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Editor: James J. Ponzetti
Date: 2003
International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 5
Content Level: (Level 5)

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The most striking feature of the family in Ireland during the last decades of the twentieth century is the rapid rate at which it has changed. From around the late 1960s the Irish family, in response to a national program of economic development, changed from a traditional rural form typical of economies based on agriculture to a postmodern form typical of postindustrial societies. Although the changes that occurred are common to most Western European societies, the rate of change in Ireland was exceptional. In less than one generation, the Irish family was transformed.

Demographic Change

Since the time of the Great Famine in 1847, the population of Ireland steadily decreased until the time of economic expansion in the 1960s. ThePage 953  |  Top of Article principal causes of this decline were high emigration and low marriage rates due to a stagnant economy and large-scale unemployment. Ireland did not experience the demographic transition typical of most Western European countries in the post-World War II period. It was not until much later that Ireland manifested the characteristics of this transition, giving rise in the 1970s to a baby boom. The effects of this baby boom have been a major influence on Irish families since then, with Ireland having the youngest population in the European Union.

With an upsurge in the economy in the 1960s, birth rates increased. By 1971 the birth rate had reached a high of 22.7 per 1000 of population, giving a total period fertility rate of four, which is almost twice the replacement level. Since then, birth rates have declined, and by the 1990s they were below replacement level. By 2000 the birth rate had fallen to 14.3 and the total period fertility rate to 1.89 (Vital Statistics 2001). However, due to an increase in net immigration, largely because of the return of Irish workers and their families to take up employment in Ireland's new booming economy of the 1990s, the population continued to increase.

These changes were also accompanied by changes in marriage rates, age at time of marriage, age at the time of first maternity, family size, the number of out-of-wedlock births, marital separation, and cohabitation. By the end of the twentieth century Ireland had caught up with the demographic trends in most Western European countries and, apart from some differences, the overall pattern is much the same. The biggest difference is that while most of Europe experienced these changes over a period of two generations, Ireland went through them in one.

Family Change

Change over time is also evident in the internal structure and dynamics of the family. This is seen when comparing the findings of two classical anthropological studies of the rural Irish family. The first of these studies was carried out by Conrad Arensberg and Solon Kimball (1940) in the 1930s. This study showed that there was a single family type in rural Ireland that was characterized as having a dominant patriarchal authority system with a rigidly defined division of labor based on gender. In contrast, the second study carried out by Damian Hannan and Louise Katsiaouni (1977) in the 1970s, when the process of change had begun, found a wide variety among farm families, including the socialization experiences of spouses and family interaction patterns. They also found that families were more democratic in structure and that there was a move towards a division of labor based on competence rather than gender. The authors concluded that the family was going through a process of change from a traditional to a modern form, and they linked these changes to the changes taking place in the economic, social, and cultural environments in Ireland at the time.

Changes in the family are also associated with the decline in the influence of the Catholic Church on Irish family life, especially in the area of sexual morality. The traditional family in Ireland has long been characterized as highly conservative, reflecting the dominant value system of the Catholic Church. Although religious practice continues to be high, evidence shows that the influence of Catholic teaching on family life has greatly diminished. This is seen, for example, with the widespread use of contraception and the extent of sexual activity outside marriage. These behavioral changes were also accompanied by the introduction of extensive new legislation on family matters in the 1980s and 1990s, including the passage of a referendum on divorce that led to the introduction of no-fault divorce. Much of this legislation challenged the traditional ideology of the Catholic Church that promoted the privatization of the family and was strongly opposed to state "interference" in family matters.


Under Article 41 of the Irish Constitution, the state pledges to "guard with special care the institution of marriage, on which the family is founded." This position of marriage as the basis of the family was further reinforced in 1966 when the Supreme Court interpreted this Article to mean that the family as structurally defined is based on the institution of marriage. Although this Article in the Constitution reflects the ideology of Ireland in the 1930s and does not represent the reality of Irish family life today, marriage has remained relatively stable when compared to other European countries.

Although the marriage rate has decreased from a high of 7.4 per 1,000 of population in the early Page 954  |  Top of Article
Children continue to be an important pat of Irish families, even though the birth rate is below replacement level. The importance of children is underscored by the National Children's Strategy, launched by the Irish government in 2000 to protect children from poverty and abuse. DAVID TURNLEY/CORBIS Children continue to be an important pat of Irish families, even though the birth rate is below replacement level. The importance of children is underscored by the National Children's Strategy, launched by the Irish government in 2000 to protect children from poverty and abuse. DAVID TURNLEY/CORBIS 1970s, to a low of 4.3 by 1997, marital break-up has remained relatively low. For example, the divorce rate in the European Union for the year 1998 was 1.8 per 1,000 of population, while in Ireland it was 0.6 (Census 1996). However, divorce rates alone are misleading in Ireland because most couples who break up tend to separate rather than divorce. Trends seem to indicate a pattern of people using separation as an exit from marriage and divorce as an entry to a new relationship. In addition, divorce has only been available in Ireland since 1996. In the 1996 census 78,005 people reported themselves as separated, compared to fewer than 10,000 divorced. Nonetheless, even taking account of the numbers reported, marital break-up is comparatively low, and there has been a slight upward turn in the marriage rate, which in 2000 was 5.1 per 1,000 of population (Vital Statistics 2001).

Attitude studies also show a strong commitment to marriage, with companionship more highly valued than personal freedom outside of marriage (MacGreil 1996). These attitudes are further reflected in a Eurobarometer study (1993) that showed that 97.1 percent of Irish respondents placed the family highest in a hierarchy of values. In addition, alternatives to marriage, such as cohabitation, are not a strong feature of Irish families, with only 2 percent of couples living in consensual unions.

Single-Parent Families

The typical family type is that of two parents and their children, but there has been an increase in single-parent families. In the year 2000 nonmarital births accounted for 31.8 percent of all births (Vital Statistics 2000). These births were to women in their twenties and older, not to teenagers. (Teenage births are not a significant proportion of non-marital births in Ireland.) The average age of non-married mothers is twenty-five. Nonmarital births reflect a diversity of family forms that includes cohabiting couples, reconstituted families following marital separation that have not been legally regulated, and single-parent families.

It is not known to what extent these nonmarital births reflect a trend towards increased single-parent households or simply a prelude to marriage. In the year 2000 single-parent families represented 10 percent of all households, and the largest group of these consisted of widows and their children.


The presence of children still continues to be an important part of Irish families, even though the birth rate is below replacement level. The traditional large family consisting of four or more children has been replaced by smaller families. In 1968, for example, 37.4 percent of births were to mothers with three or more children. By 1998 this had fallen to 12.7 percent (Health Statistics 1999, p. 28). The trend is for more women to have children, but to have fewer of them. Only 15 percent of couples live in households where there are no dependent children (Social Situation in the EU 2000). This strong positive attitude towards having children is supported by attitude surveys, whichPage 955  |  Top of Article show that the Irish adult population places great value on having children for their own sake (MacGrail 1996).

Although children are highly valued, they are still at risk of poverty; studies consistently show that single-parent families and families with three or more children are most at risk ( Johnson 1999). In an attempt to combat this, successive governments in the 1990s introduced a range of measures, including significant increases in child benefit and employment incentives for unemployed parents. In an effort to protect children from poverty and abuse, the government launched a National Children's Strategy in 2000 and established an Ombudsman for Children.

Mothers and Employment

A relatively new feature of family life in Ireland is the increased participation of mothers in the active labor force outside the home. In 1987 only 32.7 percent of mothers with children under the age of fifteen years and at least one child under five were active in the paid labor force (Labour Force Survey 1987). Ten years later in 1997, this had risen to 53.1 percent (Labor Force Survey 1997). Of particular significance is that the highest percentage of mothers in full-time employment are mothers of children under age two. In contrast, the highest percentage of mothers in part-time employment is of mothers with children over age ten.

This trend poses difficulties in balancing work and family responsibilities. For example, a 1998 study (National Childcare Strategy 1999) found that 22 percent of mothers of children from infants to four-year-olds, and 68 percent of mothers of children aged five to nine years who were in full-time employment, did not use any form of paid childcare. The study assumed that the younger age group of children were cared for by their fathers and other nonpaid relatives, such as grandparents, but made no comment on who cares for the much larger group of children aged five to nine. These findings seem to support other studies that suggest that the provision of affordable quality childcare, and not attitudes towards paid employment of mothers, is the crucial factor influencing mothers to take up paid employment.

The increased participation of mothers in the paid labor force is not, however, matched by any significant increase in the amount of work undertaken by fathers in the home. The only major study on the division of household tasks of urban Irish families (Kiely 1995) found that, while more than 80 percent of mothers in the study thought that husbands should share housework equally, the reality was that mothers not only did most of the housework but also provided most of the care for the children. Fathers were generally inclined to participate in the more pleasurable aspects of childcare such as playing with the children and going on outings with them, while the mothers did most of the less glamorous tasks like changing diapers and putting the children to bed. The study did, however, show that young, educated, middle-class fathers whose wives were also employed had higher rates of participation than other fathers, although this was still relatively low.

Household Composition

A reflection of the position of the family in Irish life can be seen by the composition of households. Although many factors influence household composition, the relatively low percentage of households consisting of one adult and no children (7% of all households), compared to households with children (66% of all households), shows the dominance of families composed of one or more adults with dependent children.

Only 15 percent of households are composed of two adults without children. The remainder of households are composed of three or more adults without dependent children. When the number of persons living in family households is calculated as a percentage of people living in all private households, the dominance of family households is all the more striking—with almost 88 percent of the population living in such households (Census 1996).

With rising house prices in the late 1990s, more young adults appear to remain in their parents' home for longer periods, including young mothers and their children. This probably accounts for the increase in households consisting of three or more generations. These households also include families where an adult child cares for a dependent parent. In both of these three or more generation family types, the key caretakers are women in their midlife, caring either for a parent or a grandchild. These are also the people who have the least attachment to the paid labor force.

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Family Diversity

Family diversity is found not only in family composition, but also in its structure and functions. Thus, while studies show a movement from a traditional to a modern form of the family, this movement is in no way uniform. Some families, for example, are democratic in structure, while others are hierarchical. Also, some continue to fulfill a variety of functions, while others are more specific. Again, some families place a higher value on relationships over the importance of the family as an institution. These variations are consistent with the patterns found in most countries that have gone through a modernizing process and reflect a blend of traditional and modern value positions. Diversity, not uniformity, is the hallmark of modernity, and this is now also the hallmark of Irish families.


Arensberg, C. and Kimball, S. (1940). Family and Community in Ireland. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Central Statistics Office. (1996). Census 1996: Household Composition and Family Units. Dublin: Stationery Office.

Central Statistics Office. (1987) Labour Force Survey. Dublin: Stationery Office.

Cleary, A.; NicGhiolla Phádraig, M.; and Quin, S. eds. (2001). Understanding Children in Ireland. 2 vols. Dublin: Oaktree Press.

Colgan McCarthy, I., ed. (1995). Irish Family Studies: Selected Papers. Dublin: Family Studies Centre, University College Dublin.

Commission on the Family. (1998). Strengthening Families for Life. Dublin: Stationery Office.

Department of Health and Children. (1999). Health Statistics 1999. Dublin: Stationery Office.

Department of Health and Children. (2000). Vital Statistics, 4th Quarter. Dublin: Stationery Office.

Eurostat. (2000). The Social Situation in the European Union: 2000. Brussels: European Commission.

Hannan, D., and Katsiaouni, L. (1997). Traditional Families? From Culturally Prescribed to Negotiated Roles in Farm Families. Dublin: Economic and Social Research Institute.

Johnson, H. (1999) "Poverty in Ireland." In Irish Social Policy in Context, ed. G. Kiely, A. O'Donnell, S. Kennedy, and S. Quin. Dublin: University College Dublin Press.

Kiely, G. (1995). "Fathers in Families." In Irish Family Studies: Selected Papers, ed. I. Colgan McCarthy. Dublin: Family Studies Centre, University College Dublin.

MacGréil, M. (1996). Prejudice in Ireland Revisited. Maynooth, Co. Kildare: Survey and Research Unit, St Patrick's College.

McKeown, K.; Ferguson, H.; and Rooney, D. (1998). Changing Fathers? Fatherhood and Family Life in Modern Ireland. Cork: The Collins Press.

Malpas, N., and Lambert, P. (1993). Europeans and the Family. (Eurobarometer 39). Brussels: Commission of the European Communities.

Partnership 2000 Expert Working Group on Childcare. (1999). National Childcare Strategy. Dublin: Stationery Office.


Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3406900242