We need your help now

Support from readers like you keeps The Journal open.

You are visiting us because we have something you value. Independent, unbiased news that tells the truth. Advertising revenue goes some way to support our mission, but this year it has not been enough.

If you've seen value in our reporting, please contribute what you can, so we can continue to produce accurate and meaningful journalism. For everyone who needs it.


'People were forced to live in the same house for years': Two decades of divorce in Ireland

Divorce was legalised 20 years ago after a bitter campaign and a very tight results in a referendum – now there are calls for the law to be modernised.

IT IS NOW two decades since divorce was legalised in Ireland and thousands of couples across the country go through the process each year.

Following the referendum in November 1995, the prohibition of divorce was removed from the Constitution and this was signed into law in June 1996.

Eamonn Farrell / Photocall Ireland Eamonn Farrell / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

The referendum result had been a close one with 50.28% voting in favour and 49.79% against.

Ireland was, at the time, one of only two countries in Europe where a ban on divorce was still in place and there were strong campaigns on boths sides. CNN reported at the time that Irish voters “narrowly voted to defy the Roman Catholic Church and legalise divorce”.

Then Taoiseach John Bruton said the close margin demonstrated how much every vote counts.

If it wasn’t for the effort made by individuals to talk to people, to encourage them, to realise that they had a responsibility as voters in a referendum to make a law for all that would be fair to all and that would be fair to minorities, if people were not reminded of that responsibility – a responsibility they obviously took seriously – we wouldn’t have got the result we did and I’m very, very happy for everybody.

Eamonn Farrell / Photocall Ireland Eamonn Farrell / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

Divorce over the last two decades

Figures released to through a Freedom of Information Request reveal that in the first year after legalisation, 431 divorce applications were received by the Courts Service and just 95 of those were granted.

During that 12-month period, there were also 1,263 judicial separation applications and 48 nullity applications.

The number of divorce applications rose to 2,761 in the following 12 months, with 1,421 granted. Applications increased again in 1999 to 3,293 with 2,315 granted.

Figures have risen and fallen over the years, but statistics for the last decade show the majority of applications are granted.

Statista Statista

Last year, there were 4,314 applications for divorce and 3,291 were granted. This was an increase on 2014, when 3,821 people applied for divorce and 2,638 were granted.

A total of 2,347 of those were applied for by the wife while 1,967 were applied for by the husband. Fifteen years earlier, the trend was different when almost two thirds of divorce applicants were male.

Courts Service of Ireland Courts Service of Ireland

How the process works

There are three criteria a couple must meet in order to get a divorce:

  • Living separately for four out of the previous five years;
  • No chance of reconciliation;
  • Proper financial provision for both.

Keith Walsh, a solicitor and chair of the Law Society’s Family and Child Law Committee, explained that an application can only be made once the four-year separation period is up.

During that time, couples can either live in separate properties or both remain in the family home, though they are required to sleep in separate bedrooms and should not present themselves as a couple in social situations. There should also be no physical intimacy between the couple during that period.

Particularly during the recession, people were forced to live in the same house, even though they were really separated. Often one of the parents is living in the kids’ bedroom while one stays in the master bedroom. They don’t socialise together and everyone knows they are separated but because of their financial situation they can’t move.

“There has been a big increase in cases coming in in the last 12 months, anecdotally. People are recovering financially and can now afford to go to lawyers to start the process,” Walsh said.

Couples can, during that time, take part in mediation or negotiation through their solicitors so they can come to an agreement on sharing assets, pension issues and custody if there are children involved.

However, all divorce cases have to go before a judge, even if there is no dispute between the couple about the arrangements. Most straightforward cases take just a few months to get to court and then half a day in front of a judge.

Walsh said the cost of a divorce usually runs into the thousands and can be particularly expensive if one person in the couple will not agree or does not have legal representation. Delays can also occur if someone is hiding money or if custody issues arise.

“The more straightforward it is and the sooner you get an agreement that is fair and reasonable, the sooner you will get it through,” he said.

It is always better to negotiate an agreement beforehand that is good for both rather than take a chance in court when you don’t know which way a judge will go.


Walsh said that many couples at the end of the four-year period just want to move on with their lives and this long waiting period can cause “much hardship”.

Fine Gael TD Josepha Madigan has tabled a bill that would reduce this waiting time to two years. The first-time TD has worked as a solicitor for 20 years and specialises in family law.

“I have seen things change first hand. It’s a very distressful time for divorcing couples. The four-year period, it’s far too draconian and places an enormous burden on the couple for an undue lengthy time.”

There are 250,000 couples separated and it would be a significant help for them. There is a very low marital breakdown rate in this country anyway so I don’t expect that to increase.

Madigan said that in her experience, the long waiting time “increases hostilities between the parties”.

“They are still married, even if they are separated. They can’t remarry and things like maintenance and custody can’t be sorted out.”

She said her bill would not change the criteria or any other details in the Constitution in relation to marriage – only the length of the waiting period. It is expected to come before the Dáil early next year, but if passed, it will have to go to a referendum.

Read: There has been a jump in divorce cases, with more women than men applying>

Read: ‘It’s like a death’: Divorced people are at higher risk of psychiatric illness in Ireland>

Your Voice
Readers Comments
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.