Ireland’s Marriage Referendum 2019

My canvassing badge from 1986.

Tomorrow, 24 May 2019, we in Ireland will once again be casting our votes on an aspect of our divorce legislation. Because we have a written Constitution, the consent of the Irish people is needed before the Constitution can be amended. This can only be done by way of a referendum.

The explanatory booklet issued to every household in Ireland

The proposed amendment is for the removal of the requirement for spouses to have lived apart for at least 4 years in the previous 5 before a divorce can be granted. We will at the same time be voting for foreign divorces to be recognized here.

Our written constitution was adopted in 1937 (following independence from Great Britain in 1922) and while based on the British parliamentary system it also included fundamental rights based on the teachings of the Catholic faith. The Church was very influential at that time and for many decades afterwards. John Charles McQuaid was a friend of the then leader of the government, Eamon DeValera. McQuaid went on to become the Primate of Ireland and wielded extraordinary influence on succesive governments. The new constitution was unequivocal with regards to divorce. It stated: No law shall be enacted providing for the grant of a dissolution of marriage .

I was a footsoldier canvassing in favour of the amendment to remove the bar on divorce in 1986, mainly because of these three women:

‘Mary’ had married in Ireland. She endured years of abuse in a violent relationship. She was thrown down the stairs a number of times and her husband put weedkiller in her shoes. She had nowhere to go. Police were reluctant to get involved in domestic disputes.

‘Kate’ fled from an intolerable marriage to an alcoholic and took her children to live in England. She obtained a divorce and eventually moved back to Ireland. Following a church annulment of her first marriage, she remarried in the church. Her second marriage was recognized by the Church, but not by the state, to whom she was a bigamist.

‘Brigid’ was the daughter of a farmer. She lived in the family home with her father, a married brother and his wife and children. Her father arranged a marriage with a neighbouring farmer and he provided a dowry of some acreage. Brigid and her future husband met just once prior to the marriage, that had taken place some ten years earlier. They spent one week together before she was forced to move back to her father’s house, as she was not acceptable to her new husband’s mother. ‘Brigid’ gave birth nine months later. Her father had died and her brother and his wife, now with their own growing family wanted her to move out, but she had nowhere to go. She had no entitlement to any state assistance as her husband was a well-to-do farmer.

There were many more ‘Marys’, ‘Kates’ and ‘Brigids’ in Ireland with tragic stories to tell. And some people who had entered marriage for life found that it simply didn’t work out. I was prepared to stand up for them and with them in campaigning for an amendment to our constitution.

The campaign was a harrowing one at many levels. Taking on the might of the Catholic Church – not to mention their devout followers- was not for the fainthearted. Compassion was not part of their version of ‘Christianity’. The campaign was divisive; it was personal, with insults and even objects being thrown at will. Priests bellowed from pulpits. On my final day as a practicing catholic, a young curate yelled about the ‘Jezebels’ in the town who were lining up to ensnare the happily married men of the parish. I got up and walked out and away from all of it.

The referendum was resoundingly defeated by 63% to 34%. The outlook was bleak for those caught in the awfulness of marital breakdown, but their plight was of no consequence to the Church who had won the moral conflict. 9 years later it was once again put to the people, once again it was a bitter and divisive conflict, but it was won by the slimmest of margins – 50.28% to 49.72%. Divorce legislation was enacted in 1996.

Tomorrow we will vote again. This time we have no visible campaigners. No hollering clerics. No praying zealots at every corner. We will vote to remove divorce restrictions from the Constitution altogether, and if passed, the government will enact legislation to reduce the waiting time from 4 to 2 years. Two days ago, the Catholic bishops requested that people think very carefully before they vote. A very reasonable request. Yesterday I saw 6 Vote Yes posters outside Cork. I have not seen a single poster urging a No vote. We have come a long way in 33 years.

Both earlier campaigns had memorable moments that remain etched in the memories of those of us who fought the battles. Alice Glenn famously remarked that women who voted for divorce would be ‘like turkeys voting for Christmas’. A priest claimed that by divorcing abusive husbands, women were simply ‘passing on the abuse to another unsuspecting woman’ and Alice again warned that divorced women with children would be exposing their children to sexual abuse by the stranger who would replace the father. Older wives would be replaced by fresher younger models and there would not be a farm left in Ireland as women would rush to get their share of the land when marriages fell apart. At the 1995 referendum count, as results were announced, a well known religious zealot, Mrs Cribben, shouted out – “G’way ye wife-swapping sodomites.”

And so tomorrow, let us vote YES once again, to show that we have evolved into a more humane and compassionate society than existed just a few decades ago.

My rather battered copy of a Martyn Turner Cartoon published in the Irish Times 3 weeks before the 1986 Referendum. The caption reads:

Both the cartoon and my 1986 badge will now be returned to my treasures box,

Job done.


Filed under Ireland

11 responses to “Ireland’s Marriage Referendum 2019

  1. I didn’t know that this was coming up. It will sail through. The Catholic church has been sadly exposed as little better than a cult. Had its ‘leaders’ shown an ounce of compassion in the past instead of sticking to doctrine then they might be forgiven. How many miserable marriages have both women and their husbands had to endure down the years? Well done Angela for playing your part in allowing people to resume their normal lives following a bad marriage.

    • It has been very low profile…hardly getting a mention…and that’s the beauty of it. People now matter more than upholding the ethos of a deeply flawed patriarchy. Thanks for dropping by!

  2. Yes! Vote yes! Even to wait two years is little too long to me. (Disclosure: I have been divorced.) Yet I can understand the opposition from the Catholic Church.

    • Yes indeed….I agree and hopefully in time we will stop telling adults how to live their lives and make their own decisions. It is interesting that some of the very vocal clerics turned out to be less than perfect themselves having relationships and children that only came to light afterwards. And we will not mention the terrible crisis they brought on the entire institution with their betrayal of trust with young boys, ruining the lives of thousands of innocents.

  3. sarthure

    I love his blog post, and it’s a timely reminder of how much that Ireland has changed in the last 33 years. I was living in Ireland in 1995/96. My vote was down the country and I drove down to vote after work. It was lashing rain and I didn’t make good time. I was afraid I wouldn’t make it before the polls closed. Anyway I got there with 10 minutes to spare and when I raced in, the woman on the desk said ‘Ah there you are, I saw your mother this morning at the swimming pool and she said you’d be down tonight to vote. We were going to stay open until you got here, we knew you were on the way.’ And every vote counted in that referendum!

  4. I have learnt a little more contemporary Irish history after reading this blog post. I’m so glad Ireland has become a more tolerant and compassionate society. The Catholic church has caused so much grief to so many people over the years. I too walked away many years ago. Thank you

    • We have made great headway indeed. Amazing that the interests of people trapped in broken relationships became irrelevant when up against the need to maintain Ireland as a good catholic innocent country. Thanks for dropping by!

  5. Nice post Angela. Well done. I am hopeful that the ‘2 years’ idea will be reconsidered. It’s not presently cast in stone I believe, as it’s not on the voting paper. My hope would be for 1 year or less. Well done also on your efforts of years past.

    • As it is the proposed legislation it would not be on the ballot paper. I agree that adults should decide for themselves what is right for them and hopefully that will eventually enshrined in law sooner rather than later. We have managed to unravel the puritanical hold that Dev and his cohorts inflicted on the Irish Republic and I am pleased to have been involved in those campaigns down the years. Thanks for dropping by.

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