The JC Beckett Memorial Lecture, 2019

Prof. Diane Urquhart (Liverpool):

‘Like diamonds, gambling, and picture-fancying, a luxury of the rich’?: Ireland’s divorcing minority, 1701-1922

Listen to the Audio Track:


Thursday 6th June at 7.00pm: PRONI Seminar Room (preceded by a drinks reception in the foyer)


The legalisation of divorce in the Republic of Ireland in 1996 was heralded as epoch making, but there was little acknowledgement that this was the third incarnation of Irish divorce. The reform was preceded by early Irish law which allowed divorce and over two centuries when divorce could be attained by a parliamentary act. The history of divorce inevitably dwells on marital malcontent and misdemeanours, but that should not obscure the longevity, stability and happiness of countless Irish unions. Yet, it is also clear that many remained in marriage as they lacked the financial, moral and, at times, legal means to pursue its termination. Divorce was secured by a parliamentary act from the mid-17th century and the process was much maligned. This paper considers the validity of such critiques by assessing the cost and gender and class bias of the system of divorce as it developed in both the Irish parliament (to 1800) and in Westminster. It also assesses the economic, social and moral outfall of divorce and considers the rationale and impact of Ireland’s exclusion from the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 which moved divorce for English petitioners from parliament to court. This change was gradually embraced by other areas of the empire; after 1869 only Irish divorces were routinely heard at Westminster. Despite the complexities and cost, the number of Irish parliamentary divorces increased in the early 20th century and gained a more mixed socio-religious and gender profile which is explored here for the first time to ultimately address the question of whether Irish divorce was really ‘a luxury of the rich’?

DianeUrquhartDiane Urquhart is Professor in Modern Irish History at the Institute of Irish Studies of the University of Liverpool. A graduate of Queen’s University Belfast, she has published extensively on Irish women’s history including Women in Ulster Politics, 1890-1940 (2000) and The Ladies of Londonderry: women and political patronage (2007). Diane has just completed Irish Divorce: a history which is the first history of Irish divorce and will be published by Cambridge University Press in 2019.