IN 1991 there were less than 4,000 Muslims living in Ireland. Today there are more than 20,000 adherents, a growth of over 400% making it the third most popular religion in the state.

Since the late '50s, Muslims have been coming to Ireland, mainly from Africa, and most of the arrivals were professionals coming here to work . . . although there is evidence of trading ships from Muslim nations visiting Irish ports well before then.

The next wave of immigration occurred in the '70s when students from the Middle East began arriving in this country, mainly to study medicine in the Royal College of Surgeons.

But by far the biggest wave of immigration occurred during the '90s when refugees from places such as Iraq, Bosnia and Algeria began arriving.

The first Muslim organisation in Ireland, the Dublin Islamic Society, was formed in 1959 by a group of Muslim students. The society was registered as a friendly society in 1971 and later as a charitable organisation. In 1976 the first Mosque and Islamic Centre in Ireland was opened in a four-story building at No 7, Harrington Street, Dublin 8.

Ballyhaunis Mosque was built in 1987 by a Muslim businessman called Sher Rafique who used to own a hallal meat factory in that remote town in the northwest of Ireland. It is considered to be the first purpose-built Mosque in Ireland. Although the factory went bankrupt there is still a small Muslim community in the town.

Today there are more than 16 mosques and prayer halls throughout the country. As well as Dublin and Ballyhaunis there are places of worship in Cork, Limerick, Waterford, Tralee, Ennis and Cavan.

Recognising this growth and the needs of the Irish Muslims, Sheikh Hamdan al-Maktoum, a member of the ruling family of Dubai, agreed to fund new facilities for the community in Dublin in 1992 and the Islamic Cultural Centre in Clonskeagh was built. Dr Nooh Al Kaddo is the Executive Director of the Centre and he is pleased that it has become part of the landscape. He explains how it came to be built.

"There was a national school that was for sale and we thought, 'why not buy it and start a school for Muslim children', " he says. "So we did and set up a Muslim national school in the building. There were a lot of grounds with the school, so we decided to do something a bit more. 'Why not put a mosque there too, ' we thought. Then the whole idea of the Islamic Cultural Centre came about. Within 18 months the place was built.

It was opened by Mary Robinson and Sheikh Hamdan al Maktoum on 14 November 1996."

Sheikh Hamdan thought of establishing an organisation to look after the mosque and to help other Muslim organisations. So he set up the Maktoum Foundation which now has branches all over Europe and a head office in Dubai. They sponsor Islamic Studies in Dundee University, have projects in Africa, and are building an Islamic centre in Rotterdam.

Dr Al Kaddo sees it as a priority of the centre to address issues of misunderstanding and ignorance about Islam. He believes that the best place to start demystifying Islam is from within.

"We have recognised problems that exist and we are addressing them." He says.

"We know that we can't exist on our own and we must, as a community, help any process that helps us to integrate into society. We have a course for the youth on how to be a good European Muslim. We are trying to arrange some courses in Irish political history. We feel that when we begin to get some Muslims involved in Irish political life that it will lead to a lot more integration and mutual understanding."

They want people to come to the centre. Their restaurant is open to the public and is extremely popular.

60% of the customers are Irish people who are not Muslims. In the early days they used to see people looking in through the railings. A few brave souls dared to walk up the path to see what was going on. Now people are more inclined to come right in and find out more about Islam.

"People can come in and have a guided tour of the mosque, " Dr Al Kaddo says.

"They can ask any question they like about our religion and we will do our best to answer them. We have leaflets and brochures that explain things a bit further."

I ask what is the most common question people ask about Islam. "I think it is about the position of women in our society, " he says.

"There is a lot of misunderstanding about this . . . people feel that women are tied to the kitchen and have no authority. So we try to explain how this is not the case. People also want to know about the concept of jihad, which in reality is about a struggle and not about fighting. So we expand on these themes and deal with them until the people who ask are satisfied."