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'New' fatherhood and greater diversity: How Irish families have changed in 100 years

The Maynooth University research-based book Family Rhythms compared families now to other generations – and where the trend is headed.

Image: Shutterstock/Dubova

LOOKING AT THE evolution of the Irish family shows just how much society and values have changed in Ireland – and how much they’ve stayed the same.

Academics from Maynooth University and Trinity College Dublin have painted an intriguing picture of how Irish families have evolved over the past 100 years – adapting to economic as well as social upheavals since the state’s foundation.

In interviews with 240 Irish people, the new book ‘Family Rhythms’ compiles all the findings and paints an incredibly detailed picture of today’s Irish family.

By contrasting families past and present, the authors demonstrate how families have become smaller, more diverse, with more involved fathers and with a greater reliance on grandparent support.

One of the biggest findings was how the role of the father has changed to become more integrated in family life, and the underestimation of the role grandparents play in raising children.

David Ralph, a co-author of the book and assistant professor of sociology at Trinity College Dublin, said:

“Most books on the family, implicitly or not, focus on people in their ‘middle years’ – people who are at the stage of family formation, where they find a partner, then decide to have children or not.

Family Rhythms is careful to avoid this focus on just one generation, and expands to take in both younger and older generations, namely children and grandparents.

What this intergenerational lens allows for is a wide-ranging survey of the Irish family – how it has changed, how it has remained the same – over the sweep of the last century.”

Here are some of the study’s key findings.

Nuclear families

shutterstock_497764633 Source: Shutterstock/mavo

Older stereotypes of large Irish households dominated by authoritarian patriarchs or of ageing bachelor brothers living together in rural isolation no longer hold when it comes to families in Ireland today.

Rather, diversity is the new norm, with a range of family types making up the familial landscape of contemporary Irish society.

The traditional nuclear family continues to be prevalent. Yet alongside it are sizable numbers of single-parent families, migrant families, mixed-nationality families, gay and lesbian families, married couples as well as those cohabiting, living-apart-together couples, and families split across countries by emigration.

In all these instances, each displays a remarkable resilience in times of crisis, coming together in new and often surprising ways to ensure the continuity of family life throughout turbulent periods.

2.4 children

shutterstock_225910351 Source: Shutterstock/Brian A Jackson

As Irish demographic patterns have converged with those of our European counterparts – namely, falling fertility rates to an average of just under two children per woman in 2016 – the lives of children have altered considerably.

Fewer siblings means children nowadays search upwards for family bonds, oftentimes developing significant connections with grandparents. This is a major change in the nature of Irish childhood over recent decades.


shutterstock_137446907 Source: Shutterstock/Dina Uretski

Another sea-change has been witnessed in gender ideologies around what constitutes ‘good’ fatherhood in recent decades.

Today’s fathers, especially, are much more involved in their children’s upbringing when contrasted with fathers from earlier generations.

At the same time, like their forebears, today’s fathers express remorse over their absences from the home, as they continue to work considerably longer hours than mothers.

Of all family types, single parent female-headed households remain at the greatest risk of poverty.

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Grandparents’ strength

shutterstock_413670436 Source: Shutterstock/Dobo Kristian

Grandparents’ contribution to the provisioning of support to families – financial and care-giving – has been consistently underestimated in previous academic and policy reports.

Without these grandparental supports, young families would struggle to ever secure a toehold on the property ladder, while childcare costs would become prohibitively expensive for many.

This vital role played by grandparents, however, is generally stronger on the maternal than the paternal side.

A European model

Irish families are now broadly similar to European patterns – nuclear in form, small in size, often dual-income. This is a major change from only a few decades ago, where Irish demography was somewhat of an exception – often multigenerational in form, large in size, supported financially by a single male breadwinner.

shutterstock_216533056 Source: Shutterstock/Monkey Business Images

Rather than looking at ‘the family’ as an institution, the authors follow new sociological approaches that consider families as complex configurations of practices between different actors. They analyse a wide range of acts, both symbolic and mundane, that people engage in on a daily basis to make family life happen.

In doing so, the research also considers all members of families – from parents, to children, to grandparents, to those beyond immediate kin like cousins, uncles, aunts, neighbours, and friends. It also situates Irish families within a broader European and international context.

The research also provides summaries of previous landmark research on the Irish family. It considers a number of contemporary studies examining the impact of both boom and bust on present-day Irish families, as well as looks to more classic, almost forgotten studies of the Irish family during the early decades of the 20th century.

Throughout, the authors of Family Rhythms discuss policy implications for families based on the latest insights from the sociological literature.

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