Scientology has tried to make it big in Ireland before, but now it’s back with a multi-million euro investment in three new facilities – one around the corner from Government Buildings in Dublin’s Merrion Square, another in the suburb of Firhouse, and a third, through its affiliated Narconon group, in Ballivor, County Meath.
It’s an expensive return, but it’s not been a popular one, and indeed, it’s been marked by controversy.
What is it about Scientology? After all, it is tiny. Though it claims a membership of millions worldwide, the available evidence suggests tens of thousands. Here in Ireland, in the last census, just 87 people said they were Scientologists. The comparator often used is, ‘Well, how many people claim to be Jedi knights?’, and in Ireland’s census, there were 2,000.
Yet, its tiny membership has not deterred Scientology. It has said
its investment has been funded by donors abroad. Its return is a big
effort – aside from the new facilities, its spend is on outreach, with
free events, Google and mobile ads, Promoted tweets, mailshots,
booklets, and leaflets through your door – all material printed at its
own distribution works in Los Angeles.
Why Ireland? Well, contrary to reports, we’re nothing special. Since
the start of last year, Scientology has opened over a dozen new
They follow a formula it keeps repeating: its leader, David Miscavige
and committed members fly in to the openings, which are staged events.
Videos of those launches are then shown at annual internal gala events,
where donor members are dazzled with special Scientology statistics
promoting its claim of rapid expansion. Scientology calls additions like
Firhouse, ‘Ideal Organisations’, and it says that Mr Miscavige
“personally supervises the selection of each new Ideal Org”.
The weekend after its Firhouse centre opened in October 2017,
Scientology launched another building in Birmingham, and the weekend
after that, in Amsterdam: three weekends in a row – all staged openings,
off-limits to the general public.
The organisation already has a Brussels office and its European headquarters is in Copenhagen.
Journalist Tony Ortega, editor of the ‘The Underground Bunker’, has
reported on Scientology for over two decades. He points out: “The new
Ideal Org in Dublin is not a new European centre or headquarters, it has
nothing to do with Brexit and it has nothing to do with taxes. The
Church of Scientology is already tax exempt in the United States, it
pays no taxes; it is not looking for new tax shelters.”
But its office in Merrion Square, opened in 2015, is one of only a
few ‘National Affairs’ offices it has. “These are moves that reflect
what David Miscavige has done in the United States”, Mr Ortega says.
“Several years ago, Miscavige refurbished a building in Washington DC
for a new ‘national affairs office’. It was a new sort of idea for
Scientology – they then extended that to Ireland. And why Merrion
Square? Well, because it means a lot to Scientologists, that location,
because L Ron Hubbard himself had worked out of Merrion Square back in
It was at the end of 1955, and Scientology’s creator, L Ron Hubbard
was already a controversial figure. He had been refused a visa renewal
to the UK, where he had a base, and he had temporarily moved to Ireland
to what he called “the swankiest address in Dublin”, Merrion Square.
On 17 April 1956, while he was still based there, the Director of the
FBI, J Edgar Hoover, noted that in divorce proceedings, Hubbard’s
second wife, Sara Northrup, had described him as “hopelessly insane”.
“His recent letters have been unanswered inasmuch as he is considered
obviously a mental case”, Mr Hoover wrote.
At the time, (20 April 1956) L Ron Hubbard was writing to his
followers that his Merrion Square office was a “British fallback point
in the event of atomic attack”.
His stay was short lived: he left within months. His organisation, Scientology, however, set up in Ireland from the 1980’s.
Mike Garde of Dialogue Ireland has followed its arrival, decline and
return since then. He says that though it is small, its impact can be
“I’ve been dealing with the families of people from Malin Head to
Mizen Head in this country who have been affected by this Scientology
organisation”, Mike Garde says, “breakup of marriages, breakup of
families – of one guy, he became addicted completely to alcohol, they
tore him apart”.
It is that concern and concerns like it that led to tonight’s Prime Time: ‘Scientology – The Return’.
The activities of Irish scientologists made headlines just before Christmas after a Prime Time special revealed the church had just 87 Irish members,according to the last census. One of the lucky 87 is Goldhawk’s old pal Zabrina Shortt – aka Zabrina Collins – who is having a rough start to 2019.
An insolvent chiropractic clinic, previously operated by Shortt, held a creditors meeting late last month. Castlebar accountant John Mellett was named provisional liquidator to the Parnell Square-registered Abbey Chiropractic and Wellness Centre Ltd, co-owned by Shortt and hubby Ger Collins, a top-ranking scientologist in Ireland.
Shortt is listed as the sole director of the company. Listed as company secretary is one Anita Kelly, former director the controversial Scientology community centre in Firhouse, Dublin 24.
Fans of Goldhawk will recall that Shortt is the daughter of Donegal nightclub owner Frank Shortt, who was famously wrongly convicted of allowing drugs to be sold in his boozer (see The Phoenix, 13/2/15). She has acted as the Scientology’s Irish “ethics officer”, and was later promoted to the “office of special affairs”, a role that involved her dealing with church critics.
Shortt will be familiar for her various legal scrapes with the likes of Pete Griffiths, a former scientologist-turned-critic of the movement. In 2016, Shortt was ordered to pay €5,000 damages to Griffiths after she sent a naked photo of him to the principal of a school in Artane, where he had given a talk on Scientology. Judge James O’Donohoe in the Circuit Civil Court said that allegations by her against Griffiths of criminal activity, hate-mongering and links to gay pornographic movies of teenage boys “were largely untrue and grossly defamatory”.
Shortt will have more time on her hands to dedicate to religious activities with the liquidation of her Dublin clinic. The firm had accumulated losses of a little over €80,000 at the end of 2017 and creditors, including the Revenue, were owed a total of around €90,000. The most recent set of accounts, filed last September, note that Shortt had “rationalised” her business in order to reduce costs.
Plans by the Church of Scientology to set up what it proclaims to be a drug rehabilitation centre in Co Meath village have received a setback with An Bord Pleanála ruling that it is not exempt from planning permission.
Construction works are nearing completion on the controversial development in Ballivor, which had received an exempted development declaration from Meath County Council on plans by Narconon in October 2016.
Narconon is an organisation owned and controlled by the Church of Scientology which purports to help rehabilitate drug users through interventions including the use of saunas and the intake of vitamins.
An Bord Pleanála has now overturned the council’s decision, ruling that the development does need planning permission.
The ruling was made in response to two appeals from the Ballivor Community Group and Trim Municipal District Council.
Planning permission had initially been approved for a 54-bed nursing home and Meath County Council deemed that a change of use from a nursing home to a residential drug rehab facility was not a material change of use and was an exempted development, which did not require planning permission.
But an Bord Pleanála took a different view, stating “the change of of use of the permitted nursing home to a residential drug rehabilitation facility is a development and not an exempted development.
“The proposed use as a residential drug rehabilitation facility would be a factual change of use from use as a nursing home and such change of use would raise material planning considerations including different patterns of traffic, and pedestrian activity/movement, a different service to a different user group, including a population with a broader age profile and who are drug dependant and with limited interaction with the local community, and is, therefore a material change of use, and is development.”
The news was welcomed by local Fine Gael councillor Noel French.
“I’m amazed, I can hardly believe it,” he said. “Common sense has prevailed at last. It’s a good day for Ballivor. It’s a good day for Ireland.
“This means that Narconon now has to go through the full planning process, which is open to objections. It was ridiculous to think that a nursing home in a small village was the exact same in terms of planning as a nursing home.
“This case has also highlighted the use of Section 5 which circumvents a planning process. All section five decisions made by Meath Co. Council are now notified to all county councillors. This is a significant opening of the planning process and Meath is leading the way.”
In a statement Narconon Ireland said: “Meath County Council granted Narconon planning permission in 2016. The building is nearly completed. We adhered to planning laws from start to finish. We are surprised by this decision from An Bord Pleanála more than two years later and we are seeking legal advice.”
A Church of Scientology “family fun” weekend has been criticised by South Dublin county councillors and a scientology expert, who suspect that the event could be used to target new Irish recruits.
The “dinosaur giant family fun weekend”, which takes place on September 22 and 23 at the Church of Scientology’s community centre in Firhouse, Dublin, will include mechanical dinosaurs, a petting zoo, rides and a theatrical performance that will “thrill and entertain kids, while stimulating their imagination”.
More than 2,300 people have indicated on a Facebook page that they will attend the event, and more than 4,000 have marked an interest.
Martina Genockey, a Labour Party councillor for Tallaght South, said that residents had been concerned about the presence of scientology in the area for some time.
“There is a lot of concern in the community, with protests outside the centre and that kind of thing. I think people see this differently from other religions; it is more cult-like,” she said.
“These events they are having are very much aimed at children and families, and a lot of people see it as a way of bringing in people who have nothing to do with the centre. You have to think to yourself, why are they doing this? They are trying to recruit people.”
Brian Lawlor, a Fine Gael councillor for Templeogue-Terenure, said that local people would not be supporting the event.
“[Scientologists] are active in the community, but I won’t be going in there myself,” he said. “I think they are wrong for the area.”
One mother, who asked not to be identified, indicated on Facebook that she would attend the event. She told The Sunday Times that she did not know that the Church of Scientology had organised it and admitted that she was now reconsidering whether to go.
Another mother, Sive Bardon, said she did not care whether the Church of Scientology was running the event and would be taking her son because he was obsessed with dinosaurs.
“I don’t really care much about what religion or race will be hosting it,” she said.
The Church of Scientology opened its community centre in Dublin last year and has held more than 100 events since.
Tony Ortega, an American journalist who specialises in scientology, said that such events are about making the organisation more acceptable to the community while attempting to identify any local interest.
“The idea is you bring people in for a barbecue or a kid’s party,” he said. “You get the family in, and then the parents are asked to look at some literature.
“It isn’t very effective. They are very poor now at getting new recruits as the word is out and people are very suspicious of them.”
Diana Stahl, the director of public affairs at the Firhouse branch of the Church of Scientology, said that events organised in Dublin were about helping the community.
“Scientologists believe that to do well in life one is not meant to mind his own business, as some theories suggest. On the contrary, one is meant to embrace and actually help his community, his country and mankind, in general, to the maximum of his abilities.
“Our family fun days are very popular and are attended by hundreds of people. Parents who have been here love coming back as they enjoy the place and the facility and usually bring more friends as well.”
Scientology, founded in 1952, is based on the teachings of the American sci-fi author L Ron Hubbard. In Ireland, the Church of Scientology is a registered company that has so far failed to obtain charitable or religious status.
Scientology has had a presence in Ireland since 1987. The organisation bought a former Christian church in Firhouse last year for about €6m, converting it into its centre for Irish operations.
According to statistics published in the 2016 census, only 87 people identified as scientologists in Ireland.
Florence Hamilton has lived in her home in Ballivor, Meath for over 30 years. She has reared her children there, her playschool business is based in her back garden. Children come and go as we chat. Fifty metres away, diggers shift huge mounds of earth and a man dressed all in black keeps a watchful eye.
There is hoarding and ‘Keep Out’ signs. Building work has started and the pounding of steel on stone is deafening. ‘Any queries should be sent to email@example.com’ is written on a sign posted on the hoarding.
Narconon bills itself as a drug rehabilitation therapy linked to the Church of Scientology. It was confirmed at the start of this year that the centre was to open in Ballivor. The multi-million euro development will cater for 34 “students” and 18 staff.
According to its official website, Narconon “uses unique rehabilitation technology that gets to the problem at its source and provides a path for long-term success”.
But their methods have proven controversial.
Their drug detoxification programme uses high doses of vitamins along with long periods in dry saunas which it says is an attempt to flush toxins out of your body. The HSE has previously said that “Scientology’s drug treatment programme has no standing amongst medical professionals involved in the treatment of persons with alcohol and drug use disorders”.
A spokesperson at the National Drug Treatment Centre said:
“It comprises a series of interventions (‘Narconon’) with limited or no basis in a scientific understanding of human physiology and brain functioning and may potentially be harmful directly (with overuse of vitamins and other products) and indirectly in that persons are engaging in an intervention with no evidence of potential benefit for them.”
Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Florence described the fear and anxiety she and many in the small community of Ballivor are experiencing. Her fear masks an anger. Hamilton, along with a large number of locals opposed to the Narconon centre, feel abandoned by the Government.
“I found out about it before Christmas and I didn’t believe it. I thought our Government would not allow it to happen because there is no supervision of what they do. It’s not going to sit easy with me, them being there. I run a preschool and my preschool is situated here. Having a rehab centre for drug addicts there – it doesn’t marry at all.
“Seemingly the powers that be don’t have the will to change it. They don’t care because it’s not on their doorstep. We had politicians down here. They were going to do this, that and the other, they got the photo opportunity and ran for the hills and left us to it.”
The noise of the drilling is now impacting on Hamilton and the children she and her colleagues look after, she says, and is something which she finds distressing.
“They’ve started here a week ago. The noise of the pounding and pulling up the foundations – my little ones who make a lot of noise themselves couldn’t take it – they had to come in from the play yard.”
TheJournal.ie travelled to Ballivor on Wednesday of this week and attempted to gauge the opinion of locals. We were soon to discover first hand how security deals with curious visitors.
Our video journalist started filming the outside of the building, outside the hoarding on public property, when he and this reporter were met by a man dressed head-to-toe in black with a cap pulled down over his face. He had earlier started filming protesters who were standing outside. The man walked out holding a camera in his hand.
Both journalists identified themselves as working for TheJournal.ie and asked why the man was filming protesters. He did not respond but instead walked back behind the 12-foot hoarding. The man’s camera then appeared over the top of the hoarding and started filming again. The protesters had long gone at this stage. TheJournal.ie once again asked the man why he was filming and what he thought about locals’ concerns. There was no response.
Attempts to find someone locally who is in favour of the centre to talk on the record proved unsuccessful. Business owners were concerned that any apparent support for Narconon could mean a reduction in their business. They also feared being ostracised in their community.
One business owner, who spoke under the condition of anonymity, said he had no problem with the centre coming in. He added that he had read up on it and urged locals in the area to do the same.
“I had people coming in saying, ‘isn’t it terrible’ and all this and I thought I’d read up on it. I think people are thinking that there’ll be drug addicts just wandering around the place and that’s not what it is going to be, I think.
“But I can’t put my face and my name out there because Ballivor is a very small place. Everyone knows everyone. I’d actually be risking my livelihood if I did that.”
Many people we approached told us that they did not know enough to comment on what was happening. Others said they didn’t want the Church of Scientology knowing their names or face.
Claire O’Mara is a member of the ‘Ballivor Says No’ group – a community programme attempting to resist Narconon coming into the village.
Her message is similar to Hamilton’s – Narconon and its Scientology links are not welcome in Ballivor.
“I’m very nervous. I didn’t know much about Scientology or Narconon but I spent days and weeks reading up on it and I’m worried. We have no idea why they chose such a small village. It’s a very small place. I have not spoken to anyone who wants it here. They’re going back home and parishioners if you can call them that, that they’re welcome. They’re not welcome. We are going to everything in our power to stop them.”
Local politicians have also been vocal on the matter. Sinn Féin TD Peader Tóibín said there was “a massive gap” in the government’s responsibilities, saying “there is absolutely no legislation and no regulation governing how these residential drug rehabilitation centres operate”.
Toibín said that, in addition to closer scrutiny of the centres themselves, the qualifications of the staff employed to administer the courses also needed to be regulated.
Fine Gael Councillor Noel French has been part of the movement against the centre. He spoke of his disappointment that the initial plans for a nursing home did not come to fruition and that this drug treatment centre was instead coming to a village of 1,700 people.
“My main reaction was it was an awful pity that the original planning for a nursing home was not being proceeded with. There are about 23 older people from the parish here who are in nursing homes outside the parish. It would have been a great boost for the community
“We are concerned about the size of the centre. There will be 34 addicts being here for rehab. I don’t have a problem with rehab but I am concerned about the size of it within the community.
“There are no standards here in Ireland with a drug rehab centre. We have raised this with all three TDs from Meath West and each have said they too would be concerned.”
TheJournal.ie contacted the Department of Health and asked it to clarify its position of the Narconon centre and the complete lack of regulations in the drug rehabilitation industry.
A spokeswoman for the department said: “The Department of Health would advise anyone seeking treatment for addiction to contact their local HSE Addiction Service.
“The Department has no jurisdiction over agencies that provide private addiction treatment services. There is currently no provision in legislation for the regulation or inspection of residential treatment or rehabilitation centres specialising in addiction.
“Organisations which provide addiction services and are funded by the HSE are required to meet minimum standards in the delivery of services across a range of criteria which form the basis of any service level agreement.
“The HSE has informed the Department of Health that there is no evidence to suggest that the drug treatment programme, provided by the organisation referred to would meet with any of the criteria set out by the HSE for agencies that provide addiction services on its behalf.
The HSE considers that the organisation’s drug treatment programme comprises a series of interventions with limited or no basis in a scientific understanding of human physiology and brain functioning.”
TheJournal.ie contacted Narconon and asked if it felt it should be regulated by the State and asked its opinion on the protesters’ concerns. The HSE’s stance on the treatment was also questioned by Narconon.
A spokesman for the group said: “Narconon representatives have been meeting with local Ballivor residents over the past number of weeks and each meeting has been courteous and residents who have engaged are interested in the centre. Narconon has sent an information booklet to each house in Ballivor on which are email and telephone contact details if anyone in Ballivor has any questions or concerns
“Narconon follows the laws and regulations of the country in which they operate. Narconon prides itself is setting and maintaining the highest of standards in all aspects of the programme.
“This HSE statement is taken out of context and does not include that the person making the statement also said under cross examination that he did not know anything about the Narconon programme and had never met anyone who had done the programme.”