Memories of Research & Development at the Irish Bishops’ Conference

05 Nov 2010

Memories of Research & Development at the Irish Bishops’ Conference

There were times during the fieldwork for the national survey of religious beliefs, practices and attitudes in 1973/74 that I thought it was going to fall apart. We were relatively young, quite inexperienced team of researchers. I was 22 years old. I had completed my BSocSc the previous Autumn. The only experience I had was as an interviewer for five months on Michéal McGréil’s survey of prejudice and tolerance.  Maire Nic Ghiolla Phadraig had completed her Masters degree but, as far as I remember, the only training she received in survey research was a short stint in NORC inChicago. The team of interviewers we recruited were mostly, like myself, just out of university.

And so for a year and a half we travelled aroundIrelandinterviewing over 2,500 people. It was very demanding work. Never before in the history of Irish social survey research had so much been achieved by so few, so professionally, with such limited experience and resources. It was, as it had been intended, a benchmark against which all future trends in Irish religiosity could be measured.

And it has stood the test of time. Many of the items and scales developed to measure the levels of religiosity were very sophisticated. While there have been some replication studies, none have employed the same rich level of instruments. Moreover, such was the size of the sample, that we were able to provide accurate information for important sub-sections of the population, for example, young, male, urban Catholics. What was also remarkable was that we were among the early pioneers to use computers to analyse the data.

The reports that were generated from the research make fascinating reading. They shine a light on a Catholic Ireland that has long since faded. The reports themselves and the way they were written were redolent of the times. They were full of facts and figures but very little interpretation. The informal but strict guidelines were that it was the task of researchers to collect and present the data and it was the task of enlightened bishops to read and interpret them. The presiding assumption was that facts speak for themselves.

In some respects, the facts did speak for themselves.  Levels of religious belief and practice were very high. There may have been signs that should have caused concern, but by and large the survey revealed what many bishops knew intuitively:Irelandwas still Catholic and holy. Many of the journalists who came to the press reception to launch the report refused to believe the findings. But opinion polls that were completed in the years after, all revealed a similar picture of strong orthodox Catholicism.

Tom Inglis is Associate Professor at the Department of Sociology, UCD