Le Moyne College
by Kate Costello-Sullivan. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
Diane Urquhart’s new study, Irish Divorce: A History, offers the kind of research one does not realise is essential to the larger body of knowledge until it has been written. While most considering this topic would immediately revert to the Republic’s failed referendum of 1986 and the subsequent successful vote in 1995, Urquhart shows that divorce was a contentious and complex socio-political issue for the better part of the preceding 300+ years. Even more importantly, she combines exhaustive research with a holistic consideration of the issue not only in terms of gender, but also through the lenses of class, religion, nationalism, and ideology.
Any study of the history of divorce in Ireland would likely need to engage the gendered dynamics in play, and Urquhart does this masterfully. Her comprehensive review of the subject productively exploits resources ranging from the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI); the Dublin Diocesan Archives; Parliamentary and Governmental records from the Republic, Northern Ireland, and England; and the National Library of Ireland, among others. This enables her to expose the legal double standard under which women historically laboured in petitioning for a divorce; for example, being required to prove “double offences” (instead of just one for grounds) out of “concerns for the hereditary transmittal of property” (17-8), or the greater risks women faced of losing child custody (e.g., 88, 106, 119).
As importantly, her careful tracing of evolving laws allows Urquhart to identify how shifts in definitions of gender, family, and home impacted such rulings. Thus, divorced women were subject to greater moral and social censure, and recognition of their legal status was sporadic and slow. Urquhart indicates that women’s domiciles were not legally recognised in law until 1973 (e.g., 10, 31, 159). Similarly, as gendered definitions of masculinity shifted and the husband’s role became more associated with that of “protector,” wife beating came to be considered “unmanly,” and the “court’s onus shifted … to the safety of the wife and her fear of injury” (53, 111-12). Urquhart’s use of actual court cases from archival records humanises her subject and undergirds a central premise of her study, that divorce, which can be a mercy that “ultimately frees people from unhappy, loveless and abusive unions” (251), was a humane outlet long denied to Irish citizens, north and south.
Taking an intersectional approach, Urquhart also examines the ways in which class complicated and sometimes confounded these gender dynamics. While acknowledging the “social complexion” of divorce in terms of maintaining wealth dating back to Brehon law (5-6), Urquhart also systematically exposes how access to divorce was compromised as much by financial as by legal means. Because divorces were heard at Westminster after the Act of Union, for example, they correlated heavily to class, a hindrance that adhered well into the twentieth century (see, e.g., 99-101). Like gender, class considerations also biased divorce rulings: for example, upper-class women were “believed to be less resilient to violence than their lower-class counterparts” (108). Urquhart’s study traces many instances where a lack of access, combined with the gendered double standard, forced couples, particularly women, to stay in unhappy and sometimes violent marriages.
Urquhart displays sustained sensitivity not only to divorce’s legal construction, but also, as evident above, to the ideological and interpretive frames that shaped those juridical contexts. This provides for some fascinating and nuanced readings of contemporary social and political calculations not only in the Republic, but also in Northern Ireland and under British government. Urquhart thus illustrates the ways that a nation’s self-conception can influence the state’s legal contexts and debates, at times with lasting consequence.
Naturally, the influence of the Roman Catholic Church on divorce is a consistent theme. From the 1860s, the Catholic hierarchy condemned state involvement in what was considered a Church affair (85). Their influence was of course particularly pronounced after the establishment of the Free State and with de Valera’s 1937 revision to the Constitution. Yet Urquhart lays bare the ideological assumptions being made both by the Catholic Church and by the new Irish government. She contextualises the hierarchy’s attempt to assert its authority in the Republic throughout the twentieth century in terms of an evolving Irish national identity, for example, detailing how the divorce issue and deferral to the Church reflected the “insecure government [of] a beleaguered new state” (175). In that regard, she contends, the eventual deconstruction of divorce, like the removal of the privileged place of the Catholic Church from the Constitution and the acknowledgment of women’s legal status cited above, reflects “a mark of maturity” in the Irish state—one that arguably continued with the Repeal of the 8th Amendment in 2018 (237).
As importantly, Urquhart recognises that the divorce debates betrayed tacit assumptions about what Irish identity meant. From at least the 1790s, divorce was associated with “imported immorality” and a fear that “Ireland was adopting English vices,” a refrain still sung well into the mid-twentieth century (30, 191). This again reflects a presumed, fundamental, and national moral superiority (30). While the Catholic Church also asserted the preeminence of the majority opposition to divorce, this assumption, again, implied that limited demands for divorce reflected disagreement rather than potential lack of access (178, 183). Similarly, the new-found government fretted about the divorce debate as a question of minority rights, thus exposing not only their awareness of the potential pitfalls of alienating their Protestant citizens (a conversation in which Yeats famously engaged), but also the (erroneous) presumption that divorce was a “Protestant issue” in the first place (180-183). Divorce – and its exclusion based on Catholic moral teachings – even came to be seen as a potential obstacle to reunification (166). Urquhart thus illustrates the complex forces at play in this debate: definitions of national character; state building; the entanglement of religious and political identity; and responses to imperialism.
Northern Ireland, too, reflected the complexities of these religious, national, and ideological intersections. Despite the Catholic Church’s claims to the contrary, Urquhart notes that “[m]oral conservatism in Northern Ireland […] crossed religious and political bounds” (166). Just as Republicans in the South fretted over the appearance of “Rome rule,” Northern Unionists watched the divorce debate through the lens of their own political priorities: “The DUP and the OUP […] hoped for the referendum’s defeat to stall the emerging involvement of the Republic in Northern Ireland affairs epitomized by the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement” (166). Adherence to outdated British Parliament precedents, Urquhart contends, reflected the Northern Irish Parliament’s “timidity to waver from Westminster practices” (134-35). In Northern Ireland, as in the Republic, questions of respectability and privacy impacted families’ willingness to come forward to divorce publicly, and claims to moral exceptionalism inflected these debates (see 146, 168-69). Finally, as in the Republic, there were concerns that broaching the subject of divorce would “’stir up a sectarian controversy,’” reflecting the fraught interreligious tensions impacting both the Republic and Northern Ireland (Moorehead qtd in Urquhart 147).
Given the timeframe of her study, Urquhart also examines the evolution of the divorce debate within the wider context of the British Empire. Her exploration of parliamentary analyses of the divorce debate provides a nuanced understanding of British concerns with not only avoiding religious and nationalist tensions, but also the equitable application of the law within the UK. While Urquhart acknowledges predictable British fears of inflaming their Catholic subjects by broaching the topic of divorce as a “religiously controversial issue,” she also traces sensitivity to, and discomfort with, the lack of “legislative uniformity” from the Act of Union on (69, 131). She thus notes that contemporaries in the 1850s argued for “equality between two countries wedded by the act of union [sic]” (67) – a concern that was still being invoked regarding Northern Ireland as late as 1976 (163).
Finally, Urquhart highlights the role of the creation of the Free State and Northern Ireland in 1921 and 1922 in laying the groundwork for the Republic’s legislative lack of divorce for the next eighty years: “parliamentary divorce ceased at Westminster. Its jurisdiction was transferred to the new parliament of Northern Ireland; but this was not reciprocated in the Irish Free State …” (130, 247). Such context broadens our vision from the narrow confines of the Republic and its founding ideologies to engage the wide sweep of how Ireland arrived at that pass. Urquhart’s address of divorce in the British, Northern Irish, and Irish contexts masterfully interweaves these related dialogues while carefully capturing the unique attributes of each.
Urquhart ends her work by reiterating the value of divorce as a vehicle for release from unhappiness; she acknowledges the reality of marital breakdown, its ideological inflections and appropriations, and its complex history in Ireland. In many respects, her conclusion is a perfect encapsulation of this study. As lucid as it is thorough, Irish Divorce: A History contributes a comprehensive look at a fraught social issue through exhaustive research and careful contextualisation. It offers a profoundly humane and empathetic analysis of what, for many, proved an elusive necessity that was cordoned off—for centuries—by ideological, nationalistic, imperial, and/or political boundaries and further inflected by class and gender. As a result, this study has much to teach us not only about divorce, but also about the ways the self-fashionings and political maneuverings of a nation-state can subvert the very citizens they are purportedly meant to serve.