It must look strange if you have never seen a first communion before. The sight of dozens of little girls dressed up in white frilly dresses, tiaras, dainty shoes and veils accompanied into a packed church by dozens of little boys kitted out like miniature Nickys from Westlife.

Mass attendance has fallen progressively, but the communion business has flourished. It appears that the less privately observant we are, the more publicly ostentatious our expression of religion becomes. While this begins at over-the-top baptisms (christening parties in the Four Seasons are not unheard of), the first communion frenzy remains the exemplar.

Every May, suburban Ireland turns into a bonanza for the bouncy castle vendors, parasol-floggers and three-star hotel owners who cash in on the chicken and chips circuit. Indeed, if you have children whose birthdays fall in May, the chances of getting a bouncy castle for the day at a decent price are slim.

The great Irish communion splash-out has been the subject of much debate on the airwaves, largely because poor people tend to spend more than rich (and in the extreme get into debt).

This vignette of Irish society consists of a fusion of the two aspects of our lives that the last and the new Pope have been emphasising. One of the key messages of the Catholic Church has been that individualism and consumerism are not healthy.

The church urges us to be more spiritual and community-driven.

However, the communion frenzy allows us to be both: we can be communitaire by celebrating together, while at the same time we can compete in the consumer arena by allowing our kids to out-parasol each other on the big day.

Ireland is rapidly becoming a highly child-centric society. In the past five years we have seen an explosion in small families. Whether people are married or living together, Ireland is experiencing a new baby boom that is totally different in structure to anything we have had before.

In the past, our baby booms were driven by a few women having many children. In the 1960s and 1970s Irishwomen who were having kids had four children on average. An amazing statistic is that one third of all births in Dublin’s maternity hospitals in 1960 were the fifth birth or higher.

By the late 1990s that figure had plunged. Today, only one in 20 women has five or more children. Instead of a relatively small number of large families, we are now seeing a boom in small families.

Our new baby boom is characterised by one and two-child families.

More than half of the women giving birth this year in our maternity hospitals will be having their first baby – way ahead of the EU average.

Today, according to the CSO, 30 per cent of all families in Ireland are termed �young families’ – with children under five. This contrasts starkly with the rest of Europe. The majority of these are living in the new suburbs in the commuter belts around Dublin, Cork, Galway and Limerick.

The latest figures indicate that Kildare and Laois are the most child-productive counties in Ireland, with the number of births increasing by 15-18 per cent between 1996 and 2002 alone.

Despite the impressive birth rate, the single biggest factor driving the population explosion in commuterville is still affordability. Although we all know this anecdotally, and as we see our friends, family and colleagues moving into the commuter counties, nonetheless a quick look at the figures is startling.

For example, the 2002 census revealed that 62 per cent of the population change in Carlow since 1996 was the result of people from outside Carlow settling there from the first time, with no previous connection to the county.

For Westmeath, the corresponding figure was 69 per cent, for Wexford 66 per cent, Meath 73 per cent, Kildare 61 per cent.

This is not just a greater Dublin phenomenon. In Clare, 66 per cent of the increase in the population since 1996 is a result of non-Clare people moving in, reflecting the spread of the Limerick conurbation.

As we have had a housing boom with no commensurate efforts to create lasting jobs in these new suburbs, we have seen an explosion in commuting. Take three large towns from the now inappropriately described midlands. In Mullingar, 51 per cent of its residents do not work in the town. This figure rises to 57 per cent for the residents of Athlone and drops somewhat to 47 per cent for Tullamore.

The message is clear: these formerly large standalone towns with independent histories, local cultures and local economies are now fast becoming dormitory towns.

It is the new commuterville parents who are caught in the traffic. Many are spending over an hour and a half commuting each way and rarely get to see their children. Parenting is outsourced to grandparents, child-minders or creches (such as the grandiosely titled Little Harvard outside Naas).

Due to the rising birth rate and the influx of commuters with young children, the populations of Meath, Laois, Westmeath and Kildare have grown by more than 25 per cent in six years. That’s a lot of communions!

Communions are serving a number of disparate roles, which is why the ritual is so fascinating. First, a big splash for the communion allows absentee parents – who are guilty at not seeing the children all week – to give something back.

What better way to make up to little Chloe? Knackered, overworked parents display their own �good parenting’ badge (so important these days) via the lavishness of their eight-year-old’s communion party.

The �no bouncy castle is big enough for his communion party’ syndrome comes into its own. This combination of guilt and lavishness can be termed �bouncy castle syndrome’, and it afflicts many outwardly normal young Irish parents.

The second role for a communion is to get family and friends together, because the stresses of mortgage, sales targets and commuting mean that you never get to see your friends. So a communion, far from being a religious event, acts as the catalyst to an afternoon session with old mates.

Third, the communion is a chance to show off. This is typically driven by mothers and passed on to daughters, who in turn will pass it on to their own daughters. Communions are fashion statements.

If you don’t believe me, just explore the website of the thoroughly fashionable Off the Rails show. The section on communion makeovers for eight-year-olds is quite the eye-opener. There is an eight-year-old girl, modelling dresses from Clerys, Baby Bambino and Little Angels.

Let’s take for example the offering from Baby Bambino, which tells us that �at Baby Bambino in Clarendon Street, Dublin, they go for something a little less traditional. Maria Fusco suggests buying separates which can be worn again. They don’t do any of the accessories such as veils, tiaras and socks.

�A basic linen dress can go from �90 up to �450. For this model they chose a Linen Jacket with Silk Organza Skirt and two feathers in her hair.�

So there you have it. The great communion frenzy is upon us, with child models, bouncy castles, parasols and Chicken a la King. The first Irish communion season of the new papacy will be a flamboyant affair � as was the recent gathering of the cardinals in St Peter’s.

We could have a new term for madly consumerist religious display – let’s call it Conclave Catholicism – all big hats, bright colours, bespoke tailoring, swanky dresses, pomp and ceremony.

Conclave Catholicism sums up modern religion for many thousands of young Irish parents caught in the no man’s land between being good parents and being good career employees, while genuflecting to tradition. If you want to get a glimpse of modern Ireland, forget politics, commentary or current affairs – just go to a communion.

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