In an article in the Irish Times in February 2014[1], Fintan O’Toole reviewed the marriage rates in Ireland on foot of a CSO annual report that had been recently published. He was motivated to write the article in response to a press release from the Iona Institute some months earlier which had ended with the conclusion that ‘Marriage is in sharp decline by every measure’. Fintan demurred and quoted the figures from the more up-to-date CSO report that marriages in the year after the Iona press release had increased from 4.3 per 1,000 in 2011 to 4.6 in 2012 reversing the trend that had motivated Iona’s press release.

Looking further into the statistics, he noted that in 1996 there were 1.36 million married people in Ireland increasing to 1.7 million by 2011 and that ‘massive’ increase was ‘when the nasty social liberals have been in the ascendant’. Researching further, he quoted the figures of 15,465 marriages in 1960 compared with 21,245 in 2012. From these figures, Fintan was convinced the institution of marriage was in rude good health and that ‘a lot more people get married in Ireland now than during the years when the Catholic Church was in almost complete control of the moral and legal environment in Ireland’. He likened Iona to ‘a doomsday cult that has to live on after the world doesn’t end as predicted’.

This Irish Times article is by no means an exception in its conclusions and tone towards conservative concerns and, from a widespread perusal of media coverage, one would conclude that there is no indication of any decline in marriage as a life-style choice in Ireland or the western world generally. Fintan’s figures on a first reading appear to support his assertions. There may be many things that Fintan is brilliant at, but statistics clearly isn’t one of them. Anyone with just a passing knowledge of the subject would be immediately suspicious of the raw (and unadjusted) figures that he quotes. You don’t have to be mathematically minded to know that Ireland’s population increased greatly from 1960 to 2012 so that would have to be allowed for, at a minimum, before any conclusions or claims about rates could be made.

In this article, the marriage rates in Ireland going back to the 1920’s will be examined. For some unknown reason, many of these national statistical agencies like to quote rates per thousand or million of the general population. Given that 3 year olds and 83 year olds are unlikely to get married at those ages why they would be included in a year’s marriage rate calculations is a mystery. CSO census data always includes the age profile of the population and that will be used as the basis for marriage rates each year. The marriage rates will be based on the population in Ireland aged between 15 and 49 (the 15 is used as the age band 15-19 was used as a standard by CSO for many years). Furthermore, divorced people getting remarried is hardly an argument for the robustness of marriage (for a conservative anyway!) so marriages in this context should only be marriages where neither party is divorced. The analysis here removes those marriage figures so rates today are meaningfully compared to rates in earlier periods with no divorce. For the last 10 years the number of marriages with one or both parties being divorced is very consistent at around 12%. Needless to say, same sex marriages are not included in annual marriage figures for obvious reasons!

Marriage rates were low in Ireland in the 1920’s to 1950’s mainly due to poverty and emigration (the latter of which would disproportionately affect this age cohort). However, annual marriage rates for that cohort were generally between 2% and 2.5% (2-2.5% of male/female pairs aged 15-49 married that year). When the Irish economy turned the corner in the 1960’s and 1970’s emigration reversed to immigration (mainly Irish emigrants returning), the marriage rate in Ireland surged peaking in the 1971 census at over 3.5%. Another unusual feature of that period was the average age of men (in particular) at the time of getting married dropped very significantly.

The buoyant 1970’s turned into the economically depressed 1980’s and emigration started again but at a considerably lower level than in the 1950’s (~1% versus 3%). Marriage rates, which had been declining in the 1970’s, continued their decline so by the early 1990’s it was heading below 2%. With Ireland’s economy picking up and emigration turning to immigration again, a similar surge as had been seen in the 1960’s, should have been expected if marriage was as popular a lifestyle choice as Fintan maintains it is. However despite a ‘celtic tiger’ economy and higher immigration than ever seen before in the history of the state in the 1990’s, the marriage rate plateaued rather than increased.

Come the financial crisis starting in around 2007 and marriage rates again decreased at speeds seen before in the 1970’s and 1980’s. By 2011, the marriage rate had reduced to just 1.5% compared with over 3.5% in 1971. With the recovery in the Irish economy and some modest immigration rather than emigration, marriage rates recovered somewhat to around 1.7% by 2014 but for some ‘inexplicable reason’ started another decline again and by 2018 was almost down at nearly 1.5% again.

Housing crisis notwithstanding, Ireland today is a relatively wealthy country with near-full employment and general affluence compared with the 1920-50 period. It also has immigration rather than emigration which, more than any other social factor, immediately and directly affects marriage rates. However, despite that marriage rates now are only around 60% of what they were generally in that earlier period. Quite a contrast to Fintan’s claim that marriage is in rude good health and as popular as ever!

There are many advanced statistical tools available today to project a time series into the future and one developed in Google was employed to see what the period to 2030 is likely to hold for Ireland and its marriage rate. With all the usual caveats about future projections taken on board, it still doesn’t paint a pretty picture! The projection’s central estimate is a little over 1.1% marriage rate by 2030 which would represent a marriage rate of only around 45% of what it had been prior to the 1970’s. There is considerable uncertainty in this projection (shaded region in graph showing two thirds probability) but the model does capture the overall trends well as it was tested holding back some data and then comparing its projection to the actual occurrence in the 2008 to 2018 period (not shown).

How does Ireland’s marriage rate compare with other countries in the EU? Unfortunately, this can only be compared at ‘crude’ marriage rates which include the entire population and all remarriages, but it does give an idea of where Ireland stands. CSO reports the rates for 2015 in the EU at an average rate of almost 4.8. Ireland’s 2018 rate was 4.2 placing us in the bottom third of the countries. However, the lowest rates (in Portugal and Slovenia) were as low as 3.1 so it seems like Ireland could fall some way further and the 2030 projection doesn’t appear unreasonable.

If marriage rates were a species of bird or a natural habitat, everyone would be talking about this rapid reduction and possible future extinction. Why does the really fundamentally important social structure of marriage not get a similar level of concern? Mainly, because the media don’t think it’s important and our pusillanimous politicians only do what the media tell them to do. I don’t think the Dáil will declare a Marriage Emergency any time soon even though it would make a lot more sense than other emergencies they’ve recently declared. Instead, they decided making divorce much easier was important and pushed a referendum to that effect. Maybe the Dáil should adopt as its logo an ostrich with its head deeply buried in the sand!





Joseph Henry