In a world where being a Muslim alone seems to single you out for “special” treatment, Ireland seems to be a haven of normality. Generally speaking, travels in Europe are not a major problem for Muslims. And if you are a Muslim and want to travel to Ireland - well, why not? Whatever your specific reason for traveling, be it business, the pleasures of sightseeing or even visiting family and friends, you should encounter no major problems on your way.
Of course, depending on what passport you are holding, you will have to meet the immigration and visa criteria. And depending on your actual ethnicity and way of dressing you might be immediately recognized as a visitor, or at least as a stranger (it is politically correct to call you "non-Irish national" then). But this applies to all religions, so let us not make a great song and dance about this.
No, let us be practical and to the point - is it problematic and even recommended to travel to and in Ireland as a Muslim?
Traveling as a Muslim in Ireland - a Synopsis
First things first - just adhering to Islam, just being a Muslim, will in no way influence any practical aspect of a vacation in Ireland. Simply because being a Muslim per se does not single you out in a crowd. It is your ethnicity, your style of dress, or even your hairstyle that will do so. And that holds true for all of us who deviate from the norm. If your outer shell blends in, nobody will notice your inner self. For bad or for good.
Irish law allows for no discrimination against any ethnic or religious group, so in dealing with the authorities being a Muslim should not be a factor at all. You will not be denied a visa or generally treated differently.
Will you encounter prejudice and aggressive behavior? You might, but maybe on a lesser scale than in many other countries. What you will certainly find is that people in general do not know a lot about Islam. There is a very undefined concept floating about, but real knowledge is rare. And what you will also find is a tendency to lump everything together - Islam, radicalism, terrorism ... sad, but almost commonplace in Europe and North America, where Islam is often seen as a "terrorist threat" by the lesser educated.
So - should you visit Ireland as a Muslim? If you need or want to, there is nothing stopping you and, truth be told, there might be worse countries to choose.
Irish Accommodation from a Muslim Perspective
Depending on your personal needs and budget, finding accommodation is always a hit-or-miss game. Booking rooms via the internet is easy, but they might not be that good once you see them. If you are worried about any aspect, it might be a good idea to ask other Muslims for advice.
Generally speaking, the division between the sexes is almost non-existent in many areas of public life. Take this into consideration if it might be a problem to you. This is especially important if you are a young Muslim traveler on a budget - a number of cheap hostels do offer mixed dormitories, where both men and women sleep. Make sure you do not end up in one of these, by specifically enquiring if necessary. Or choose a private room, especially if you are traveling in a small group.
You might also be aware that the open display of Christian religious symbols is common - especially in private accommodation, where any number of crosses might adorn the walls. However, if you might be offended by that, Ireland might not be the place to visit.
One more practical thing - take care when booking accommodation with breakfast included ...
Eating Halal in Ireland
How to start the Irish day off as a Muslim? Certainly not by tucking into a hearty Irish breakfast, which will more than likely include pork sausages and bacon rashers. And even if you get offered vegetarian alternatives, you might not be sure about what fat they are fried in ... so never, ever order a cooked breakfast off the shelf.
You might, however, be offered real alternatives in the form of cereals, fresh fruit, fish. Just talk to your host and be open rather than polite.
As to halal food - there is good news: you will find food outlets offering halal meat and meat products in most larger towns and by the dozen in Dublin. Look for signs in Arabic, especially mentioning "halal" or describing the food as "ethnic". A huge number of Pakistani shops stock a good selection of food from mainly the UK and Turkey that will have a halal seal. A smaller number will also have a butcher's counter selling fresh halal meat.
Just beware - as any Muslim should know, the precise definition of "halal" varies from authority to authority, so one imam's halal chicken may not be halal for the other. If you are not certain who to trust, which seal of approval to look for ... go vegetarian.
Worshipping as a Muslim in Ireland
This might actually be less of a problem than you might think - there are mosques and prayer rooms in all the larger towns, with the largest cities offering an often bewildering variety. Many, if not most, are somehow hard to find, being located in residential or commercial areas and not obvious. Smallish signs in doorways are usually the only outward indicator that you have actually found a place of worship.
If you want to join in for, say, communal Friday prayers - you might do worse than either trying the contact list below or simply keeping your eyes open and talk to other Muslims. In a city like Dublin you will usually see small groups of (obviously) Muslim men sharing a moment before or after prayers. Most will be delighted to help. The only problem being that these groups tend to hang out near the mosque, so unless you already are in the right street, you might miss them totally.
Attitudes Towards Muslims in Ireland
Talking about Muslims hanging out and being obvious - despite the strong Christian, mainly Roman-Catholic presence in Ireland, attitudes towards Muslims as individuals seem to be fairly relaxed. As in "I leave them in peace as long as they leave me ..." Obvious groups of Muslims may, however, attract stares, occasionally openly hostile. And if Muslims want to establish a permanent presence (like a mosque), all sorts of problems might arise.
The acceptance of the Muslim as an individual has much to do with the fact that half of the Irish health system would collapse if it were not for Muslim doctors. Enter any Irish hospital and chances are good that you will be treated by a Muslim doctor, often from Pakistan (ably assisted by a Hindu or Christian Indian nurse in many cases). Again, ethnicity and religion are somehow intermingled here. Expect to hear things like "Oh, he is a Muslim ... but a good doctor nonetheless!" on occasion. Then again, even small villages these days often have a GP from Bangladesh in the local Family Practice.
Attitudes towards Islam are another thing - as said before, there is a rather vague concept of Islam floating about, in which religion, race, and even politics intermingle in a dangerous way. As in many other Western cultures, quite a few people (and not necessarily just the uneducated) draw a straight line between simply being a Muslim ... and potentially wearing an explosive vest. Again, the ethnic background and outward appearance play a major role in these frankly stupid assumptions.
There is a thin line between acceptance of Muslims and general Islamophobia - but Ireland is not alone in this, maybe not as bad as other countries too. But attitudes might change (unfortunately for the worse) if there is a perceived "massive influx" or the establishment of Islamic structures. Witness the negative response to the establishment of a small mosque in the west of Ireland some years ago, the local council denying the application on the interesting grounds that "visitors might slam their car doors".
By the way: Muslim women should expect stares if they choose to wear a hijab, burqa, or chador. Generally speaking the more western your appearance, the less you'll be noticed.
A Short History of Ireland and Islam
Today, roughly 1.1% of the Irish population are Muslims - most would be immigrants (only 30% have Irish citizenship). This is the highest number of Muslims ever in the country, with a growth of 69% in the decade before the 2011 census (and a 1,000% growth since 1991). Islam can today claim to be the third (or second) largest religion in Ireland - first and second place going to the Roman-Catholic Church, and the Church of Ireland.
Historically speaking, Islam has only started to play any role in Ireland since the 1950s - starting mainly with an influx of Muslim students. A first Islamic Society in Ireland was founded in 1959 by students. In absence of a mosque, these students used private homes for Jum'ah and Eid prayers. Only in 1976 was the first mosque in Ireland officially established, supported by King Faisal of Saudi Arabia. Five years later the state of Kuwait sponsored the first full-time imam. Moosajee Bhamjee (elected in 1992) became the first Muslim TD (member of the Irish Parliament) in 1992. In Northern Ireland, the first Islamic Centre was established in Belfast in 1978 - near Queen's University.
The inclusion of a crescent in the coat-of-arms of the town of Drogheda has led to the popular legend that an older Irish connection to Islamic states existed. The Ottoman Sultan Abdülmecid dabbled in famine relief and (so the story goes) sent ships full of food to Ireland during the Great Famine. It is said that ships from Thessaloniki (then part of the Ottoman Empire) sailed up the River Boyne in early 1847, bringing food. There are, however, no historical records for this and the Boyne may have been too shallow to navigate at the time anyway. And ... the crescent was in the arms before the famine ...
An earlier contact with Muslim sailors was far less positive - corsairs regularly raided Irish coastal towns during their heyday. In 1631 almost the whole population of Baltimore (County Cork) was carried off into slavery. Memories of these raids and an unspecified "menace" from the East may be preserved in the mummer's plays, where "the Turk" occasionally makes an unwelcome appearance as the bad boy.
Modern Irish attitudes towards Islam and Muslims are often dominated by the attitudes prevalent in the USA - especially since the events of 9/11.
More Information for Muslim Travelers to Ireland
Muslim travelers heading for Ireland may find much information by simply scanning the notice boards in halal food stores (often giving times for local meetings and listing useful contacts). There are, however, several major institutions in Dublin and Belfast that may provide general help and advice:
- Belfast Islamic Centre
- Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland (Dublin)
- Islamic Foundation of Ireland (Dublin)
And finally, do not forget to visit the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, with its fine collection of Islamic art.