I was asked my religion. I replied, “Pagan,” and the secretary said, “Oh, so no religion then!” I said nicely, “No, but I’m guessing you don’t have Wiccan or Druid or anything like that on your drop down,” and she went, “Oh,” and typed in “Pagan” and we carried on. It is important that we counter the notion that “Pagan” means “godless.”
In other cases, patients accepted the “other” designation without comment. According to the group’s press release, “Even when registered as ‘Pagan’ on arrival staff had twice changed the religious identity to ‘Christian/Catholic’ on the physical version of one patient’s medical records.”
It was an opportune time to raise this issue, as Märkus explained. “Pagan Life Rites received more complaints about this issue on foot of our social media campaign in the lead up to the Irish National Census of May, 2016. Through this campaign we urged community members to unite by stating ‘Pagan’ in the box provided for the ‘other’ option on the question of religious identity on the census form.”
While the overall effort to raise awareness provided the needed momentum, other important groundwork had been laid for this request in 2009, when HSE published its intercultural guide. It included an entire section on Pagan religions, laying out the value of patients being properly categorized, to wit:
Traditional religions tend to be rich in symbolism, ritual and ceremony. Life in general and major events, such as birth, critical illness and death are normally mediated with specific rituals and ceremonies. Many followers have a spiritual teacher/adviser or a personal contact to assist them in their personal practices.
All it took, according to Märkus, was to make clear that miscategorizing patients was in conflict with the organization’s stated ethos. “We are delighted that the Health Services Executive has agreed to accommodate the various categories,” he said. In addition to simply declaring oneself Pagan, Irish patients may select a subcategory of Wicca, Shamanism, Heathenry, or Druidry; these are the four main paths which which Irish Pagans tend to identify, he explained.
Another detail that may have contributed to this accomplishment is that HSE is a publicly-funded organization in a country with what Märkus calls “evolving equality legislation.” That’s not to say it was easy, however, and he added, “Nonetheless, one cannot discount bureaucratic hurdles.”
The experience of Pagan Life Rites has shown that an understanding of state mechanisms, an openness to engaging positively with public servants and a willingness to persevere with a potentially long process of consultation have proven crucial.
These factors served Pagan Life Rites well in the consultation process with the Health Services Executive, as they did in the process whereby twelve of our clergy members became legal solemnisers of marriage, through the General Register Office, a wonderful development which we were privileged to announce just before Valentine’s Day, 2016.
Outside of the small Pagan community, the HSE decision appears to be a non-event in this largely Catholic nation. Märkus is aware of no news coverage of this milestone, which is exactly what happened when the marriage credentials were achieved earlier this year. The reverend said that Pagans vary in how comfortable they are being open about their religion, and the confusion with atheism is not at all uncommon.
Overall, the problems of Irish Pagans are ones of exclusion, rather than outright discrimination.As Märkus explained,
One problematic area relates to schooling, as for historical reasons, the Irish educational system is largely dependent on religious patronage of its school network. Almost 95% of schools are state-aided parish schools run by religious-based boards of management. One common feature of enrolment policy in primary (elementary) schools is the priority given to children who have been baptised. These concerns are a key feature in public discourse around the desire for complete separation of church and state.
On the other hand, a marriage equality referendum was passed last year, and there is a general sense that Catholic influence on public policy is beginning to wane. Still, where religion is expected to have a strong part to play — including in hospitals, prisons, and at the points of birth and death — the people paid to do the work are invariably of that faith.
Pagan Life Rites has a chaplaincy training program in development, and is already making clergy available for pastoral support on a voluntary basis. There will likely be a time when an Irish Pagan doesn’t have difficulty declaring that religious preference for any number of reasons, but for now, they can at least rest assured that they will be considered Pagan when they enter a hospital.