The transformation of the Irish ‘family’.

We have witnessed nothing short of a transformation in ‘the family’ in Ireland since 1937 when The Constitution was enacted. Discuss.

This paper will discuss the profound changes that have occurred within the Irish family since the enactment of The Constitution in 1937.

The State recognises the Family as the natural primary and fundamental

unit group of Society, and as a moral institution possessing inalienable

and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to the law.

The Constitution (1937:41.1).

The nuclear family, taken in context of the 1937 Constitution comprises of the biological mother, father and dependent children living under the one roof, organised along gender lines. The institution of family still remains the basis of social order within contemporary Ireland and is “an important symbol of collective identity, unity and security.” (O’Connor,P.1998:89). To support discussion this essay will look at the history of the ‘mother’, the restrictions this imposed as well as the solid foundations it created and how this has changed dramatically over the last 60 years. The family is a dynamic, fluid, resilient and  ever changing fundamental institution of society. We will look at the Women’s movement and feminism concepts of the 1960s onwards, the issue of domestic violence within the home  and how this has contributed to the emerging and diverse presentations of the family in contemporary Ireland. I shall draw from The Constitution,  research and essays by contemporary Sociologists to support the discussion. This paper will argue that, although the “..changes have been great, they should not be exaggerated. Nowhere is social continuity more important, or more obvious, than in the family.” (Kennedy, 1986:98) The shift that has occurred shows an evolvement of a flourishing, diverse and complex filled interdependent network of relationships that makes up the family.

The Irish Mother.

Historically the Irish mother was the one who provided emotional and moral support within the family. Pre-famine times saw a woman’s work being labour intensive and economically driven with the industry of manufacturing wool and linen which provided employment and independence outside of the home and an income of their own. As the industrialisation of Britain occurred primarily with the steam driven machines the Irish market was flooded with cheap yarn and cloth that undercut the hand- made materials and saw women become jobless and thus  powerless. As value on a woman’s labour declined, (previously having made up some fifty percent of the labour force) previous marriage arrangements phased out and increasingly “…dowries as form of capital instead of labour skills were required.” (Inglis, T. 1987:189). Along with this change came postponed marriages, permanent celibacy and emigration.  The sole role of the mother became to feed and clothe her husband and children and an institution in itself. The mother provided the vital force which initiated change within the family, and thus in society.

The church played a prominent role as the women “..relied heavily on the priest for support to take morals into the home.” (Inglis, T. 1987:188). A mutually dependant role with the church  played a significant role in creating the martyr out of the mother who surrendered to the family, “nurturing inhibition and shame..” (Inglis, T. 1987:188). The family remained sacred and behind closed doors and it was the Priests and Nuns who took control of defining the good mother and the education system  reflected just this.  It is important to note here is the control which was exhibited by the Church over sex and how it was used as a means of controlling women. “..women especially were made to feel ashamed of their bodies. They were interrogated about their sexual feelings, desires and activities in the confessional… became the most abhorrent sin.” (Inglis: 1987:199). It was through this control that order was maintained within the house through usually economic reasons the woman was dependant on the Priest for intervention in the family as a mediator. The woman remained fragile and delicate and the need of protection was instilled into the psyche, first by the Church and then by women as mothers themselves. A belief was made and the martyr was born. Research conducted in the 1960’s showed that “…Irish-American women were noted not only for holding the family together but for propelling it ‘out of poverty and into the respectability of the middle classes.’…..Diver notes ‘..wives operated in league with the Priests.’” (Inglis, T., 1987: 206). Reflecting the interdependence with the church, a woman’s control within the family unit came into the domain when bringing the family together for recital of the ‘Our Lady’. The Virgin Mary archetypal represented a pure, desexualised and virginal woman who was arguably devised by the Catholic Church to counteract the pagan practices and rituals of previous times. The mother underwent a profound change in a short amount of time which suppressed nurturance and physical contact and is extremely significant to the writing of The Constitution and further on when we reflect on domestic violence within the home. The Constitution recognised the value of the role of the mother within the home, marriages were sacrosanct and yet because of this did not allow for unhappy or dangerous situations. “No law shall be enacted providing for the grant of dissolution of marriage.” (The Constitution: Article 41.3.2). The woman was bound by marriage and led to nothing short of a feminist revolution.




The Women’s Movement

The woman’s movement evolved from the dialectic relationship between the mother and the church, a rising movement of change was witnessed. From the 1960’s onwards the “Irish woman no longer was dependant on the Church for power and consequently, the church loses its ability to control them and their sex.” (Inglis, T., 1987: 213). Old moulds were finally being broken and “… the greater likelihood of married women in employment, the increased incidence of family breakdown, the greater involvement of government….constitute distinctly new patterns.” (Kennedy, F., 1986: 92). Magazines, TV, and the wireless all played significant roles in how women perceived their place and changing rights.

Women’s attitudes and beliefs were changing. Fertility issues did not change and unregulated births rose from 61,000 in 1960 to 74,000 in 1980 and then dipped again in 1984.  The attitude towards the woman, once child bearing was the confinement to the home. Feminist voices of the Women’s movement of the 1970’s encouraged women “.. to reduce their child bearing, to increase their labour force participation and further assert their independence.”(Kennedy, F., 1986:96). This surge of economic and social change for women saw a shift away from the values in The Constitution which made the woman’s place in the home and towards a labour force direction. In 1971 there were 28% of women that made up the labour force, compared to 49% in 2002. (CSO, 2002/ Callanan, P., 2011 UCC). In the mid 1970’s “The Family Home and Protection Act” (1976) came out, of which three major changes were initiated. The contraception pill became legalised for married women and “In 1985, Health Minister, Barry Desmond, successfully piloted legislation….to provide contraceptives for those aged eighteen and over, whether married or single.” (Kennedy, F., 1986:97). Women gained control of their bodies and the right to choice in childbearing. Secondly the State made it its duty to provide free legal aid to families in law cases and thirdly the tax treatment of married couples was introduced. A few fundamental shifts were occurring for women within the traditional, nuclear family unit. For the first time they had control over their fertility, a system that was beginning to support them if they wished to leave their husbands and an acceptance in a change of attitudes towards careers and independence. “..the new values are reflected in a more ready acceptance of non-marital households, for instance that of the unmarried mother and her child, who, since 1973, may receive a state payment.” (Kennedy, F., 1986: 97). These significant changes along with greater education opportunities meant women had children later and put both marriage and families off until after their education. This period of dramatic change for women and  meant that families were smaller in size or childless, motherhood was postponed, children were being born outside of wedlock, families were breaking down and the emergence of single parent families was on the rise.  Dramatic changes from The Constitution’s enshrined values of 1937.


Domestic Violence

The Constitution states that,  “The State pledges itself to guard with special care the institution of Marriage, on which the Family is founded, and to protect it against attack.” (The Constitution: 1937: Article 3.1).

This statement kept the family and the issue of domestic violence silenced behind a wall of shame and guilt. Raising it’s head along with  feminist views of the 1970’s, “O’Connor argues that we were inclined to use the language of make believe when describing the family and intimate relationships” (Callanan, P., 2011. Lecture 11. UCC) and that  reality is sometimes very different behind closed doors. It has been argued that a mixture between the idealised family as being sacrosanct and the State’s reluctance in getting involved attributed to  generations of abuse. A shocking report in 1998 published the statement that “the family is the most violent group in society…..You are more likely to get killed, injured or physically attacked in your home by someone you are related to than in any other social context.” (Callanan, P., 2011. Lecture 11. UCC).Quite alarmingly numbers are increasing but the difference being the amount of support services is also on the rise.

According to “The Report of the Task Force on Violence Against Women, 1997”:

“Domestic Violence refers to the use of physical or emotional force or threat of physical force, including sexual violence, in close adult relationships….” (Callanan, P., 2011. Lecture 11.UCC). Domestic violence goes beyond the physical and shows itself in many ways, the Women’s movement raised awareness and legal separations were made possible as a result.  The UN reported that violence within the household showed that women are the majority of victims. It is stated that:

Violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power

relations between men and women, which have led to domination over

and discrimination against women by men and to the prevention of the

full advancement of women, and violence against women is one of the

crucial social mechanisms by which women are forced into a subordinate

position compared to men.

UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, 1993

(Callanan, P., 2011. Lecture 11. UCC).

The reversal of gender roles due to the recession in recent years is thought to be a significant cause in the upsurge of domestic violence cases. The difference from 1937 is that victims now have a voice and support available. Amongst the countless organisations that arose to deal with the spiralling domestic abuse (alcohol related, in the majority) for women and children something new emerged. “ contrast to the plight of the female victim, the male victim of domestic violence finds very limited, if any, services available to him. He is “excluded” from taking on the identity of “victim” (Fitzpatrick, J., 2002:3), A single organisation, Amen surfaced in Ireland for men experiencing abuse within the home.  Fitzpatrick argues that “Gender is a powerful and complex process that impacts enormously on the phenomenon of domestic violence. This occurs more so for the male victim due to the feminisation of the identity of “victim”.” (Fitzpatrick, J., 2002:1) and so men tend to remain silent for longer. A woman is encouraged  to talk by society, a man risks being ridiculed and not being believed. This fear, relevant for both male and female situations keeps victims in fear of reaching out. In 1996 the Domestic Violence Act was enacted to address the situation of violence in the home.  Interesting to note is that “..the application process for these orders is very much dictated by the constitutional preference of the “Family within Marriage”. Therefore, non-constitutional family forms have lesser access to their usage, while, gay men and women haven’t access to either of the orders under the pretext of being in a ‘relationship’” (Fitzpatrick,J.,2002:12) The lack of acceptance and acknowledgement by the State towards these new forms of emerging relationships and families creates legal, social and economic difficulties. For these families in society there is little access to support and isolation is more so and a social concern. The issue at hand is that both men and women are reporting themselves victims of abuse and a separated- ness between the sexes is occurring. Which creates more of a divide, drain on government funds and a fragmented society with unrecognizable families. For these issues to be brought into the light and voiced is a complete transformation in the Family since The Constitution of 1937.


The Family in Contemporary Society.

1967 saw the introduction of the Abortion Act which legalised abortions in the UK.  The next few years saw a significant increase in Irish women availing of the facilities, rising “..from a handful to 4000 in 1984. Four in every five are performed on single women, mainly young single women.” (Kennedy, F., 1986: 93). Previously unheard of, or unspoken of, women were choosing to terminate unborn babies many were performed secretly and often dangerously abroad. For those women who did carry their babies to full term and were single, the adoption process was the only route available to them and unmarried mothers were out casted by society and shrouded by the church, the Magdalene laundries was the name for the institutions that housed the “fallen women”.

In contemporary Ireland the statistics for marriage breakdown, divorce, cohabitation, same sex partnerships and births out of wedlock are all on the increase, it’s not hard to see why.  “The separate identity of the Irish family is no longer recognisable. (Kennedy, F. 1986: 99). The divorce rate since it was passed in 1995 has seen marital breakdown increase rapidly in the 1990’s and then  levelling off in the early millennium. Partly thought to be due to the influx when it was first made legal to the realisation of the costs involved are largely believed to be partly to reason for the levelling off. Statistics show that “Married couples with one child show the highest chance/risk of marital breakdown (25%-30%)” (Callanan, P. 2011. Lecture 4), marriage is not what it used to be. Cohabitation is the fastest growing area of ‘family’ and brings with it complications on a social and economic perspective. The Constitution only protects the married family. Other types of family do not have protection of The Constitution and solutions must be sought at a legislative level. However, the introduction of the “Civil Partnership Act” passed in July 2010 of which came into effect in January 2011 was a significant move. Dermot Ahern said “it was one of the most important human rights acts.” And that “families not based on marriage have rights and responsibilities to the other.”(Callanan, P. 2011. Lecture 4). This made way for social welfare and the legal rights of both parties became more solid and geared towards the newly emerging society.

The growth rate of fertility is highly complex, in the 2006 census it was noted that the fastest growing category is those without children, over half of 32 year old graduate women were childless, creating the link between fertility and educational attainment being prioritised by Irish women. The first quarter of 2011 saw a 7.6% rise in births, 19,950 births registered in total for that term, the highest since 1960. Of this statistic 10,221 were boys, 9,729 girls. 40% first time mothers and the majority beyond 30 years of age. The link with education, social class and career motivation is evident and lone parenting also on the increase, 34% of these  births registered in 2011 were outside of marriage. (Callanan, P. 2011. Lecture 4). This shows that most lone female parents can aptly survive without a man, that women are instrumental in redefining the family. Homosexuality, of which was previously made a sin in Ireland is also finally getting recognition. “The New Civil Partnership Act” as previously discussed gives gay parents much more rights not recognised in The Constitution of 1937. The Census 2006 showed 2,090 same sex couples in Ireland which was an increase from 1,300 in 200. Two-thirds of the same-sex cohabiting couples recorded in 2006 were male couples producing a whole new territory for Catholic Irish society. The Family Support Agency of Ireland shows there are 21 different types of family in contemporary Ireland.



In Ireland the family structure is becoming increasingly diverse. The dramatic change in society since the 1937 Constitution shows, undeniably how resilient, diverse and dynamic the institution of the family truly is.  The traditional, ‘nuclear’ family bound by codes and religious dogma has been challenged. Primarily through change in the mother a dramatic shift in societal attitudes has occurred. Kennedy argues that the modernization and industrialisation within Ireland of the 1950’s onwards had profound effects through urbanisation, technological and scientific means that enabled the changes to take place. Ireland has witnessed a transformation. Feminism brought a voice for the victim to conscious awareness and along with it has come the voice for men. The family, as was once known has been challenged and the divide between men and women has never been greater.

Fitzpatrick states eloquently and concisely in his paper on domestic violence of male victims that “Twenty years ago many in the women’s movement invited men to be more open with their feelings, the issue now, “is anyone listening?” (Fitzpatrick, P.,2002:4). From reviewing the statistics and research available in the complexity of the institution of the family we see that there has indeed been a transformation. The question now, is  not if we can reverse it but how can we as a collective whole enable the transition from birth to motherhood a smooth one for Irelands families young and old?












Bunracht na hEireann, Constitution of Ireland. 1937. Dublin: Government Publications Sales Office.

Callanan, P., 2011. The Family Lectures. Cork: UCC.

Fitzpatrick, P., 2002. ‘Silent Voices: The Case of the Male Victim’.  Amen.  Sourced on 10th December 2011. Web.

Inglis, T., 1987. ‘The Irish Mother’. MORAL MONOPOLY. The Catholic Church in Modern Irish Society.  Dublin: Gill and Macmillan.

Kennedy, F., 1986. ‘The Family in Transition’ Ireland in Transition. Cork and Dublin: The Mercier Press.

Tovey, H., Share, P., 2003.  A Sociology of Ireland. Dublin 12: Gill and Macmillan.



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