Cross-Community Marriage in Northern Ireland - Section 1
[Key_Events] Key_Issues] [Conflict_Background]
Material is added to this site on a regular basis - information on this page may change
This study originated from the desire of the two main marriage guidance groups in Northern Ireland, Relate and the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council of Ireland (CMAC) to further their knowledge of the characteristics of cross-community marriages in Northern Ireland. The Centre for Social Research at The Queen's University of Belfast was approached, and following discussions between the three bodies a proposal was prepared which was subsequently funded by the Central Community Relations Unit (CCRU) of Government. The study was planned so that the results would be available to present at the International Union of Family Organisations' conference Marriage across Frontiers to be held in Northern Ireland in May 1992.
None of the parties concerned assumed that cross-community marriages are as such problematic. However, in view of negative social attitudes towards them and their location in a society which until now has suffered both from intolerance and discrimination and from difficulties in speaking out about its effects, it was believed that more information about such marriages and influences on them, whether favourable or unfavourable, could only be of value.
The aim of the research is to provide appropriate information and guidance to those institutions (families, schools, the Churches, marriage guidance agencies) which in various ways may give (or withhold) help and support to couples who contemplate or have contracted a cross-community marriage.
The objective is to establish a 'biography' of a sample of cross-community marriages, and, in particular, to examine factors which may (or could) have been a source of stress or assistance to the marriage.
Firstly it is necessary to clarify the terminology used throughout
this report. In the title we refer to cross-community marriage
and by this we mean a Roman Catholic -
Protestant marriage. The term 'mixed marriage' is more
commonly used to describe such a marriage, but strictly means
a marriage contracted between a Christian and a non-Christian.
However it has come to mean, particularly in Ireland, a marriage
contracted between a Roman Catholic and another Christian. As
the Northern Ireland Mixed Marriage Association (NIMMA) in their
document Mixed marriage in Ireland (n.d.) point out such
a marriage should really be called an inter-church marriage, for
it is a marriage between two Christians who belong to different
churches. We did not wish to use the term inter-church marriage
as it might imply a marriage where both partners were actively
involved in their churches or a marriage between two people from
different Protestant denominations. For the purposes of this study
we were interested in people who had been brought up in either
the Roman Catholic or Protestant traditions and who were now married
one to the other regardless of whether or not they were still
practising their faith. Therefore we chose to use the term cross-community
marriage in the title of the study and in all correspondence.
However, the term mixed marriage will be used interchangeably
with cross-community marriage throughout the report and many of
the people interviewed use that term. The term Catholic is used
interchangeably in this report with Roman Catholic as it is in
While there is a considerable body of international literature pertaining to mixed marriage, there is very little information on cross-community (ie Catholic - Protestant) marriage in Northern Ireland. This international literature does on occasion make reference to the Northern Irish situation but for the most part looks at mixed race marriage or non-Christian - Christian marriages. Many of the issues raised in this literature, of course, pertain to cross-community marriage in Northern Ireland. Augustin Barbara (1989, p. 51) states early in his book on marriage across frontiers that:
'the religious difference is one of the most important, even if the partners have decided to forget their religions. Because of pressure from in-laws, there will be periodic returns to certain practices'.Germaine Tillion (1977) says the religious factor is dominant because the religious barriers are far more solid than national barriers even if one of the partners is not a believer, because religion has a way of affecting things even where there is no religious belief.
Heron (1977) in his book on Catholic - Protestant marriage says that if we belong to a Church, we belong to a whole community whose teaching, outlook, worship and atmosphere all contribute to the kind of person we are. A member of a Church is moulded by it: he or she is not only in it but of it. If we belong to a Church whether because we have chosen to do so, or because we have been brought up in it, that belonging is part of what we are, and conditions us in ways that we may never fully recognise.
If shared religious faith is a bond which can undergird and strengthen their life together, its absence would seem to have the opposite effect. Worse still, if the couple do not only differ but actually disagree this can introduce into the marriage a kind of conflict it could well do without. However Heron goes on to say that marriage being as it is the closest possible relationship between two people, it can have the tendency at times to bring them together on matters where they had previously differed. Instead of continuing to disagree, they may change their views. Alternatively where their actual views do not change they may decide for the sake of peace to relegate the issues which divide them to the very edge of their lives. Either way, this raises the possibility that one partner will abandon or modify his or her religious convictions to suit the other, and so drift away from previous church allegiance. A weakening of Church loyalty by one or both partners is one quite common consequence of interchurch marriage. It seems, after all, an obvious way (though not necessarily the most adult or healthy) to reduce the risk of conflict - though it should also be said that this can also leave a residue of guilt or resentment which in its own way poses a threat to the harmony of the couple.
Barbara (1989, p.55) says that partners in a mixed couple know right from the start that objective differences exist, but they may not always appreciate how significant these differences might become at certain moments. They may resurface, at certain periods, with the same force with which they were buried or camouflaged. Couples will very soon come to realise this truth. In the first flush of love while partners may realise that differences do exist they may not fully realise them. When the mask of romanticism and novelty is dropped, they will find themselves, through the development of a loving maturity, as husband and wife, and as the father and mother of children. With time, their identities will re-establish their original foundations, those handed down to them by their original social environments.
Knowing they are different, and knowing that they are regarded as fragile because of this difference, the mixed couple will tend to think more deeply about their marriage than the non-mixed couple for whom, even if there is not the question of a mixed relationship, there will still be married life in general to consider (Barbara, 1989).
Looking at Catholic - Protestant marriage in Northern Ireland Lee (1981) indicates that couples may make their decision on where to marry on the basis of one of five factors. (a) The power of the Roman Catholic Church, in his study he found that couples could quite clearly recognise this relative power of the Catholic Church. Indeed for some partners the possibility that they may not actually be married in the eyes of the Church if they did not follow the Catholic prescriptions was one that caused them a good deal of concern. (b) The 'balance of salience' in the relationship, that is the marriage takes place in the church of the most religious partner. (c) The symbolic aspects of the ceremony. (d) The influence of parents. (e) Expedience.
Marriage guidance organisations agree that wedding ceremonies are an index of the level of acceptance or rejection on the part of the families and of the social groups involved. If they have been rejected by their families, the partners will tend to invite their friends, thereby creating a circle of social recognition which doubles for, and replaces, the absent family circle.
The transition from being a couple to being a family with a child is a very important time in the relationship of the partners. Right from the start the partners will have decisions to make: deciding on a name for the child; where to have the child baptised. Friends with any discretion will avoid asking about such matters. The families, on the other hand, may expect the parents of the child to act in accordance with their own traditional convictions.
There are many options open to a mixed pair: both partners may be active in their faith and may wish to continue as such. For these couples, the decisions on how to bring up their children can be difficult. Heron (1977) explains that instead of being brought up in a home where the whole family belongs unambiguously within a single Church, the children of an inter-church marriage live in a divided house. At the worst this can mean that they grow up in an atmosphere of perpetual religious conflict. But even if the parents succeed in building a tolerant and flexible religious basis for their family life, the question of where the children belong still has to be dealt with. If they are attached firmly and exclusively to only one of the churches, this cuts out the other, and to a degree the other parent also. If the parents are not willing to adopt such a one-sided approach, they still have to find an alternative. Assuming that they are not prepared to leave the children entirely outside both churches, or floating in a kind of no-mans land between them, they must search for some way in which the children can genuinely belong to one church without shutting Out the other church entirely. This is one of the biggest problems facing Roman Catholic - Protestant couples today.
Where only one partner has a strong faith the decision will sometimes be made to bring up the children in the faith of the most religious partner. If neither partner is committed to their faith it can again be a difficult decision: whether to even baptise the child or not can become the issue.
Parents may choose to defer the choice: that is to say the transfer of responsibility to a choice which the child will make for itself when older. 'When he is older, he can decide for himself, many parents say. This is often just a smoke screen to hide a certain embarrassment and a desire to evade responsibility as mixed parents. Society will instead impose its own choices.
Naming children can be a problem, as Barbara (1989, p.108) notes; what is actually behind the search for a name is the identity of the child which starts to become a major preoccupation of the parents, grandparents and other members of the family circle. Opposition and reticence on the part of the family circle will be revived at the prospect of the expected birth. It will serve to remind the group of its basic original identity, its roots.
The children education too will present choices for the couple. The child grows up in a family, sometimes with brothers and sisters. He is aware of himself, of his position in the family group. He also lives in other environments, particularly that of school. He will come up against situations in which his friends may tell him that he is different. Although his parents may like him to be aware of belonging to two groups, will it not be the case that school, daily experience and institutions will align the child with whatever is the dominant norm?
There are issues of identity for the couple themselves and also for the children. The progeny of intermarriage have been taken classically in sociology to have the status of marginal men. Jenkins and Macrae (1967) have attributed a strategic role to such marginal individuals in straddling the boundaries of the two communities in Northern Ireland.
On a religious front the options open to the couples are
Today it is possible to search for ways of uniting the whole family with links to both churches instead of dividing it between them. This is without doubt the most difficult and demanding of the three possible solutions, but it is also the most constructive and creative (Heron, 1977, p.20). Nor is it necessarily more difficult or demanding than the overcoming of all the other differences (and tensions) which are part of any marriage.
The most essential requirement for the building of such a two-sided interchurch marriage is according to Heron (1977, p.65), first, last, and all the time, the will of the couple themselves to make it work. If they have a genuine loyalty to their own churches, and at the same time wish to build their marriage on their shared Christian faith as well as their love for each other, then the basis for the whole undertaking is already present.
Two extremes have to be avoided - that of pretending that there are no differences, which leads to the sweeping of genuine disagreements under the carpet instead of facing them; and that of exaggerating them to the point where they cause more trouble than is appropriate.
So then, religion may be an important feature in a marriage not
only in Northern Ireland, but what of a mixed marriage in a situation
such as exists here?
Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom. Geographically it is isolated from Britain and forms part of the island of Ireland. Some 300 years ago in the Ulster Plantation the planters who arrived to settle in Ulster from Scotland and England were Protestant. They were arriving in a country where the predominant religion was Roman Catholicism. In the years since then the two communities have led largely separate lives leading to Northern Ireland nowadays being seen as a divided society. The divisions cover many aspects of life. Evidence from the Northern Ireland Social Attitudes surveys (Stringer and Robinson, 1991, 1992) show that neighbourhood segregation in the Province remains with a majority of respondents saying that all or most of the people in their neighbourhood belong to the same religion as themselves. In the school system there are two quite distinct sets of schools with differing managerial systems and almost completely separate constituencies. In 1977, 71% of schools were either wholly Roman Catholic or wholly Protestant (Darby et al, 1977). There is a peculiar overlap between religion and politics. Religion is the primary social basis of party politics in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Social Attitudes survey (Curtice and Gallagher, 1990) shows that not a single Protestant respondent reports an SDLP identification (let alone one with Sinn Fein) and only a handful of Catholics support one of the Unionist parties. Political debate in Northern Ireland is dominated by disagreements about its constitutional position - whether or not the Province should remain part of the UK, and if so what its relationship with Westminster should be. Indeed this controversy has since 1969, occasioned some of the most serious and sustained intercommunal violence in the developed world, locally called 'the troubles'.
The political and social divide in Northern Ireland is commonly described then as being between Protestant and Catholic communities. Church attendance is higher than anywhere else in Western Europe except for the Republic of Ireland (Harding and Phillips, 1986) 54% attend at least once a week.
In Northern Ireland approximately 60% of the population is Protestant and 40% is Catholic. There is relatively little information available on cross-community marriages in Northern Ireland, even at the level of establishing their frequency. It has been estimated at between 2% of marriages (Lee, 1983; Rose 1971) and 9% (Stringer and Robinson, in preparation).
What research evidence there is has generally been based on a very small sample confined to a single rural community with the exception of Lee's (1981) doctoral study which centred on a Belfast community. The sociological literature in Northern Ireland show that interreligious marriages in Northern Ireland are likely to be statistically deviant, interactionally problematic and socially unacceptable (Walsh, 1970; Barritt and Carter, 1972; Harris, 1972; Leyton, 1975; Bufwak, 1975; MacFarlane, 1979).
Donnan (1990) outlines some reasons why rates of cross-community marriage may be so low,
'marriage generally in Northern Ireland . . . is characterised by a strong emphasis on endogamy and by correspondingly negative attitudes to out-marriage . . . people lay great stress on the group or community to which they feel most significantly attached, and this manifests itself . . . in the attitudes expressed about marriage and the patterning of marriage which actually results'.These studies have found attitudes to cross-community marriage to be largely negative and unproductive as far as reconciliation is concerned (Harris, 1972; Donnan, 1990; Donnan and MacFarlane, 1983; Lee, 1981 and 1983; MacFarlane, 1989; Blacking et al, 1978). Media reports suggest that responses to cross-community marriage can be so violent as to include murder of the couple concerned (eg. Doran and McGarry, 1986).
Considering attitudes to mixed marriages Donnan and McFarlane (1983) found a preference for dealing only with people thought to be one's own sort. McFarlane (1979) found that mixed marriages were thought to damage the social standing and reputation not only of those who actually contract them, but also that of their parents as well. There are negative attitudes associated with those who convert from their own religion to that of their spouse (Blacking et al, 1978). Finally there is often concern for the children of mixed marriages as to which religion they will be brought up in.
There is a popular view that a majority of the children born to cross-community marriages are brought up as Roman Catholic. Rose (1971, p.507) found that 4% of those he interviewed claimed to have been the product of a mixed marriage. Of these two-thirds declared themselves to be Roman Catholic. More recent evidence from the latest Social Attitudes survey in Northern Ireland (Stringer and Robinson, in preparation) shows that 2% of those interviewed said that their parents marriage was mixed (with 9% of respondents themselves being in a mixed marriage). Of those who said they were the result of a mixed marriage over half identified themselves as Roman Catholic while just under a third identified themselves as Protestant.
The meetings held in the early stages of this study revealed the general impression that marriage is difficult enough at the best of times but in Northern Ireland the extra dimension of being from two different religious backgrounds and to some extent cultural backgrounds, may put extra pressures on a couple from time to time, either between themselves or on them from outside. The opinion of marriage guidance workers, however, is that a mixed marriage may, by its very nature, be all the stronger. In the partners' inevitable consciousness of the barriers set up against them, and as a result of their struggle to surmount them, they may gain a strength which comes less readily to marriages which are not mixed.
The extent and incidence of mixed marriage in Northern Ireland
Statistics on the annual rate of religious intermarriage in Northern Ireland are not available from the civil authorities since the religion of the marrying partners is not recorded on the marriage registration form. Some details are available from the Roman Catholic Church as a Roman Catholic priest must first obtain dispensation from his bishop to marry a Catholic and non-Catholic in a Catholic ceremony.
Lee (1981) obtained figures from the 1971 census of population
from the Register General's Office. The question pertaining to
religion of spouse is optional and so these figures may not be
very accurate, however they do give us some idea.
Intermarried couples 1971 census (Lee, 1981, pp. 82-83)
Lee also attempted to test the commonly held belief that more mixed marriages occur in the middle classes; however, he found no figures to support this. He found that more Catholic women marry Protestant men than Catholic men marry Protestant women, which he suggests might be seen as marrying up. As a corollary to this he suggests the alternative view that Protestant women being loath to enter a 'mixed marriage' for fear of marrying down. He suggests his interview data (27 couples) support the idea that status elements are implicit in negative attitudes to cross-community marriage expressed by Protestants.
Masterson (1973) obtained some figures for the Down and Connor diocese indicating 534 mixed marriages in Catholic churches with a further 13 in Protestant churches.
More recent figures have been obtained from the Catholic diocesan offices. Figures for 1990 show that almost 20% of all marriages in the Down and Connor diocese are mixed. In the Derry diocese the corresponding figure is 9% and in the Armagh diocese it is 4%. Figures obtained for the Clogher and Dromore diocese do not permit this percentage to be estimated; however there were an average of 6 mixed marriages per parish for Dromore, and Clogher recorded a total of 6 mixed marriages in 1990.
From these figures it is clear that the number of mixed marriages taking place in the diocese of Down and Connor is much greater than in the rest of the Province. Further figures show that the rates of mixed marriage have increased in the Derry diocese by 2% over the four year period from 1987 to 1990.
Finally in this section it is important to note that in Northern
Ireland there is one organisation specifically set up for people
in mixed marriages: the Northern Ireland Mixed Marriages Association
(NIMMA). NIMMA was formed in 1974 as a result of a conference
at Corrymeela. Its main functions are to offer help and advice
to those contemplating or living a mixed marriage, and to meet
with clergy of all denominations to help them in their dealings
with mixed marriage couples.
It is not the intention in this report to detail the Churches' position; however to understand some of the findings, it is necessary to briefly outline the position.
Generally speaking, Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches have different views on (a) what actually constitutes a valid marriage (b) the extent of the Church's authority over marriage and (c) the special character of Christian marriage. Protestant Churches do not generally insist that their members must be married in church, or by their own minister, while the Roman Catholic Church will not normally regard its members as married at all unless they have exchanged their marriage vows before the priest (canonical form) or have received a dispensation from canonical form order to permit some other kind of wedding. (Further details in Heron (1977) NIMMA (nd))
For Christians other than those of the Roman Catholic communion the essential objection to interchurch marriage lies in the requirement of the Roman Catholic church expressed in the current regulations concerning mixed marriage in the Apostolic Letter (Motu proprio) 1970 that:
'the Catholic party is also gravely bound to make a sincere promise to do all in his power to have all the children baptised and brought up in the Catholic church'. (Heron, 1977)The non-Catholic partner is no longer required to give any undertaking or sign any promises.
If the wedding is to take place in a Roman Catholic church the Roman Catholic partner must apply to the local bishop for a dispensation to marry. If the minister of the other denomination is willing to attend, the Catholic priest is expected to welcome him to the ceremony and, it is hoped, to invite him to participate in the service. However, if the wedding is to take place in a non-Roman Catholic church a dispensation from form allowing the wedding to take place in a Church other than a Catholic one and before a minister other than a Catholic one is required. The Roman Catholic bishops are now agreed that in most cases marriage should follow the social norm of taking place in the bride's church and they will generally grant such a dispensation.
CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within the University of Ulster.
Last modified :