Elizabeth Whelan, a Roscommon-born primary-school teacher, pauses for a moment, then breaks into a smile when asked about the difference between teaching Irish and Muslim pupils.

"You know, in one sense they're just the same and in others they are completely different," says Whelan, who has been teaching at North Dublin Muslim National School since September. "The boys can be incredibly argumentative: they'll argue with you to the last. They have fabulous confidence. The girls, on the other hand, can be quite passive and docile. There's no way Irish girls would be like that."

"In other ways they remind me of Irish families 30 years ago, when children were from larger families and religion was a bigger issue. Family is very important. On the surface it is so like Old Catholic Ireland - it is incredible."

The Muslim primary school is set incongruously amid the religious statues and Catholic iconography of an old institutional building in Cabra that also houses St Joseph's School for the Deaf.

Funded by the State, it was established just over five years ago in the face of growing demand from the Islamic community for a second Muslim primary school in the Dublin area.

It started with about 40 pupils from countries such as Algeria, Pakistan, Sudan, Iraq, Iran and Egypt and has grown to accommodate 170 children. As demand continues to grow, it is on the lookout for other, more suitable premises.

"It means a lot to have my daughter here," says the Algerian father of one six-year-old. "It has the same subjects as any Irish primary school: it's only things like learning Arabic and the Muslim faith that are different. I want her to know the language of her father and to know who I am."

The first Muslims to arrive in Ireland, in the 1950's and 1960's, were typically medical students, studying and working here for a few years. The population grew slowly, with the first mosque opening in the mid-1970's, but then began to expand rapidly in the 1990's. Between 1991 and 2002 the Muslim community quadrupled to 19,000 people, on course to take the place of Presbyterianism as the Republic's third-largest religious grouping.

Sitting at his desk at the Islamic Foundation of Ireland, also the location of one of Dublin's older mosques, Imam Yahya al-Hussein agrees that the profile of the community has changed since he arrived in Ireland, in the 1980's.

"Most of the people who now come to the mosque are young men; students; professionals; workers; asylum-seekers or refugees. There are more than 40 nationalities. Mostly they are on their own: the traditional extended family is not here. The community is still small, but it is growing," he says.

There is still much ignorance about Islam in Ireland, he says, although he points out that racial or religious discrimination has been relatively rare, even after September 11th.

"This (September 11th) is an issue in the UK, where there are Muslims living there for two or three generations. But here it hasn't become a problem... I think Ireland is more tolerant than most other Western countries, maybe because of the problems Ireland is facing in the north... People know about the need to respect each other."

But Ireland isn't an easy place to settle into, especially if your religion forbids you from drinking alcohol. Ali Selim, a young Muslim theologian who moved here five years ago from Egypt, says: "On a Friday or Saturday night in town you often feel alienated, like a stranger in this city which you call your home." It's more difficult for young Muslims. They may have friends in school or college who go to the pubs on the weekend, and you can't share in this. If there were other places to socialise, where there is no alcohol, maybe there would be better chances to mix."

There are also more practical problems for established families, such as securing a mortgage, which is almost impossible for Muslims, as the payment or receipt of interest is forbidden under Islamic law.

Although Islam has no objection to the creation of wealth, it says it must be based on partnership and fairness, where risks and rewards are shared.

"We have asked the Banks and Building Societies to show more flexibility, to create mortgages suitable for Muslims," says Imam al-Hussein. "But until that happens the majority of Muslims have to rent."

He also worries about recent changes to Irish society, such as greed and individualism, which he says are resulting in fewer opportunities to mix with Irish people. "The Muslim faith teaches us to interact with others, care for the needy, look after our neighbours. You don't live just for yourself."

"But in Irish society now you might be living somewhere for years and you wouldn't know your neighbour. It's the 'civilised' way of doing things, but it's not good... The modern life is tiring, people are busier, but that's not an excuse. People don't want to make sacrifices."

Whatever difficulties adults have adjusting to life in Ireland, parents say their children face no such issues.

Also, the fact that North Dublin Muslim National School is one of two State-funded primary schools with an Islamic ethos means much to the community's sense of place in Irish society.

"It does mean that we feel accepted," says the school's Principal, Lararukh Jovindah, who is originally from Lahore, in Pakistan. "When you are settling in to a country where the culture and religion are very different it can be very difficult. But I have seen the relief on parents' faces when they find out about us," she says.

Although most parents and teachers are keen to emphasise how similar Muslim schools are to Catholic ones, there are still differences that set them apart. Most of the young girls wear hijabs, or headscarves. In the early afternoon the children retreat to a prayer room for a short time. Subjects such as social, personal and health education are not taught.

Many of the children are not native English-speakers: resource teachers are on hand to help struggling pupils. Irish is also a difficulty for boys and girls who learn Arabic at school but may speak another language at home.

"Children can be under great stress because they can find it hard to learn two or three languages," says Jovindah. "We have a particular focus on English but, to tell you the truth, Irish is the subject they are most worried about."

Although September 11th and other issues are not discussed in class, according to the principal, Irish teachers say pupils are aware of subjects such as the US War on Terror.

"Some of them do feel the world is against them," says Elizabeth Whelan. "Iraq and Palestine are big in some of their minds... You tend to see it from fourth class onwards. Some of the boys like to talk about conflict issues - so I can't wait to teach them about Irish history," she laughs.

Notwithstanding the differences, Jovindah says the Muslim community increasingly feels at home here. "We are still a small community: people know each other. Places like the local mosque are very important venues for them. And for the children the school is important. They don't feel alienated or foreign. They feel more a part of the community."