Review of Diane Urquhart’s Irish Divorce: A History by Jean Mary Walker

Diane Urquhart, Irish Divorce, A History (Cambridge University Press 2020) ISBN: 9781108493093

9781108493093In her monograph, Irish Divorce, A History, Diane Urquhart has triangulated the process of formal divorce as it existed in Ireland from the seventeenth century to the twentieth. By connecting the arguments for and against reform in each of the successive legislatures, the patterns of thought and significant similarities across the centuries emerge.

In a text that is organised thematically as well as chronologically, Urquhart makes sense, if that is not a misnomer, of the complex strands of legislation and argument that provoked or blocked reform of marital and family laws, tracing the rocky path of arcane legal argument, public exposure, and huge financial outlay that couples must negotiate to achieve closure where marriages involved huge wealth, landholdings, and jointure arrangements.

Themes of adultery and physical and mental cruelty cross the entre time frame, and a close reading of the text necessitates referring back and forth within the volume. This is the nature of such a comprehensive survey and Urquhart’s interpretation of archival sources, and contemporary accounts moves the unhappy couples and their advocates to the centrality of the discussion by illuminating the personal impact veiled behind lifeless reports.

It is Urquhart’s opinion that the alignment of nationalism with Catholicism and its commitment to marriage as a sacrament informed the regrettable omission of Ireland from the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act, and it became obvious that Protestants were denied privileges they had in England. Our attention is drawn to the fact that, throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century, recommendations were made for unity of legislation by giving scope to the Irish Court of Probate and Matrimonial causes. As an example of moral and political collision, she considers the timing of the Parnell case to have ‘torpedoed reform’.

The partition of Ireland increased the gulf between the legislatures. Northern Ireland (NI) partially tracked the Westminster system after 1939, and Urquhart examines the debates that propelled or blocked legislation in the decades that followed. She details the significant differences in NI and English divorce legislation. Like Ireland, NI inherited the Criminal Conversation suit, and the question of dependant domicile caused huge difficulties for an abandoned spouse, who — particularly if a woman—would be unable to take a case when their deserting, and more than likely adulterous, spouse left the jurisdiction. Later, mixed fault and no fault divorce made the situation acrimonious. In law, acrimony costs money, leaving less well-off men and, almost always, women at a disadvantage. The Women’s Rights Movement in NI had a significant influence on divorce reform in the 1970s, and post reform women were almost twice as likely to be petitioners as men. This has been mirrored in Republic of Ireland statistics which Urquhart draws on effectively in her discussion.

There was an expectation of the inclusion of divorce in the 1922 Constitution based on the idea of freedom of conscience, and Urquhart notes how Attorney General Hugh Kennedy aligned divorce with Protestantism, highlighting the nuances behind Roman Catholic Church interventions which were sought out by W.T. Cosgrave to prevent the introduction of divorce bills. She brings detailed analysis to the interventions of Senator W.B. Yeats in the Douglas debates on divorce in 1925, which assisted in the polarisation of positions between the minority Protestant and majority Roman Catholic population. A blacklist was made of those who voted for the motion to be used against them when they sought re-election, and even abstention was no guarantee of safety, as those hurlers on the ditch were derided as ‘defaulters’. Senator John Bagwell’s plaintive suggestion that ‘those who disapprove of divorce should abstain from divorce’ seems so simple, but simplicity has never had place in marital conflict.

The reaffirmation of the absolute indissolubility of marriage in DeValera’s constitution added another layer to the complicated mishmash of inherited common and ecclesiastic law. In a muddle of civil and ecclesiastic nullity, unhappy couples were confined by the restrictive laws of the land, and separation without rights to remarry was a halfway house in another Irish solution to an Irish problem. Urquhart presents a balanced narrative of the emergence of a liberal consensus, from Lemass’s 1966 Constitution Review Group, to the 1976 Law Reform Commission, the 1985 Oireachtas Joint Committee on Marital Breakdown, and the widening disconnect between moral ideals and marital reality. She notes the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement’s acceptance of the ‘fact’ of indissoluble marriage, and Jack Lynch’s observation ‘you made a contract, you cannot default on it when you don’t like it,’.

The unfortunate conflation of the issues of abortion and divorce eliminated any possibility of rational and reasonable discussion when the fallout from the Irish 1983 abortion referendum carried through to the 1986 divorce referendum. Urquhart examines how fears for the loss of stability of the family were motivated by worry over the division of family farms and property, and belatedly became incendiary factors in the argument against divorce. She looks at reforms that were undertaken to address the issues that had emerged as key stumbling blocks to the passage of divorce legislation before a more receptive electorate could support the 1995 referendum.

Urquhart has been publishing on this topic for a number of years and her capacity for presenting a balanced synthesis is immense. Her work brings balance to the arguments used for and against broadening the parameters for divorce and the inequalities women faced as either petitioners or respondents in marital disputes. She highlights the intransigence of people in positions of civil and religious authority to the reasonable and rational suggestion that those who disapprove of divorce, need not engage.

It seems a small quibble to mention typos like the word ‘fortified’ for ‘forfeited’ in relation to jointure, and 1891 for 1890 in the context of the Parnell controversy, but one would expect them to have been picked up in this well produced volume. The cover features a striking image by Rita Duffy chosen by the author who has done a masterful job in creating a most erudite text that marshals events into a comprehensible order, connecting the impassioned arguments and challenges to the idea of divorce, and the impact of political stasis and legal change on governments and individuals.

Dr Jean Mary Walker is an independent researcher specialising in gendered history and in medical humanities.