Fintan O’Toole: attempt to divide us into pro- and anti-family
Article 41 of the Constitution, dealing with ‘The Family’, is nothing more than the rhetorical cover for a cruel, hypocritical, sexist system that failed even in its own stated aims
‘The last point about article 41 is that it is paranoid. This may indeed be the most interesting thing about it. Those who oppose same-sex marriage imagine a lost holy Catholic Ireland in which “the family” was perfectly secure until nasty liberals came along and started to undermine it. Yet if you actually read article 41, you will find its tone already imbued with portents of doom: the State pledges not just to support marriage but to “protect it against attack”.’ Photograph: Alan Betson / THE IRISH TIMES
As we face into the Children and Family Relationships Bill and the referendum on marriage equality, there is, yet again, an attempt to divide us all into “pro-family” and “anti-family” camps. Those who oppose marriage equality now say they are not anti-gay, they are pro-family. They are the defenders of article 41 of Éamon de Valera’s Constitution, which is headed simply “The Family”. This is the sacred writ they will protect against assault. So let’s just think for a moment about what it is we are being asked to preserve, what this wonderful text actually contains.
The first point is that it is extraordinarily vague. It calls the family “the natural primary and fundamental unit group of Society” but makes no attempt to define it. The only specific is that the family is “founded” on marriage. What does “founded” mean here? Very different kinds of family – the extended family of cousins and in-laws and multiple generations that was typical of older Irish society or the nuclear family of mammy, daddy and kids – can be “founded” on marriage. Article 41 tells us nothing about which of them is supposed to be “primary” and “natural”.
The second thing that’s interesting about article 41 is that the one aspect of family life it is completely clear about is that a woman’s place is in the home – and only in the home. The women of the revolutionary generation who created the State hated article 41 because it says that a woman’s contribution to the “common good” is defined by her “life within the home”. To take just one example, Kathleen Clarke, widow of the 1916 leader Thomas Clarke and herself the first female lord mayor of Dublin, denounced it as a betrayal of the guarantee of equality contained in the 1916 Proclamation. The sacred text is not in this sense conservative – it is a sexist reaction against the involvement of women in public life.
But – and here’s the third thing – article 41 is also one of the worst exercises in Irish rhetorical hypocrisy. It commits the State to ensuring that mothers “shall not be obliged by economic necessity” to work outside the home. When did the State even pretend to take this seriously? Does anyone at all believe that the economic, welfare and labour market policies of the State are geared towards supporting one-income families in which mothers can afford to stay at home with their children?
In reality, marriage in Ireland has had just one truly formidable enemy: the very people who pose as its true defenders. Article 41 is a direct expression of the reactionary Catholic social teaching that dominated Irish society for 70 years. How did that domination work out for marriage and “the family”? Horribly. The culture for which article 41 is holy writ had its chance to prove that it was really good at protecting and supporting the family based on marriage and the rights of children to a relationship with their natural parents. Do we really have to remind ourselves how grotesquely it failed?
What was the starkest thing that outsiders would have noticed about Ireland in the decades after article 41 was enshrined? The enormous number of unmarried people. Poverty and church-induced terror of sex combined to make Ireland one of the most hostile places for marriage in the world. In 1946, to take one snapshot, half the population aged over 15 was single. In rural Ireland, where conservative values were strongest, an astonishing 58 per cent of men had never married.
And let’s not even start on the rights of “natural parents” and their children. Holy Ireland had ample opportunity to show how much it valued those rights. It locked mothers away in forbidding institutions, tore their babies from them with shameless cruelty, exported babies like cattle and systematically lied to those children when they tried to find out who their birth parents were. When did the “anti-family” liberals ever do any of that?
Article 41 is indefensible. It is nothing more than the rhetorical cover for a cruel, hypocritical, sexist system that failed even in its own stated aims. It’s long since time we replaced its empty piety about “The Family” with real support for real Irish families.