'Lollipopes' and flags for the Pope

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Image source, Clodagh Kilcoyne/ Reuters

The O'Devaney Gardens estate sits behind Dublin's Phoenix Park. Whilst deer graze the well-tended grass of the neighbouring park, this 1950s housing complex has been allowed to fall into disrepair.

One local resident, Joe Towell, still tends to the Virgin Mary statue that sits amongst the flats. While some locals' cars have been stolen and homes broken into, nobody touches Mary, he says.

But Ireland's attitude to religion is changing. The once staunchly Catholic nation has seen huge changes in public attitudes to social issues including abortion, contraception, divorce and same-sex marriage.

As Pope Francis visits Ireland this week, many of his followers hope that he will bring back the young believers who have lost their older generations' religion.

Image source, Clodagh Kilcoyne/ Reuters
Image source, Clodagh Kilcoyne/ Reuters
Image source, Clodagh Kilcoyne/ Reuters

Shopkeeper Bernie Byrne, 74, pushes aside the rosaries he sells in his shop while expressing his excitement for the Pope's visit. "Houses are being painted and streets are being scrubbed... trying to get everything ready for him, even though it's only a short visit," he says.

He runs this small shop selling religious goods to the 1.5 million pilgrims that come to the National Marian Shrine town of Knock each year. Their grandfather Dominic was one of at least twenty-two people who claimed to see Mary, Joseph and John the Evangelist hovering near the gable end of the local church in the village on a rainy evening in August 1879.

Francis will pray at the Knock shrine as part of his two-day visit. "Because he is such a humble man, and a nice man, everybody is dying to have a look at him," says Byrne.

Pope Francis will be the second pope to visit Knock after Pope John Paul II said mass to a crowd of around 450,000 there in 1979. Organisers are expecting a crowd of around 45,000 for Francis.

Image source, Clodagh Kilcoyne/ Reuters
Image source, Clodagh Kilcoyne/ Reuters
Image source, Clodagh Kilcoyne/ Reuters

Sister Marie Fahy lives in St Mary's Abbey, an enclosed contemplative order of nuns in Glencairn. "The Pope is the earthly head of the Church, the Vicar of Christ," she says. "I believe his message will be one of inspiration, direction and advice for the people of God in Ireland."

At the last official count, there were 5,730 sisters in Ireland's 26 dioceses, outnumbering all the priests and brothers put together.

Sister Angela Finegan also lives in the Cistercian monastery and is excited for the moment of self-reflection that Pop Francis will bring to Ireland.

"It will be a great joy and blessing. Especially in the days when the presence of God and the life of the Church are hidden in our fast-paced society," she says.

Image source, Clodagh Kilcoyne/ Reuters
Image source, Clodagh Kilcoyne/ Reuters

Thousands ascend the conical peak of Croagh Patrick on the holy mountain's traditional pilgrimage days in July and August.

Many of them are blessed after Mass at the summit in the modern chapel. For many Catholics, the Pope's upcoming visit is a boost for the faithful amidst the rapidly changing social landscape of Ireland.

Earlier this year, 66% of the country voted to repeal a part of the constitution that effectively banned abortions. This followed on from a 2015 referendum where Ireland overwhelmingly voted to legalise same-sex marriage. It is the first country in the world to do this through a popular vote.

"A lot of Catholics have gone a-la-carte, but being Catholic is very serious," said Marie Campbell, who joined the pilgrims who scale the mountain in the western County Mayo every July in honour of Saint Patrick, Ireland's patron saint.

"Our Catholic faith stands for life. It's the very centre of being Catholic. We cherish life, life is sacred, and a lot of Catholics need to be reminded of these things."

Image source, Clodagh Kilcoyne/ Reuters
Image source, Clodagh Kilcoyne/ Reuters

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