Think Ireland has a stable, health marriage rates? Try reading history

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The recently carried a story that the CSO has released census data going back to 1864. (The Central Statistics Office is a wonderful resource and its website a much under-used one).The press release from the CSO noted that marriage rates had remained remarkably stable since 1864.

“There were 27,406 marriages entered into in 1864 while 15,141 marriages were registered in the Irish Free Sate in 1922. There were 16,128 marriages registered in 1964 and by 2011 this had climbed to 19,855. Overall however the marriage rate per 1,000 of the population has remained remarkably consistent since 1864 when it was 4.8. The rate was also 4.8 in 1922 while rising to 5.7 in 1964 and decreasing to 4.3 in 2011.”famine_memorial_large.jpg

This is on the face of it more or less what Fintan O’Toole argued when he attacked the Iona Institute for claiming that marriage was in decline in Ireland. The CSO statistics, of course, do not lie - but they do give a very misleading picture if you read them without some knowledge of Irish History.

Everyone knows that the Famine killed almost a million people and drove more than a million more to emigrate. By 1911 there were about half as many people in Ireland as in 1841. Less than half of the total depopulation can be attributed to the Famine itself. The rest reflects low birth-rates and high emigration rates.

As Yale economist Timothy W. Guinnane points out, after the Famine Ireland’s depopulation

“reflected a demographic regime that combined three elements, each of which was unusual but not unique in western Europe at the time: the decline of marriage, continued very large families for those who did marry, and heavy emigration. Post-Famine Irish marriage patterns were an extreme example of a long European tradition. For centuries young people in western Europe had delayed their marriages more than elsewhere, with women rarely marrying before their early twenties, and in most populations some 10 to 20 per cent of adults never married at all. Marriage in post-Famine Ireland declined in popularity to the point where, in 1911, about one-quarter of all adults in their forties had never married…Finally, emigration from Ireland increased during the Famine and remained extensive afterwards. The rate of emigration from Ireland was often higher than for any other European country during the second half of the nineteenth century. In sum, the fewer and fewer marriages in Ireland did not produce enough children to offset the numbers who chose to spend their lives overseas, resulting in an ever-smaller Irish population.”

By the 1950’s the demographic situation was so bad that it led to an anguished debate about the future of the Irish people. As Guinnane writes “The anguish caused by declining numbers was aptly summarised in a collection of essays edited by John A. O’Brien some forty years ago. In ‘The Vanishing Irish: The Enigma of the Modern World’, O’Brien and many of his contributors argued that Ireland’s depopulation was unprecedented, inexplicable, and certain to result in disaster”.

In point of fact we don’t see anything like healthy marriage rates in Ireland until the 1960s and the 70s as Ireland finally recovers from the demographic impact of the famine and the economy gathers steam.

Anyone who thinks therefore that stable Irish marriage rates equal healthy marriage rates has either a very strange view of marriage or very little knowledge of Irish history.

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