Social Change since 1922

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Social Change since 1922

Ireland was divided into two separate states in 1922. The Irish Free State was overwhelmingly rural, agrarian, and Catholic; Northern Ireland was more industrialized, and two-thirds of the population were Protestant. Political change was not followed by a social revolution; rather, the social revolution predated it. In the decades between the Great Famine and World War I, Ireland experienced a long-term decline in population, mass emigration, a fall in the marriage rate; the near-extinction of both the landlords and the agricultural laborers; and the consolidation of a powerful farming class. The conservative values of these church-going small property-owners exercised an important influence on Irish society, North and South. Although they differed in politics and religion, the two Irelands had a common suspicion of change, modernity, and the outside world. The Irish Free State aspired to remain a Catholic, rural, and backward-looking Gaelic society, and for this reason it imposed a stringent code of censorship on film and printed materials that might expose its citizens to the values of a modern, secular, and urban society. Although the Northern Ireland state was less explicit about its cultural values, its ethos was likewise insular and conservative.

Population, Family, and Social Life before 1960

The Irish population fell by almost half between 1841 and 1911, but in Northern Ireland the fall in population was reversed in 1891. In the Irish Free State the population continued to fall until 1961, because of a continuing high rate of emigration, which reached a twentieth-century peak during the 1950s when more than 400,000 people left the state. More than half of those who were born during the 1930s had emigrated by the 1960s. The rate of emigration from Northern Ireland was substantially lower because there were more jobs available outside farming.

By 1911 the Irish marriage rate was the lowest in Europe; one adult in four never married, and although the marriage rate was higher in Northern Ireland, it was also exceptionally low by international standards. Irish couples married at a later age than elsewhere, too, but families were large. In 1911 a woman whose marriage lasted twenty to twenty-five years had given birth to five or six children. Professional couples and Protestants had smaller families, indicating the beginnings of fertility control, but the decline in family size was one of the slowest in Europe. Marriages became more common during the 1940s and 1950s, in a faint reflection of the American and European marriage boom, but the Irish marriage pattern remained so out of line with that of Europe and the United States that it was regarded as eccentric and abnormal. This was attributed to sexual repression or other psychological pathologies, or to the power of the Catholic Church, but marriage statistics from Northern Ireland were not dramatically different.

Late marriages and permanent celibacy were most pronounced in farming households. Sons or daughters who worked on the family farm had no independent income, and they could not contemplate marriage unless their parent(s) gave them some security, by transferring ownership of the farm to a son or providing a dowry for a daughter; parents also had an effective veto over their child's choice of partner. But nonfarming families were much the same: in 1926 the percentage of Irish male teachers, clerks, and skilled workers who were married by the age of thirty was significantly lower than in England and Wales. Large families served to postpone and perhaps to prevent marriages. Farmers commonly delayed the marriage of the heir until all the remaining children had been provided for. Given the late age at which men and women married, it is not surprising that in 1926, 12 percent of children under fifteen in the Irish Free State had lost one or both parents; the figure was 10 percent in Northern Ireland. Older children commonly found themselves having to support widowed mothers, ailing fathers, and younger siblings, and many had to defer marriage until these responsibilities were at an end. Children were required to attend school until the age of fourteen, but only the children of prosperous parents and a tiny number of scholarship students attended secondary school or university. By the age of fourteen and often earlier, most children were expected to contribute to family income as farm laborers, domestic servants, messenger boys, or factory workers. Many teenage girls and older women, married and single, worked in textile and clothing plants in Belfast, Derry, and other Northern Ireland towns, but the most common employment for women in independent Ireland until the 1960s was domestic service. Jobs were scarce and many parents sent teenage sons or daughters to England, some as young as fifteen years, with instructions to send money home; some fathers worked in England for part or all of the year, leaving their family in Ireland. Emigration eased the consequences of large families for both parents and Irish society.

Married women busied themselves raising large families, helping to run family farms or the pubs, groceries, and other businesses that dominated provincial Irish towns; it was highly unusual for married women to work outside the home, except in the Ulster textile towns. Housekeeping was onerous; most rural homes lacked electricity until the mid-1950s. Running water, bathrooms, and other modern amenities reached the Irish countryside only during the 1960s, but middle-class families, even those on modest incomes, commonly employed a domestic servant until the 1950s, when such workers emigrated en masse to England. By the 1930s the typical Irish family lived in a house with three to four rooms, but thousands of Dublin families continued to live in one-room tenements until after World War II. Housing standards in Belfast were significantly better, with most working-class families occupying a three- or four-room terraced house, supplied with gas and cold water.

Social life revolved around the home or the church; in rural areas the most common social activity was the cuaird or céilí—visiting a neighboring house in the evening to gossip, play cards, or listen to music. These visits were made only by men; women, married or single, stayed at home unless there was a more formal social event such as a dance, a wedding, or a funeral. A lot of socializing was single-sex. Sport was extremely important. Every Catholic parish had a Gaelic football team and perhaps a hurling team; soccer was the sport of the urban working class; rugby was supported by professional men. Horse racing was popular with all classes; local race meetings were major social events. The pub was important for certain occasions—fair days and trips to the town—and it was the place where matchmaking and dowries were commonly negotiated. But for most people the pub did not form part of everyday life, because they could not afford it.

Religion had an important place in the lives of most Irish people, both Catholic and Protestant, uniting them and dividing them. Schools, charitable services, and many hospitals were denominationally based. Church attendance was almost universal, and in contrast to continental Europe, men and women were equally devout. The practice of religion commonly went far beyond attending church on Sunday; it involved additional devotions or charitable work. Sporting clubs, musical societies, bands, dramatic groups, and scout troops were based around the church; so too were seaside outings, weekly dances, and even foreign travel. Most Irish Catholics first traveled to Europe on a pilgrimage to Rome or Lourdes. Social activities strengthened religious divisions, as did attitudes toward the Sabbath. Catholics went to church on Sundays, but they also danced and traveled to Gaelic Athletic Association matches; they did not dance on Saturday nights. Protestant Sabbatarianism ruled out social activities on Sundays.

Social Change

While it would be incorrect to assume that nothing changed between the 1920s and the 1950s, nevertheless the pace of change was slow because of the lack of economic development and because Ireland, both North and South, was less affected by World War II than other European countries. In 1926 a majority of men (571 out of every 1,000) earned their living in farming; in 1961 the figure was 426. During the mid-1950s, soaring emigration forced a rethinking of economic policy and an acceptance that industrial development was essential to national survival. Although emigration may have reduced the pressures for change—by removing the discontented and the unemployed and by relieving the Irish state of the need to provide for the offspring of large families—it had a critical influence on aspirations and tastes. Reports of large pay packets, paid holidays, and a lively social life created dissatisfaction among servant girls who worked long hours in Irish homes for little more than their keep, and among farmers' adult sons who had to ask a parent for the price of a packet of cigarettes or admission to the cinema. Ireland was English-speaking, and British and American films were extremely popular. Thus, despite strict censorship, jazz and the fashions set by Hollywood permeated all parts of Ireland. British television reached Northern Ireland and its hinterland in 1955, but the remainder of the island remained a television-free zone until an Irish state service opened on 31 December 1961. The timing reinforces the sense that the 1960s was a decade of major change in Irish society.

Employment and Class

During the 1960s the Irish Republic changed from a predominantly agrarian economy to a mainly industrial economy. By 1986 only one-fifth of male workers were engaged in farming; it has been predicted that by 2010 there will be only 20,000 full-time farmers. There has been a steady growth in the numbers employed in factory or service jobs in foreign multinational companies, and in government service. The proportion of the population in professional, white-collar, and skilled jobs has risen sharply, and there has been a corresponding fall in the numbers employed in family businesses. Recruitment is now primarily by merit; in the past it was commonly on the basis of kinship, family, or church connections. The traditional prejudice in farming families against factory jobs, especially for women, has been eroded by good pay and working conditions, while the needs of multinational companies and equality legislation have forced the Irish government to abandon its policy of giving preference to industries that recruited men. Between 1971 and 1991 the number of women in paid employment in the Irish Republic increased by 40 percent. In the 1990s the participation of women in the labor force soared, and the proportion of married women at work is now close to the European Union (EU) average. In Northern Ireland the number of farmers has likewise fallen, but so too have the numbers employed in manufacturing industry, with the loss of jobs in traditional textile and shipbuilding plants. Public service is now the largest employer; the proportion of women in paid employment remains above that of the Irish Republic, although the gap is closing.

Irish voters have traditionally voted on the basis of religion and nationalism, not class. In 1920, Belfast was the only Irish city with a significant number of factory workers, but religious differences generally transcended class interests; workplaces and occupations were often demarcated by religion, and the trade-union movement in Northern Ireland has failed to establish itself as an effective alternative to the sectarian groupings. In Dublin and other Irish cities the working class was mainly employed in transportation and other service industries, and the dispersed and casual nature of the work worked against the emergence of a strong labor movement. Emigration, a common response to economic depression, also weakened workers' clout. Access to many skilled crafts was restricted to family members, further dividing the working class. There has been a substantial rise in trade-union membership since the 1960s, particularly among white-collar and public-service workers, but trade-union power has been reflected in quasi-corporatist bargaining with government and employers, not through the electoral process. This system began in the 1960s with the negotiation of national pay rounds. Since the late 1980s, "social partnership" involving government, employers, trade unions, and voluntary organizations has played a central role in determining policy on pay, healthcare, taxes, and welfare.


A sharp fall in the rate of emigration during the 1960s brought a century of population decline in the Irish Republic to an end. By the early 1970s returning emigrants outnumbered those who were leaving. The 1960s also brought a marriage boom and a fall in the age of marriage; family limitation became the norm, with many women using the contraceptive pill. The number of births peaked in 1980, twenty years later than in other developed countries; until then the decline in family size was offset by the increase in the number of marriages. In 1980 the Irish birthrate was double the European average, but fertility fell sharply during that decade; in 1991 it was below replacement level and it remains so today. Throughout this time fertility in Northern Ireland was lower than in the Irish Republic, and this remains so.

Ireland is no longer out of line with European demographic trends: The birthrate is below replacement level in both parts of Ireland, although it is one of the highest in Europe; almost one-third of babies are born outside marriage. The Irish remain rather reluctant to marry; the marriage rate is below the EU average, and a growing number of marriages end in separation or divorce. Male and female life expectancy, both North and South, remains slightly below the EU average. Until the 1950s Irish women were almost unique in Europe in having a lower life expectancy than men, but this has been reversed. Since the 1990s the Irish Republic, traditionally a country of net emigration, has begun to attract increasing numbers of immigrants, both returning emigrants and migrants from eastern Europe and the Third World; immigration into Northern Ireland is now lower than into the Republic. The major distinction between Ireland and its EU partners is in the average age of the population; Ireland's belated baby boom, together with the high rate of emigration during the 1950s, means that the proportion of the population of pensionable age is well below the EU average.

Church and State

The influence of the Catholic Church on Irish society probably peaked during the 1960s. At that time there were sufficient male and female religious to staff an extensive network of schools, nursing homes, and other institutions, and a devout laity had not yet begun to question the authority of the church. But the sharp fall in the numbers entering religious life during the 1970s forced the Catholic Church to begin to withdraw from schools and other institutions. The rapid expansion in the number of men and women with second- and third-level education in the 1970s created an alternative cohort of community leaders, especially in rural Ireland, and a population that questions the views expressed by church leaders. Recent revelations of physical and sexual abuse by religious have further damaged the church's authority. The 1995 referendum permitting divorce and the defeat of the 2002 referendum that attempted to strengthen restrictions on abortion reflect a waning of the Catholic Church's influence on the electorate and on social policy. But while church attendance has fallen, it remains well above the European average, and pilgrimages or religious events, such as the 2001 tour of the bones of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, continue to attract large attendances.

It is more difficult to chart the changing role of the Protestant churches because their authority is more decentralized, but they too have suffered from falling church attendance and a shortage of ministers. Social life for both Protestants and Catholics no longer centers around the church. In the Republic of Ireland, where the Protestant community accounts for 3 percent to 4 percent of the population (compared with 7 percent in 1926), denominational divisions are fading, perhaps because of a growing indifference to religion. More than 5 percent of couples now opt for civil marriages, and a growing number of parents send their children to multidenominational schools. For the first time in the history of the state, no new Catholic or Protestant schools opened in 2002, although there were several new Moslem schools. In Northern Ireland religious loyalties continue to unite and divide communities, although many of those who make use of religion for political ends rarely attend church. Catholics accounted for one-third of the population of Northern Ireland in 1926, a figure that remained largely unchanged until the 1970s because a higher Catholic birthrate was offset by Catholic emigration. The proportion of Catholics has risen in recent decades, and it now stands at 43 percent to 44 percent. In 1911 Belfast housing was heavily segregated by religion, and it is even more so today. But fair-employment legislation has brought a marked reduction in segregated employment. Belfast Sundays no longer reflect the Sabbatarian strictures of the Protestant religion: Public parks, shops, and even public houses are now open.

The diminishing role of the church in Irish society has been partly filled by the state. In 1922 both Irish states provided old-age pensions for those seventy or older without means and insurance against sickness and unemployment for industrial workers. The poorest one-third of the population were provided with free medical treatment, and all children were entitled to free primary schooling. The expansion of social services in Northern Ireland was dictated by developments in Britain. The 1940s saw the introduction of a welfare state in Northern Ireland which provided universal insurance against sickness and unemployment, old-age pensions regardless of income, a health service that was available to everybody free of charge, and free secondary schooling. These developments were initially viewed with suspicion by the socially conservative politicians in Northern Ireland, who placed a high premium on self-reliance; the Catholic Church was likewise wary about the reforms in health and education. In time unionist politicians saw the superior social services as evidence of the benefits of union with Britain. The civil-rights campaign of the 1960s was prompted by Catholic demands for equal access to the benefits of this welfare state, particularly in housing and government employment.

In the Irish Free State public spending increased after 1932, when the incoming Fianna Fáil government embarked on a major housing drive and unemployment assistance (the dole) was introduced to provide a basic income for small farmers, laborers, and others who were unable to emigrate because of the international recession. Although these payments were designed to thwart social change by enabling people to survive on small plots of land, this was the first time that many smallholders had received a regular cash income, and it resulted in major changes in consumption—the increased use of shop-bought food, more tobacco, and probably more Guinness. The expansion in welfare services in Britain and Northern Ireland during the 1940s prompted demands for comparable services in the Irish Republic, but the state could not afford British-style welfare services, and the Catholic Church was opposed to "the servile state"; it believed that universal free health care would undermine the family, so the improvements were modest. Nevertheless, by the early 1950s the overwhelming majority of mothers and babies were eligible for free maternity and childcare. A major housing drive removed countless urban and rural slums (including thousands of thatched cottages), and loans and subsidies provided by the state helped to bring about one of the highest rates of homeownership in the world. Although the late 1960s saw a major extension in government funding for second- and third-level education, which were regarded as an essential element in the drive for economic growth, the Irish Republic continued to lag behind Northern Ireland. After 1973 the European Economic Community assumed the cost of farm support, and this freed up money for improved welfare services. The major changes in state support since the 1970s reflect the emergence of new problems, such as the severe rise in long-term unemployment after 1973, or the consequences of changing demography and family structures, such as the rise in the number of single parents. EU directives and national legislation guarantee an equal entitlement to benefits regardless of gender, race, or sexual orientation. The stigma that was once associated with relying on the state has largely vanished. More than one-third of the population are beneficiaries of state welfare payments; access to publicly funded healthcare, welfare, and education is regarded as a right, and there are strong pressure groups demanding that these services should be expanded. Expenditure on social protection in the Irish Republic remains below the EU average, partly because of a smaller number of pensioners and elderly dependents, but also because of a less extensive benefits system. But in the Irish Republic, and to a lesser extent in Northern Ireland, demands for better public services conflict with demands for lower taxes, and the future direction of Irish society—the choice between Boston and Berlin, between a free-enterprise society such as the United States, or one based on European social democracy—has yet to be determined.

The major change since 1922 has been the belated convergence between Ireland and other developed countries, and the emergence of a modern Irish industrial/postindustrial consumer society that is part of a wider global culture. Lauren, Chloe, Dylan, and Aaron were among the most popular names for Irish children born in 2000; Mary did not make the top twenty-five, but Patrick squeezed in at number sixteen. Irish marriage and fertility patterns are no longer exceptional; the lifestyle of most Irish families—the suburban homes, long commutes, shopping malls, foreign holidays, and multichannel televisions—resembles that of other developed countries. Statistics on educational standards, material wealth, and other indices confirm that similarity. Irish pop music, literature, and sport have become part of a global culture, but they have not been swamped by it. Indeed, the international standing of Irish popular musicians such as Van Morrison and U2 is disproportionate to Ireland's population. Traditional music and distinctively Irish sports such as hurling have adapted to the global challenge and now thrive alongside pop music and soccer, often attracting the same supporters.

Ireland resembles other developed countries in one less happy respect: economic development has not eliminated social inequality. Although the numbers in absolute poverty have fallen sharply, poorer households remain at a considerable disadvantage in such matters as health, life expectancy, and education. Some of this disadvantage, such as the high rate of adult illiteracy, is a legacy of the past—the numerous children who left school at an early age because of family pressures. Irish cities, North and South, contain substantial numbers of working-class families who have benefited little from the expansion in education and job opportunities. But despite fears about the depopulation of rural Ireland, the actual facts are positive: in 2002 the population of every county increased, some for the first time since the Great Famine. Mayo, traditionally one of the poorest counties, has the highest rate of participation in third-level education. The pace of social change in Ireland was among the fastest in Europe at the end of the twentieth century, and this seems likely to remain the case for some time.

SEE ALSO Divorce, Contraception, and Abortion; Family: Fertility, Marriage, and the Family since 1950; Farming Families; Health and Welfare since 1950, State Provisions for; Industry since 1920; Media since 1960; Migration: Emigration and Immigration since 1950; Music: Popular Music; Roman Catholic Church: Since 1891; Secularization; Sport and Leisure; Women and Work since the Mid-Nineteenth Century; Women in Irish Society since 1800


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Mary E. Daly

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Social Change since 1922

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Social Change since 1922