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