Five years ago I was asked to write a chapter on the Buddhist community for a book on the different religions of Ireland. The book never materialized, but it did spark research into the arrival of Buddhism in Ireland.
I had assumed the answer was in the 1960s or 1970s, but instead discovered that the first Buddhists appeared in the 1871 census – and the first definitive knowledge of Buddhism dates back to the sixth or seventh century.
In the meantime, medieval diplomats, modern sailor’s tales, and the letters of 16th and 17th century Jesuits have all added to Irish knowledge. The British Empire brought many Irish to Buddhist Asia, and knowledge flowed back to popular and educated Irish culture – as well as early converts and early Asian Buddhist immigrants.
The story many of us have heard about Ireland’s ‘traditional’ isolation from the rest of the world says more about the 1950s than the 1850s.
In pre-independence Ireland, Buddhism was a symbol of human difference, a religion older than Christianity and now very close to home – in racehorse names and advertising quotes, films and novels, exhibitions and university courses.
Molly Bloom’s soliloquy immortalizes a Burmese Buddha statue that once stood at the entrance to the National Museum; but on time Ulysses was written, Irish writers and artists have played with Buddhist culture for a century.
Then as now, religion was a means by which the Irish could understand and respond to the fact of cultural diversity and global connections – whether welcoming or hostile.
The flow was going both ways. In 1900, for example, a beachcomber born in Booterstown in Rangoon became the Buddhist monk U Dhammaloka and went on to play an important role in the anti-colonial Buddhist revival that contributed to the end of empires in Asia – and created the new forms of modern Buddhism which has since been exported to the West.
Along with other scholars, I pursued stories such as Dhammaloka’s as part of a five-year research project, since published as Buddhism and Ireland. We drew on newspaper archives, digitized texts, census data, interviews with Irish Buddhists, information from the public and the generous help of scholars, leading to stories like the Irish Franciscan who traveled to China in the 14th century and the pioneer transsexual who became a Tibetan monk in 1960.
Buddhism in Ireland today means many things. At its heart are those who consciously identify as Buddhists – with, perhaps, a regular practice of meditation and a formal affiliation with a particular tradition.
Some have a center or group in Ireland; others practice with a teacher abroad. With few exceptions, ‘Buddhist-born’ migrants do not yet have their own institutions here, although this is changing.
Many more Irish people “have a connection” with Buddhism: following a practice, reading books or being interested in Asian Buddhist cultures and art. Often these people are keen not to replicate their experience of organized religion and consciously resist categorization.
Beyond these, there are still a large number of Irish people who draw inspiration from Buddhism in unrecognized ways. Buddhist meditation has been widely adopted by Christian groups and individuals, and in secular forms such as mindfulness training.
In this way, Buddhism makes a real, if subtle, contribution to Irish society. Perhaps his most remarkable achievement is his growing respectability and normality in what was until very recently a society marked by deep religious intolerance.
The story of the arrival of Buddhism in the West is also the story of Ireland learning to live with different ways of life, cultures and forms of belonging – and this is all the more important for that.
Additional note: According to the 2011 census, the population of Buddhists in Ireland is 8,703, making it the fourth largest religion in the Republic after Christianity, Islam and Hinduism..
Laurence Cox leads the MA in Community Education, Equality and Social Activism at NUI Maynooth. Buddhism and Ireland (Equinox) is published in paperback and hardcover.