could have a new term for madly consumerist religious display – let’s call it Conclave Catholicism – all big hats, bright colours, bespoke tailoring, swanky dresses, pomp and ceremony.

Conclave Catholicism sums up modern religion for many thousands of young Irish parents caught in the no man’s land between being good parents and being good career employees, while genuflecting to tradition. If you want to get a glimpse of modern Ireland, forget politics, commentary or current affairs – just go to a communion.


  1. bertie

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  2. michael o reilly

    Good article David,

    You are really exposing the modern Ireland in many of
    your articles. I live near Tullamore and Mullingar and what
    you say is so true about them. Up to 10 years ago these
    were stand alone towns with their own economies but now all
    you have to do is look at the train station car parks
    during weekdays to see what is happening. More and more
    money is not being spent in the towns but in the out of
    town centres like B&Q, Tesco, Woodies etc.

    I think that modern Ireland has developed too quickly
    for its own good. It seems intent on disposing of all
    aspects of the old Ireland in its embrace of modernity.
    Indeed many tourists coming here are now dissappointed to
    find that so little of the old Ireland they came here to
    see has vanished. Indeed in many ways the tourism industry
    is still living off of our past image.

    I think that measures should now be taken to slow down
    growth in the economy. I don’t see the logic in continuing
    to attract multinationals which by and large want to locate
    in the cities and at the same time having to bring in
    immigrants to work in them. They are not sustainable in the
    long term because they are too globaslised in their
    outlook. Of course multinationals to an extent can be good
    but their dominance in the irish economy is both unique and
    unhealthy.

  3. Alan Conroy

    Good article David, on the money as usual, of course the
    kids are also involved with discussing their projected haul
    from the upcomming communion or confirmation.

    As to the chap how says we should slow the economy down and
    feels pity for tourists how dont see the old Ireland, well
    sorry but I dont think we should have to live in thatch
    cottages to give some american or german their jollies for
    their 2 week break.

    Ireland is moving on, but still slowly in some apsects,
    that fact that we still have a build up around communions &
    conformations in our schools shows the undue influence that
    the church still has on society.

  4. Natalie

    I agree with you Michael. It may sound like a harsh comment
    but the rapid influx of money onto Ireland is having the
    same effect as winning the lottery for someone not used to
    having money. The usual result is a complete individual and
    family breakdown. Sudden influx of money highlight issues
    with lack of maturity.
    Ireland used to live frugaly under the strong leadership of
    the church. Remove moral control (I am not a fan of the
    church by the way)and awash with money, what do you think
    will happen? Break-down but flashiness and loss of
    direction. Appearance over substance.

    And the communion example is particularly telling. Here,
    kids have rehearsal make up and fake tan to look better.
    Utterly shocking.

    But is Ireland child centric? My perception is no. Children
    are being used as designer accessory. Are parents feeling
    guilty? maybe some. I do meet a lot of working parents for
    who kids provide that aura of social acceptability but yet
    cannot cope with being with them for any length of time.

    Modern Ireland is consumer-centric. With parents busy
    proving themselves, kids are being abused by neglect.
    Parents are urged to splash “toi relieve guilt” adn kids
    are urged to splash to gain some sort of identity.Worse
    still deep down, everbody knows it. For those that resist,
    the middle ground is really hard to sustain.

    But what will be consequences for the future generations?
    Young adults that do not their right from their left?
    Ungrounded adults able to monologue for hours about reality
    TV but cannot see that democracy is gone? Hyper emotional
    individuals that cannot form lasting relationships because
    they do not know what it is or because Sony taught to shoot
    whoever disagrees?

    And if we focus on parents again, most pensions rely on the
    stock market. Better not bank too much on that form of
    gambling. If we are not there for our children, they will
    not be here either when we need them either…despite that
    fancy dress.

    And Michael, you are right again. What used to attract
    tourists here is disappearing, and tourists are starying to
    see that. Being a foreigner living in Ireland myself, the
    changes in the last 10 years are utterly maddening.

  5. londonreader

    i agree with Natalie it does seem that children have become
    fashion accessories.
    I know of Dublin professionals who have “farmed out” their
    kids in just such a way. Pity those poor children when they
    get a D in the Leaving

    Also, don’t forget….confession time…I was most concerned
    about my earnings at communion time and confirmation time
    back in 1977 and 1982….some things don’t change

    Natalie’s comment is on the money where you have removal of
    control and an injection of cash….it’s like what happens
    to teen stars….eventually and inevitably they come on days
    where the fame has worn off and the mojo is so much more
    satisfying……achtung baby! we’re going to see that in
    dear ol’ ireland and it’s drawing near. To answer the man
    above who wanted to slow things down, Mr Free-Market will
    take care of that and it will be in the cruellest of fashions !

    (it’s great to see such non-partisan erudite reading and
    writing on socio-economic situation from an Irish perspective)

  6. brownenelopes

    Very Good article David. Strange I was only talking to my
    mate today about the new suburbia families and what way
    these children will be brought up? we deduced that the root
    of all the issues is and unfortunately for the forseeable
    future Money £££…Affordability…A housing Crisis.
    A line from a Damien Dempsey song sprung to mind,
    “Now they drive us from the cities,
    to make way for all the yuppies”
    The elite ie. the socially elite, the men in power, have
    driven a reckless policy of capitalism bull headed into our
    society which has driven the cost of living in Dublin to
    unmanagable proportions. They have done this with total
    disregard to the future society of Ireland, with purely
    self interest and a quick buck in mind.
    Are these suburbanites to blame? No, or maybe some would
    say you should have seen it coming. Both parents working
    and spending half the day commuting and a lack of childcare
    Facilities, I’m wondering what the future generation holds?

  7. brownenvelopes

    Very Good article David. Strange I was only talking to my
    mate today about the new suburbia families and what way
    these children will be brought up? we deduced that the root
    of all the issues is and unfortunately for the forseeable
    future Money £££…Affordability…A housing Crisis.
    A line from a Damien Dempsey song sprung to mind,
    “Now they drive us from the cities,
    to make way for all the yuppies”
    The elite ie. the socially elite, the men in power, have
    driven a reckless policy of capitalism bull headed into our
    society which has driven the cost of living in Dublin to
    unmanagable proportions. They have done this with total
    disregard to the future society of Ireland, with purely
    self interest and a quick buck in mind.
    Are these suburbanites to blame? No, or maybe some would
    say you should have seen it coming. Both parents working
    and spending half the day commuting and a lack of childcare
    Facilities, I’m wondering what the future generation holds?

  8. oliver martin

    Dear David i have been meaning to thank for the fantastic
    show you done on the plight of the mental health situation
    and having Mike wotts form Grow on was amazing. I know mike
    very well i am involved in Grow for many years and i was
    absalutly amazed enlightined by the show. The way you
    brought up the stigma was brialliant it was music to my
    ears i could not beleive what i was hearing i felt so
    good , i felt alot of mental health sufferes where really
    realy helped by the discusion. I dont know what to say But
    a very very Big Thank You to yourself , Your team and
    everyone you work with….

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