The Beginnings of the Focolare Movement in Ireland

The first Focolare community in Ireland consisted of a mother, her handicapped son and a handful of friends who lived nearby in south county Dublin. After repeated requests, their plea for a Focolare Centre was fulfilled, when in late 1971, two young women, one Italian and one English, arrived by boat to Dun Laoghaire and set up the first Focolare Centre in Ireland in a tiny basement flat in Terenure. Soon after they were joined by a young woman from Argentina.

The movement spread originally in two secondary girls schools, and later among the young people at U.C. D., T.C.D., Cathal Brugha Street, Kevin Street and the College of Surgeons. In Belfast, an Anglican Franciscan sister, had come in contact with the spirituality, and decided to bring Protestants and Catholics from deprived areas to Loppiano, near Florence, one of the movement’s little towns in 1973. It was from this shared ecumenical experience that the movement was born in Northern Ireland.

The next year, 1974, the Movement held its first summer gathering or ‘Mariapolis’ at Clongowes Wood in County Kildare. Over a hundred people came together from the four corners of Ireland for the event. They were joined by nearly the same number from England-including many Anglicans, Methodists, and members of the United Reform Church-to share the experience they had been living for several years and help the Irish get on their feet.

Although this was a time when many young people were leaving the Church, during the seventies, young people were those most attracted to the Focolare movement’s ideal of living the Gospel. They held regular youth meetings, sometimes for up to 300 people, to which they invited their friends and acquaintances.

In 1976, the men’s Focolare centre was opened in Dundrum. That same year the first group of families came together, and attended an international meeting in Rome. The late ’70s saw the involvement of younger children, aged between 9 and 15, both in Dublin and Belfast.

As the original young people who had been involved in the movement grew older, its perspectives began to change. In the ’80s, the big youth meetings were replaced by concrete social actions, like the establishment of a weekly coffee shop in Rathgar (Wenzdays) as a meeting place for young people living in the city on their own. They also organized fund raising activities for the movement’s centres in the developing world, particularly in Fontem, West Africa.

From 1988 groups started up among people working in similar fields, like art, medicine, education, business, etc. Meanwhile, the summer gatherings, growing in numbers, moved from St Kieran’s College, Kilkenny to St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, and similar events took place in Northern Ireland.

By the 1990s, the tree of the Focolare, was a well-developed network involving people of all ages. There were mini-congresses for the young children (aged 4 – 8); and regular meetings for the teenagers, young people and adults. Around these people, larger groups were involved in various projects – assisting the elderly, working on North – South exchanges, Telethon etc.

Groups of families were meeting regularly to support one another in five locations in Ireland. The launch of the ‘Economy of Communion’ in 1991, a project fostering the sharing of profits, lead to the formation of a number of E.O.C. businesses in Ireland, including the successful English language school ‘Language Learning International’ (L.L.I.) in Dun Laoghaire. Groups of men and women religious, and diocesan priests (including priests of the Anglican communion) met regularly.

Meanwhile regional get – togethers were taking place on a regular basis around the country, in Dublin, Kilkenny, Cork, Limerick, Dungarvan, Galway and Belfast.

By the late 90s it was clear that the Focolare needed a permanent meeting centre, and through the efforts of many, in 1998 it purchased what had been a small hotel in Prosperous, County Kildare. Chiara Lubich suggested it should be named ‘Lieta,’ after one of the movement’s founding members in Ireland, who passed away in 2002.

Today around 500 people are closely associated with the movement in Ireland, along with a further 5,000 or so friends, all of whom receive each month a copy of the ‘Word of Life’. This is a sentence from Scripture with some hints on how to put it into practise, millions of copies of which are distributed throughout the world. This is one way the people of the Focolare try to live its spirituality and give their contribution to building unity among those with whom they are living, working, or studying.