Tangled history


The direction of the new Free State following independence in 1922 soon became clear and the cries of Unionists, North and South, in former decades that Home Rule meant Rome Rule was no longer seen as hysteria.

One of the foremost members of a minority church on this island to challenge this trend almost immediately was poet and Church of Ireland member WB Yeats. He was of that generation and indeed that denomination whose vision inspired Ireland’s independence movement.

On June 11th, 1925, Yeats attacked the direction the new State was then taking during an impassioned speech in the Senate, to which he had been appointed by the new Irish government.

The new Cumann na nGaedheal (forerunner of Fine Gael) government was attempting to ban divorce, then allowed under the new Free State constitution.

Yeats said: “I think it is tragic that within three years of this country gaining its independence we should be discussing a measure which a minority of this nation considers to be grossly oppressive.

“I am proud to consider myself a typical man of that minority. We against whom you have done this thing are no petty people. We are one of the great stocks of Europe.

“We are the people of Burke; we are the people of Grattan; we are the people of Swift, the people of Emmet, the people of Parnell. We have created the most of the modern literature of this country. We have created the best of its political intelligence.”

He pointed out to fellow senators “some of you may probably know that when the committee was set up to draw up the Constitution of the Free State, it was urged to incorporate in the Constitution the indissolubility of marriage and refused to do so. That was the expression of the political mind of Ireland. You are now urged to act on the advice of men who do not express the political mind, but who express the religious mind.

“I admit it must be exceedingly difficult for members of this House to resist the pressure that has been brought upon them.

“In the long warfare of this country with England the Catholic clergy took the side of the people, and owing to that they possess here an influence that they do not possess anywhere else in Europe,” he said.

Divorce was banned in 1924 as was the selling of artificial means of contraception.

This brought laws of the new State into line with Catholic teaching.


The Censorship of Publications Act was passed and established the Censorship Board.

This banned morally corrupting literature including any book which “in its general tendency indecent or obscene . . . or . . . advocates the unnatural prevention of conception or the procurement of abortion or miscarriage or the use of any method, treatment or appliance for the purpose of such prevention or such miscarriage”.


Eucharistic Congress. Seen as an assertion of Catholic Church triumphalism in Ireland.


A new Constitution recognises the special position of the Catholic Church as the denomination of a majority of Irish people. It too bans divorce.


The Catholic archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid reinforces the ban on Catholics attending Trinity College Dublin.


Government falls over Mother and Child Scheme. It proposed providing free maternity care for all mothers and free healthcare for all children up to the age of sixteen, regardless of income.

This was seen as interference in the family by the Catholic Church, which opposed it vigorously, particularly the the archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid.

It was also opposed by the medical profession, for monetary reasons.

In April 1951, during a Dáil debate on the Mother and Child Scheme, then Fine Gael taoiseach John A Costello felt impelled to announce: “I am an Irishman second, I am a Catholic first, and I accept without qualification in all respects the teaching of the hierarchy and the church to which I belong.”

He further told the Dáil: “I, as a Catholic, obey my church authorities and will continue to do so.”


The Censorship of Publications Act – under which a ban on a book on grounds of indecency or obscenity would expire after 12 years.

A further prohibition order could then be made by the Censorship of Publications Board where the same book was concerned.


Ban on Catholics attending Trinity College Dublin is lifted by archbishop McQuaid.


An amendment to the Constitution removes wording recognising the special position of the Catholic Church in Ireland.


The Health (Family Planning) Act was passed.

This Act allowed married couples buy artificial contraception – but only with a doctor’s prescription and through registered chemists.

Pope John Paul II becomes the first, and only, pope in history to visit Ireland.


An amendment to the Constitution, supported by the Catholic Church, aims to reinforce the legal ban on abortion. Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution is amended to read as follows: “The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right”.


The Health (Family Planning) (Amendment) Act allows the sale of condoms and spermicides to people over 18 without a prescription.


A proposed amendment to the Constitution that would have allowed divorce, is opposed by the Catholic Church. It falls at referendum.


Another referendum amended the Constitution to specify that the prohibition of abortion would not limit freedom of travel in and out of the State or the right to distribute information about abortion services in foreign countries.


Fr Brendan Smyth jailed in Northern Ireland for the sexual abuse of children.

In November, the Fianna Fáil-Labour government falls in Fr Smyth-related controversy


The ban on divorce is removed from the Constitution.


Fr Smyth jailed in the Republic. He dies one month later.


Then taoiseach Bertie Ahern apologises to people who had been abused in residential institutions for children run by 18 religious congregations. He announces the setting up of a commission to investigate what had occurred and hear people’s stories. He also announces the setting up of a redress board to compensate such people.


An attempt to strengthen the constitutional ban on abortion and prevent the risk of suicide being invoked as grounds for an abortion, fails at referendum

Bishop Brendan Comiskey resigns as Bishop of Ferns following criticisms of his handling of clerical child abuse allegations.


Ferns inquiry set up under the chairmanship of retired Supreme Court judge Mr Justice Frank Murphy to investigate the handling of clerical child sex abuse allegations by Church and State authorities in the Catholic diocese of Ferns between 1962 and 2002.


The Ferns report is published.


The Commission of Investigation Dublin Archdiocese (the “Murphy commission”) set up under the chairmanship of Ms Justice Yvonne Murphy to investigate the handling of clerical child sex abuse allegations by Church and State authorities in Dublin’s Catholic archdiocese between 1975 and 2004.


The Murphy commission’s remit is extended in January to include Cloyne diocese following a December 2008 report by the Catholic Church watchdog – its National Board for Safeguarding Children – that child protection practices in Cloyne were “inadequate and in some respects dangerous.”

In May, the Ryan (Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse) report is published.

The Commission of Investigation Dublin Archdiocese publishes its report in November.


It emerges that in 1975 the Catholic primate Cardinal Seán Brady swore to secrecy two young people abused by Fr Brendan Smyth.


The Murphy commission’s report on Cloyne diocese is published on July 13th.