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March 4, 2024   10 mins

The constitution of the Republic of Ireland was voted into law by the Dáil Éireann (Irish parliament) in December 1937, having been approved earlier in the year by a referendum. After centuries of existing as a British colony, this was more than simply a symbolic moment. Ireland was now an independent republic. More than that: it had drawn up its own constitution, based upon its own heritage, culture and faith.

What did that look like in practice? It meant, for a start, that Ireland was now a republic rather than a dependency of the British crown. It meant that it was a neutral country, with no standing army. It meant that it would attempt to foreground and revive its own language, music, arts and sports, many of which had been suppressed under British rule. It meant that the government in Dublin claimed the right to govern “the whole island of Ireland, its islands and the territorial seas”, even though the six (mostly Protestant) counties of the north had chosen to remain part of the United Kingdom instead of being absorbed into the (mostly Catholic) republic.

It also meant that the new Republic was, at least in theory, a secular entity. Freedom of religious worship was guaranteed to all Irish people and the establishment of any state religion was banned. Significantly though, the same constitution recognised what it called the “special position” of the Catholic Church in Ireland. It also had a specifically spiritual — which meant a specifically Christian — flavour. Article 6, for example, which establishes how the new country is to be governed, states that:

“All powers of government, legislative, executive and judicial, derive, under God, from the people, whose right it is to designate the rulers of the State and, in final appeal, to decide all questions of national policy, according to the requirements of the common good.”

Meanwhile, Article 44 reads:

“The State acknowledges that the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God. It shall hold His Name in reverence, and shall respect and honour religion.”

Technically, then, while Ireland was always a secular state with guaranteed freedom of worship, the “special position” clause acknowledged that the Catholic Church was to be involved in the running of the affairs of state. The driving force behind the document was the Irish-American statesman Éamon de Valera, who, more than anyone else, built the Irish republic in his image as a veteran of the 1916 uprising, the country’s first Taoiseach (prime minister) and later its president.

De Valera was a complex man. He was deeply Catholic, and his traditionalism deepened, as it so often does, as he aged. He was responsible for the reference in the constitution to the “special position” of the Church, and he was responsible too, in consultation with the future Bishop of Dublin, for sowing Catholic social teaching throughout the state’s founding document. The constitution guaranteed that the state would “guard with special care” the institution of marriage, and it prohibited divorce. Outside of the constitution, his government prohibited the sale of contraceptives, and handed control of the education system to the Church. Long after De Valera’s time, Catholic teaching continued to drive state policy. In 1983, for example, the 8th amendment to the constitution, which banned abortion, was approved via a referendum and inserted into the document.

That referendum — and others like it — show that it was not simply de Valera’s faith and the Church’s power which created the Catholic-inflected constitution of the Irish state. It was also the people’s approval. De Valera was no outlier: he governed a deeply Catholic country. The Church not only had an effective monopoly on worship in the state, but also had a highly respected position as an institution which had often helped the people fend off the worst depravities of British rule, offering both charity and political resistance where often there had been none. Though Ireland was never in fact a Catholic state — de Valera, despite his own faith, always resisted calls for an established church, and always supported freedom of worship — it was for many centuries a very Catholic country.

But times change. In Ireland, perhaps, they have changed faster than anywhere else in Western Europe. The rise and fall of the 8th amendment to the constitution could serve as a striking symbol of the speed of this change. In 1983, the 8th amendment, guaranteeing the right to life of the unborn, was approved by 67% of voters in a nationwide referendum. Thirty-five years later, in 2018, the 8th amendment was rejected in another referendum by precisely the same percentage of voters: 67%.

“The governing classes of the Emerald Isle now define themselves against everything they used to be.”

In the 35 years between 1983 and 2018, Ireland had been transformed from a traditionalist, Catholic republic, still operating on the principles established by de Valera, into a globalised, progressive EU member state, operating on principles imported from San Francisco and Brussels. The Church had collapsed in spectacular fashion, at least partly as a result of its own sins: widespread child abuse by the clergy had come to light, as had abuse of women and children in mother-and-baby homes across the state. Meanwhile, the “Celtic tiger” economy of the Nineties had flooded the country with easy money, leading to an explosion in construction, economic growth, corruption and wealth. All of this was to implode dramatically in the huge economic collapse of 2008, but even this setback did not slow Ireland’s apparent desire to flee as fast as it could from its rural Catholic past, and into a future as a progressive corporate tech hub: an Atlantic Silicon Valley, with more rain and more potholes.

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Every nation is built around a story; a foundation myth. The foundation myth of the Irish Republic of the Thirties was that of a Celtic Catholic nation throwing off the shackles of empire and building a country for its own people, around their own values. But that republic died with the 20th century. Now a new one has emerged with the age of globalisation, and it has a new myth. New Ireland is progressive. It is feminist. It is individualist. It is tolerant. It is irreligious. It is digital. It is diverse. It is, of course, Not Britain — but it is also Not Old Ireland. The culture of inversion is in full swing in Eire, as it is across the West. The governing classes of the Emerald Isle now define themselves against everything they used to be.

The constitution, however, has been slow to keep up. Documents are like that. As a result, there has been a slew of amendments to it in recent decades, all of which had to be approved by a public referendum. The direction of these has always been the same: they are designed to strip out the remnants of Catholic social teaching and insert instead the progressive equivalent. Over the past 50 years, amendments have removed the “special position” of the Catholic Church from the constitution, legalised divorce, abortion and gay marriage, prohibited the death penalty and allowed for various centralising EU treaties to be signed by the government, all of which reduced the Irish state’s political reach in Ireland while increasing that of the EU.

Traditional Catholics have been very unhappy about much of this — some of my older neighbours will bend my ear about it for hours — but there is no doubt that it is going with the grain of the culture, especially that of the younger population. Progressivism is the new faith of this republic, as it is across the West. Official Ireland prides itself these days on Dublin’s rainbow zebra crossings, on the country’s increasing levels of immigration (which, however, are increasingly resisted and resented by the population as a whole), on its role as an EU hub for Silicon Valley and Big Pharma, on its pioneering stances on the banning of tobacco and the legalising of gender self-ID. All that is Catholic melts into air in what was, just a few decades back, the most Catholic country in the West.

This Friday, Ireland will go to the polls again to vote in the latest referendum on constitutional change. This time around, the aim of the state is to alter the wording of Article 41, which is designed to promote and protect the institution of the family — text which New Ireland regards as “problematic”:

“The State recognises the Family as the natural primary and fundamental unit group of Society, and as a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law.

“The State, therefore, guarantees to protect the Family in its constitution and authority, as the necessary basis of social order and as indispensable to the welfare of the Nation and the State.”

That “necessary basis of social order” is based on marriage, which is why:

“The State pledges itself to guard with special care the institution of Marriage, on which the Family is founded, and to protect it against attack.”

The notion that the traditional family is a “moral institution” obviously cannot stand in a newly progressive nation. Our referendum will thus invite us to delete the words “on which the Family is founded” from the above clause. Marriage — having already been redefined by the legalisation of gay marriage — is now no longer to be recognised by the state as the basis of the family at all.

But it is the second proposal for change which has really caused controversy here. Redefining marriage and family is, like it or not, pretty much a done deal in the modern West. The Irish constitution, however, took its protection of the family one step further: it sought to define, and protect, the role of the mother. Here is Article 41:

“In particular, the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.

“The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.”

As we can see, this patriarchal, sexist text discriminates directly against women. It claims that a woman’s place is in the home, and in doing so limits a woman’s economic choices. It is a relic of old Catholic Ireland — the kind of Christian-inspired sexism which has long held Ireland’s women back. This is why the government proposes to replace it with a new version:

“The State recognises that the provision of care, by members of a family to one another by reason of the bonds that exist among them, gives to Society a support without which the common good cannot be achieved, and shall strive to support such provision.”

Much better, isn’t it? No more mothers. No more women. No more “moral institutions” or “social order”. Progress! Hurray!

Except that it is not progress at all. It is, in fact, a corporate wolf wearing the clothing of a feminist sheep. The narrative being sold by the government and its supporters — which, as ever, means most of the country’s political, cultural and media elites — is that the constitution as it stands is a misogynist relic. The notion that “mothers” should put their “duties in the home” above their right to economic independence is the kind of prehistoric notion that should have gone the way of the dodo by now. Just as we know that families do not have to be based on marriage, and that marriage can be “non-binary”, so we know that the state has no right to insist that a woman put her “duties in the home” above her right to choose how to live her life.

If the constitution did, in fact, oblige woman to stay at home rather than working, then some of these points would be fair. But it doesn’t, as any visit to Ireland will swiftly make clear. Women here, as in any other Western liberal country, can do pretty much what they like. Ireland has had two female presidents already, and they doubtless won’t be the last. The constitution doesn’t limit the choices of women in any way. In fact, it does the opposite.

“The state is attempting in this referendum to con women out of their constitutional rights.”

The activist group The Countess, which campaigns for women’s rights in Ireland, is doing an excellent job of explaining how the state is attempting in this referendum to con women out of their constitutional rights, while pretending to do the opposite. As they point out in a detailed argument against the proposed changes, the 1937 constitution does not oblige women to stay at home. Rather, as the wording makes clear, it protects them if they choose to do so.

Understanding this changes the tenor of the whole conversation: or it would, if any of the “progressive” classes would acknowledge it. Unfortunately, the power of the “chaining women to the kitchen sink” narrative is so strong that it has been easy to sell the proposed change, especially to young women, as yet another move away from Catholic bigotry and towards current-year equality. The Countess, though, sees something very different happening. It’s an attack on motherhood:

“Of those who stay at home to look after their children in their early years, a staggering 94.3% are mothers. No one can argue with the importance of the mother-baby bond and the need not to rupture this bond. In clinical terms, we refer to this as one biological unit, the “mother-baby dyad”. However, if you are in receipt of Jobseekers Allowance, you must prove to the State that you are actively looking for work only eight weeks postpartum, lest your benefit be taken away. Herein lies a glimpse of the soul of the current government and its actual views on motherhood and the role of mothers.”

Article 41 currently protects the rights of any mother who wants to stay at home and look after her own children in her own family. It has, indeed, been used in court to argue against the state’s attempts to force young mothers into the market economy against their will. Opinion polls conducted recently show that an astonishing 69% of Irish mothers would prefer to stay at home with their children, rather than going out to work.

Here, then, is the nub of the matter: the vast majority of mothers in this country would rather bring up their own children in their own home than have to go to work. Article 41 of the constitution specifically guarantees their right to do so. Now the government wants to abolish it. In the name of “women’s rights”, the state intends to remove a constitutional right that most women value.

Why would they do this? The Countess offers an answer:

“Article 41.2 is a bulwark against the kind of neoliberal values that characterise this coalition, whereby all that matters is GDP and the meta economy. Mothering and the running of households is done by women, and this is explicitly and remarkably recognised for its benefit to all of society under Article 41.2. But, according to neoliberal economics, these things hold no value and therefore must be erased. In this worldview, mothering is disposable, replaceable and worthless, because it doesn’t contribute to GDP 
 In so doing, the unique contribution of women to society is erased.”

The Irish state is removing the rights of Ireland’s mothers in the name of “moving on” from de Valera’s Bad Old Catholic Ireland. What will be happening on Friday is a bait-and-switch operation. The people of Ireland are being told that by rewriting their constitution they can “liberate” the nation’s women from an outdated, patriarchal story. If they choose to do so, they will find instead that women have been “liberated” from their right to bring up their own children in their own home, rather than being forced into the market economy by a state which has no interest in anything beyond economic growth and a desire to seem “progressive” in the eyes of its EU neighbours.

What we are seeing here is a familiar story across the West today: the collusion of progressive values and corporate power. As so often, “liberation” from some notional “oppression” just happens to dovetail nicely with the need of the state and the corporation for more labour, more consumption, more expressive individualism. Progressive ideology and corporate capitalism march ahead, hand in hand, singing songs of growth and progress.

But will the New Ireland’s attempt to abolish motherhood in the name of that progress succeed, or will it be a bridge too far? Ireland’s referendum questions ought to help focus our minds on the much bigger cultural inquiry that we are all refusing to face in the age of the Machine: what do we — in Ireland, in Europe, in the West — actually think a human is for?

Soon enough, we’re going to find out.

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A version of this essay was first published at The Abbey of Misrule.


Paul Kingsnorth is a novelist and essayist. His latest novel Alexandria is published by Faber. He also has a Substack: The Abbey of Misrule.