Step by stepHow to get a divorce in Ireland

Published date26 February 2022
Publication titleIrish Times (Dublin, Ireland)
The referendum to legalise divorce took place on November 24th, 1995. Nationally, fewer than one in six people turned out to vote on a day that was wet and miserable along the west coast, and it passed by a whisker, with 51 per cent in favour

The Family Law (Divorce) Act 1996 was due to come into force on February 27th, 1997. In reality, the first divorce was granted a few weeks earlier to a man who wanted to marry his new partner, and only had a few weeks left to live.

A quarter of a century after those first divorces, what have we learned? How many of the dire predictions of the anti-divorce campaigners came to pass? What is it like to divorce in 2022?

Wife-swapping sodomites The campaign that preceded legalisation had been deeply acrimonious. The angry shout of No campaigner Úna Bean Mhic Mhathúna at the RDS count centre seemed to many to sum up the rancour of the previous six weeks. "G'way ye wife-swapping sodomites," she roared.

"If only we had that much fun in the campaign!" quipped an activist for the other side, a moment immortalised in Donald Taylor Black's 1995 documentary.

It is true that not much fun was had in the run up to the referendum, which began with an overwhelming majority in favour, and saw support rapidly dwindle. The No Divorce campaign slogan, "Hello Divorce…Bye Bye Daddy," captured the fears of a society that was just emerging from the shadows of its repressive, Catholic past in a sentence, as an ebullient Peter Scully, the campaign's manager, observes in the film.

"Mammy sees Daddy running off, kids see Daddy running off, Daddy sees Mammy running off. Bye bye him, he can take a hike…You can't get simpler than that," he bragged.

Jean Murray had separated from the father of her child in 1975, divorced in England in the 1980s, and returned to live in Ireland. "I just tried to block it out," she recalls of the toxic atmosphere surrounding the referendum. "I was so engrossed in trying to keep my head above water financially as the lone parent of a child."

Murray was lucky to have very supportive family and friends. Even so, "there was lot of stigma attached to being separated. You just felt that you had done something wrong. Especially because there was no guiding laws, there was no family protection, no barring orders. I didn't know anybody else who was separated at that stage." Her feeling when divorce was legalised was one of immense relief.

The dire warnings of the No side about a stampede to the divorce courts in the aftermath of legalisation did not materialise. Just 95 divorces were granted in 1997. The rate rose gradually, hitting 3,684 in 2007. Legislation in 2019, which cut the time required for a separation from four years to two, saw a late surge. In 2020, 5,266 applications were made, compared to 4,073 in 2019.

"The number of people divorcing has increased by over 30 per cent in the past two years," says Mel Murphy, a divorce coach. This is also partly attributable to increased pressures of lockdown, she thinks. "If there were cracks in the relationship before, those issues got bigger. There's a lot more anger, there's a lot more worry."

Many of those who spoke to The Irish Times about their experience of divorce describe what remains for many a costly, traumatic and isolating experience. Some have experienced lingering stigma. Others have been left in a perilous financial position, not helped by the eye-watering costs involved. Emotional toll Aoife, who was separated for five years by the time of her uncontested divorce, which came through this month, says it cost her €3,500 in total. She represented herself during maintenance hearings, but had a solicitor for the actual divorce hearing. "You end up getting...

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