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Twenty Years of Divorce in Ireland

Understanding the role of marriage among the Irish can help us understand why the country has the lowest divorce rate.

On November 26, 1995, the people of Ireland voted, by a small margin, to allow divorce. Yet, Ireland had the lowest divorce rate in the European Union, at 0.6 per 1,000 inhabitants in 2012, according to Eurostat. Twenty years later, the Irish media asked, “Why has Ireland not embraced divorce or indeed marital separation?”

Some answers can be found in the co-produced Greek/Irish movie The Lobster, which presents us with a dystopian near future of enforced coupledom. In the movie, single people are taken to The Hotel where they are obliged to find a matching mate in 45 days (the dating period). If an occupant manages to find a partner, the new couple is given a month to try to live together (the cohabiting period), after which they are freed to live in The City. Failing to marry results in the occupant’s death and reincarnation.

The movie plays on a number of sociological concepts particularly Heise’s concept of marital hegemony, as it documents the practices which reinforce marriage as a central social and cultural institution in this future society. The concept draws on cultural hegemony and sees marital hegemony consisting of two mechanisms; coercion and legitimation. In the case of Ireland, I argue that both mechanisms operate to ensure that marriage is taken seriously.


The Irish state intervenes in important ways in the private life of its citizens in order to regulate and control their intimate relations (the continuing prohibition on abortion is the prime example of such a practice). The current divorce legislation contains an important restriction on a couple’s freedom todivorce in that spouses have to live apart for four years before they can be granted a divorce. This two-step process of exit from marriage is a topic of debate, with the first step taking place when couples part through either de facto or legal separation and the second step when they divorce at least four years later. Only a small number of couples take this second step and taking both separation anddivorce into account, the Irish rate still appears low. The cost and slowness of divorce proceedings must be seen as one important factor in understanding the Irish case.

However, like in the movie, the significance of the married state must be considered. Irish people take marriage seriously; they are slow to enter a first marriage and, unlike in the movie where couples are giving 45 days to decide to marry, the Irish take their time. In fact, last year, the average age of Irish newlyweds has risen to its highest ever recorded level (35 for a groom and 33 for a bride). In addition, when couples part company with their first spouse, they are even more cautious about taking a second leap. In 2011, 39 per cent of ever-divorced men remarried, compared with only 28 percent of women. Second marriages are rare, and therefore divorce is redundant.


There a number of societal practices which promote and legitimate the dominant social position of marriage in modern day Ireland and these practices can help us further understand why people are slow to enter and exit the married state. The big Irish wedding is one key symbolic factor in the production of marital hegemony. The institution of marriage is publicly celebrated and marital identity is socially validated through what normally entails a large and expensive wedding ceremony. This is not to say there is no resistance to the big Catholic Church wedding as civil marriage ceremonies continue to increase (primarily among even older couples). The point is that the Irish wedding plays a major role in producing marital hegemony.

This legitimation is not just seen in symbolic factors however but also in ideological discourse. As political parties begin their campaign for next year’s general election, many refer to the “working families,” “ordinary families” and Irish TV continues to present images of the ideal family of man and wife (such as in Labour’s campaign “better for families“). Not one political campaign has yet tofeature a gay couple or lone parents, the unemployed or the homeless.

These range of practices, some overt and others more covert, ensure that marriage is a highly valued form of family life in contemporary Ireland; so much so, that the Irish want all people to have an opportunity to marry (hence the marriage equality win). So much so, that 20 years after the divorcereferendum was passed, the Irish are slow to exit marriage. Be that through a form of informal separation or more formal separation/divorce proceedings. This is not a bad thing. Outside of marriage lie the uncelebrated; a life of single supplements and fewer tax breaks.

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