‘The heavens have not fallen’ since 1995 divorce referendum

Former judge tells Merriman summer school we now have more equality between spouses

Former Supreme Court judge Catherine McGuinness said: “Irish husbands by and large have not deserted their wives to take off with painted floozies.” File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Former Supreme Court judge Catherine McGuinness said: “Irish husbands by and large have not deserted their wives to take off with painted floozies.” File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times


The dire predictions that were floated by the opponents of divorce in 1995 have not been borne out.

That is according to former Supreme Court judge, Catherine McGuinness who told the Merriman summer school on Wednesday “that the development of divorce law in the 1990s has produced a more equal situation between spouses”.

Speaking at the opening of the summer school in Ennis, Ms McGuinness said that with the introduction of divorce here “the heavens have not fallen, Ireland has a relatively low divorce rate, and Irish husbands by and large have not deserted their wives to take off with painted floozies”.

She said: “Most divorce cases before the Irish courts are not about glamorous or shocking depravity but about the difficult task of dividing limited resources so as to provide for separating spouses and their children.”

The theme of the summer school this year is “Love & Marriage (Revisited)” and Ms McGuinness said that this year marks the 20 years since the 1995 referendum on divorce.

Earlier referendum

She told the audience she has more memories of the earlier divorce referendum that was rejected in 1986.

Ms McGuinness said: “There was a feeling of rejection. For myself, I remember that shortly after the defeat of that first referendum I was at the hurling final in Croke Park. Before the match I found that I could not join in singing the national anthem, so strongly did I feel that Ireland simply did not want people who thought as I did. This was what it was to be a perpetual minority. Of course, like the rest of us, I got up, shook myself, and joined the fight again.”

Professor of Social Policy at UCD, Tony Fahey told the school that it has been something of a surprise quite how low the uptake in divorce has been in Ireland since its introduction.

He said: “By 2007, 10 years after the advent of divorce, the divorce rate in Ireland had risen to match that of Italy – then the lowest in Europe – but had not broken through the 1 per 1,000 threshold. More surprisingly, it then turned downwards and now lies at 0.6 divorces per 1,000 population. That rate would have been low for most countries even in the 1950s.”

Prof Fahey pointed out: “As in Italy, it is likely that taking separation as well as divorce into account the total rate of marital breakdown in Ireland is of the order of double the divorce rate, undoubtedly well over the 1 per 1,000 threshold.”

He said: “The rise in marriage breakdown in the 1980s is likely to have been in part at least a consequence of the rush into marriage which occurred in the previous decade.

“Since then, marriage ages have risen by eight years or so: the average first-time bride in 2011 was 32.5 years old and the average first-time groom was 34.6 years old and now almost half the population of young adults have third-level education. This mix of greater maturity and better education among those who marry could on its own be a major contributor to the stabilisation of marriage.”


Prof Fahey said that Irish people are cautious about marriage. He said: “They are slow to enter a first marriage and if they part company with their first spouse, they are even more cautious about making a second attempt.”

Elsewhere in her opening remarks, Ms McGuinness recalled that prior to the 1970s, there was virtually no legal practical protection of married women in this country.

She said that it was not until the enactment of the Family Law (Maintenance of Spouses and Children) Act 1976 that the courts could make enforceable orders for periodic payments of financial support for wives.

Ms McGuinness said that she served on the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Marriage Breakdown while serving in the Seanad.

She added: “When it was proposed by Alan Shatter, if I remember rightly that the law should allow for the payment of a lump sum to a wife on separation, a certain prominent TD from Mayo exclaimed in horror: ‘But you couldn’t do that, sure they’d all spend it on fast cars!’ To be fair, the female members of his own party made their disagreement very clear.”

The school continues until Saturday and some of the other speakers due to give their thoughts on love and marriage, include historian Roy Foster, UCC law lecturer Conor O’Mahony and sociologists Anne Byrne of NUI Galway and Sandra McAvoy of UCC.