Divorce in Ireland was legalised in 1995.

This was my first referendum.

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When I divorced my first wife in 2008, I was expecting some blowback from friends and family. I was living in California at the time. But in Ireland, it was new. A referendum removing the constitutional prohibition on divorce was approved on 24 November, 1995. The social order of my country did not fall apart, as was threatened by various reactionary elements.

Ireland still has one of the lowest divorce rates in the world. In the United States, Christianity is overwhelmingly a positive predictor of divorce. Atheism is a negative indicator. I imagine those numbers do not apply in Ireland.

The referendum passed with a margin of 0.28%. That’s not a typo. Almost half of Ireland showed up to the ballot to say that not only did they not believe in divorce, but you can’t have one either.

My first referendum

I was twenty years old. This was my first referendum. Back then I was still going to church every so often but mostly to keep my parents company. In my local church in Clonmel, Co. Tipperary, there was a camera crew beside me on the Sunday before the referendum. They were from Germany. The whole world was watching this very odd country, whose economy was racing ahead but whose laws appeared to be stuck in the 1940s.

The priest made a speech after the gospel. In the spirit of Thucydides, I can’t remember the exact wording, but I remember the thrust of it. He said that while people were free to vote their consciences, we would know the right thing to do if we searched our hearts. One of the loudest Roman Catholic voices urging the retention of the divorce law was Justin Barratt of Youth Against Divorce.

He later filed for divorce

Why would any intelligent person take relationship advice from people professionally committed to celibacy?

I have a friend from Clonmel. In 1995, we were both powering through our degrees in University College Cork (UCC), sixty miles away. He is a good person. He’s never been anything but kind to me. He is trustworthy and competent and very tolerant of my often abrasive personality. I introduced him to his future wife who was also powering through a degree in UCC.

My friend voted to keep the divorce ban. He knew it would make me very uncomfortable, but he chose to tell me the truth. His reasoning was that he trusted the judgment of the Catholic hierarchy in matters of morality and social order. He accepted their guidance.

It was a shock. Why would any intelligent person take relationship advice from people professionally committed to celibacy?

This was the first time I thought about the reality of what religion can do. It can take good, kind people and make them do unkind, harmful things.

In any case, I filed for my second divorce in 2019. My Roman Catholic friend is still married to the woman he met in UCC.

Barry Purcell lives in Ireland and writes about religion, philosophy, psychology, politics and language for a variety of paper and online publications. He has been involved in campaigns to counteract the...