Changing marriage patterns in Ireland

2 September 2016  |  Admin

LEARNING ON THE JOB: PARENTING IN MODERN IRELAND / Colm O'Doherty & Ashling JacksonIreland has experienced very rapid economic, social and cultural change, in recent decades (O’Connor, 2006; Fahey and Layte, 2007; Share et al, 2012). The year 1958 was ‘one of the most significant milestones in the evolution of Irish society. A turning point in the nature and rule of the Irish state’ (Breen et al, 1990, p.1). It was the year in which the First Programme for Economic Expansion was published (Department of Finance, 1958), signifying direct government intervention in the economy and the creation of a job market in Ireland to stem the increasing rates of emigration from Ireland. It opened the economy to foreign investment, committed the state to free trade and began a process of offering generous incentive packages of capital grants and tax concessions to foreign industry to locate in Ireland. Education and employment opportunities improved in Ireland, especially employment in the industries that had been targeted by the Industrial Development Authority, such as pharmaceuticals and chemicals. By 1979, the Financial Times described Ireland as the ‘miracle economy’ of Europe (cited in Lee, 1989, p.154).

The marriage rate peaked in Ireland in 1974, with the ‘highest annual figure, of 22,833 recorded’ (Central Statistics Office, 2006a, p.76). At this time, the age at marriage was younger (just over 26 years of age for men and 24 years of age for women) (Fahey and Layte, 2007, p.168), compared to previous decades. However, by the mid-1980s, Ireland was in a recession and high outward migration characterised this period until the mid-1990s. The number of marriages subsequently fell from 21,792 in 1980 to 18,174 in 1989 and the trend continued downward until the mid-1990s (Central Statistics Office, 2007a, p.1). In the 1980s, the most dramatic decrease in marriage rates was in the 25 to 29 year age group (55.8% to 18.5%) (Central Statistics Office, 2007a, p.1). This is markedly different to the 1930s, for example, which saw an overall low marriage rate and an older age at first marriage. In the 1980s, we start to see the beginning of marriage postponement, rather than the start of a marriage abandonment trend.

Postponement of marriage is evident in Ireland since 1996. Interestingly though, it also has been accompanied by an increase in the marriage rate. Almost half (49%) of females marrying for the first time were aged 30 or over, compared with 44% and 28% in 2002 and 1996 respectively. Almost two-thirds of males marrying for the first time (64%) were aged 30 or over in 2005 compared with 59% in 2002 and 42% in 1996 (Central Statistics Office, 2005, p.1). ‘This is probably best interpreted as a consequence of catch-up among those who deferred marriage during the 1980s and early 1990s and then crowded into marriage from the mid-1990s onward’ (Fahey and Layte, 2007, p.168). The catch–up achieved was not complete, since it did not prevent the proportion of those single among those aged in their 20s and early 30s, which had started to rise in the early 1980s, to continue to rise throughout the 1990s. However, between 2002 and 2005, the increase in single-hood began to slow down and among those aged over 35 actually turned into a decline (Central Statistics Office, 2008). This highlights that marriage is occurring, but is happening later (early 30s) rather than sooner (mid-20s), for couples in Ireland.

Overall, during the 1990s, the marriage rate fluctuated in Ireland, but has been rising steadily since 2000 (Central Statistics Office, 2007a). However, with the revised description of Ireland as a first world industrial economy (Allen, 1997, 2000; Kirby, 1997, 2002), and the unprecedented economic growth in the years of the Celtic Tiger (1990s to 2001/2002, continuing intermittently to 2008), it is also interesting to note that, during this time, marriage rates overall increased, as they did during the good economic times of the 1970s. In 2007, the number of marriages in Ireland was 22,544 (Central Statistics Office, 2007a, p.1). While Fahey and Layte (2007, p.168) argue ‘the rise in marriage rates followed hard on the heels of the economic boom and makes it hard to avoid the conclusion that the latter was a major cause of the former’ (Fahey and Layte, 2007, p.168), the economic boom is not the only cause. Divorce, for example, was introduced into Ireland in 1997, which meant that marriages registered after that year could include second marriages (where at least one of the spouses had been married previously). Therefore, some of the increase in marriages is a result of the now available option to marry again. Divorce also has an effect on the rising rates of premarital cohabitation, where people may choose to live with a new partner, rather than re-marrying. The Census of Ireland 2011 shows a continuation of this trend – the married population increased by 9.2% between 2006 and 2011, growing from 1,565,016 to 1,708,604 (Central Statistics Office, 2012a).

The implications of all these changes on family life are significant. They are significant because marriage is no longer a defining characteristic of family life. It is also no longer a socially acceptable prerequisite for parenting. We will see this in the increase in fertility outside of marriage, as well as the emergence of premarital cohabitation as a new family type. 

Extracted from Chapter 2: Out with the Old, In with the New: Changing Family Patterns in Ireland by Ashling Jackson in LEARNING ON THE JOB: PARENTING IN MODERN IRELAND, edited by Colm O'Doherty and Ashling Jackson.