Problems with Drawing Lines: Theo-Geographies of the Catholic Parish in Ireland


by Eoin O’Mahony

Note: This is a condensation of a paper published in the new online refereed Journal of the Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religions.

This is the story of a project to create digital maps of Catholic parishes, conducted by the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, University College Cork and NUI Maynooth since 2008. It is also the story of making a map and making a territory that had not existed before. There is currently no digital map of Catholic parishes in Ireland but there is a defined need for scholars and others for one. The Catholic Church in Ireland insists that no square kilometre of Ireland’s landmass and islands can exist outside of a parish. The Gaelic Athletic Association (the largest voluntary sporting organisation in Ireland) has a need for maps which delineate the parish boundaries. Conversationally, many people in Ireland use the word parish every day, often without reference to it as a religious territorialisation. While people in parishes appear aware of parish boundaries, the understandings are more often oral than cartographic. However, the parish’s centrality in everyday life is not represented in any commonly-known cartography.

The project to map the parishes brings together some of the more difficult problems with remaking maps of these territories. Making maps brings with it a variety of political problems. Chief among these problems is some level of agreement on the representation of particular geographies. The paper provides an overview of the process of creating digital parish maps, known as digitising, for the island of Ireland. While it outlines some of the technical challenges, it also reflects on the broader epistemological issues raised by the process. Making these maps is not only a question of drawing lines but about how people collectively create and narrate an understanding of their locality. Secondly, the paper shows how verifying maps with people who know, work and live in these parishes is a contested activity. There is some comparisons with non-territorial parishes to bring forward some of these problems, both for re-making these maps and for the Catholic Church as an institution. Finally, some broader questions about the spatialisation of the Church in Ireland are rehearsed as well as some broader theological unfoldings from delineating digital parish boundaries.

The parish is the basis of a faith community for the Catholic Church although this is not always seen as public space. Parishes are the basis for the practices and identities we can associate with the Catholic Church in Ireland. Parishes have a church, a hall and a parish pastoral committee. Catholics living in parishes invest time and effort in a parish baptism team and ensuring that the people of the parish who are unable to receive the consecrated bread of Communion in the church building are able to receive it. They are the places that create and recreate a politics of belonging within a faith community. It is the place where the Church is made diagrammatic. The parish is the territorialisation of these politics of belonging, which Trudeau (2010, 422) defines as ‘the discourses and practices that establish and maintain discursive and material boundaries that correspond to the imagined geographies of a polity and to the spaces that normatively embody the polity’.

Ireland was one of the first territories in Europe to be mapped using a mathematical methodology. This mapping process was a central element in the dispossession of the Gaelic chieftains following the settlements acts of the 17th century (Withers 2007, 104). Maps are part of a larger circulation and production of specific forms of knowledge; a form of stadial thinking which creates a unified territory and which bounds politics to place making. The congruence of identity, place and politics is a central concern for much geographic thought (Pierce et al. 2011; Gill, 2010). Without becoming too concerned with the detail over this congruence, an integration of place-making, networking and politics is often seen as important to seeing places as relational.

As diagrams of control parishes are often understood in terms of a stadial control of the diocese. They always extend from the boundary with one diocese to the coast or from one boundary to the next. For the institution of the Catholic Church in Ireland, where are the places left to evangelise in Ireland? Bringing the word of God to those who have yet to hear it seems redundant in a spatial politics within which every kilometre is within a parish. I am proposing here that the 19th century development of an imperial Church, one in which all of the island of Ireland is colonised by a stadial understanding of territory, has meant that the Catholic Church in Ireland lost an important part of its mission. The parish as a spatial unit provided the basis for a diagram of biopolitical control. This diagram provided a basis to a routinised practice, one that was about maintenance of territory. With each parish abutting another, there was nowhere for the Catholic parish to go but to turn in on its own maintenance as a source of its own power.

There is, of course, the possibility for other ways to think about the mission of the Church in Ireland through a reterritorialized church. The parish of the Travelling People thinks about and enacts mission and pastoral care that places people, not the control of buildings, at its centre. In this way, there are yet more places for that parish to develop. The product of an imperial model of the Catholic Church, coterminous with the boundaries of the island, is a model of parish that doesn’t see the need to develop and enrich the faith of its people. As I explain, the mapping of these parishes may well reinforce this sense that dioceses have control of a territory. Any ceding of this control, moral, cultural or political, feeds into a defensiveness which makes the red lines more important than an open-ended Christian understanding of community.

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