CAIN Project: Issues: Marriage - Robinson, G., Cross-Community Marriage in Northern Ireland

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Cross-Community Marriage in Northern Ireland by Gillian Robinson

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The following chapter has been contributed by the author, Gillian Robinson, with the permission of the publishers, Centre for Social Research, The Queen's University of Belfast. The views expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.

Cross-Community Marriage in Northern Ireland
by Gillian Robinson (1992)

Published by Centre for Social Research

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Centre for Social Research
The Queen's University of Belfast
105 Botanic Avenue

This publication is copyright Centre for Social Research 1992 and is included on the CAIN site by permission of the publisher and the author. You may not edit, adapt, or redistribute changed versions of this for other than your personal use without express written permission. Redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.


1.1Background to the study
1.2Mixed marriage - an international perspective
1.3Mixed marriage - the Northern Irish perspective
1.4The formal position of the Churches
2.2Interviewee recruitment and co-operation rate
2.3The characteristics of the couples represented
3.1Background prior to meeting partner
3.3The decision to marry
3.4The marriage
3.6General family life
3.7Marital breakdown
3.8Suggestions for help and support
4.2Limitations to the study
Appendix 1 - The interview schedule


MAY 1992



'It is a big deal when two people from two traditions come together and it's not always easy'
(Minister speaking at wedding reception five years ago)


It is one of the privileges of being involved in social research that one gets for a brief time to see into the lives of others, and to all those who contributed to the study mere thanks are not enough. Your interest, time and welcome to the researcher were all very much appreciated. It cannot be easy in the busy lives we all live today to make time to participate in such a study. In many cases it was difficult for you to recall times when the stresses were particularly great; we can only hope that this report and the information gained may help relieve the constraints and increase the supports for others.

Thanks too to the Northern Ireland Mixed Marriages Association (NIMMA) who invited the researcher to attend their conference in March 1992. This was a very useful and informative conference and while many of the issues raised were of more concern to a truly 'inter-church' marriage it increased the researcher's understanding of these issues.

The advisory group of John Chambers, Relate Marriage Guidance; Mary McFadden, Catholic Marriage Advisory Council (CMAC); Edgar Jardine, Policy Planning and Research Unit of Government (PPRU); Denis O'Brien, Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS); and Peter Stringer, Centre for Social Research all provided valuable support to the researcher and their comments and suggestions have contributed greatly to the study. However responsibility for this report rests with the author.

To the skill and professionalism of the typists who produced the transcripts under very tight time constraints, I am indebted, and also to my colleague and friend Paula Devine my thanks for early morning and late evening sessions in the preparation of this report.

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'Marriage in most societies is not just the union of one man and one woman, but also the union of wider groups of people, families, tribes, communities, so that war has been averted and pacts have been sealed by exogamous marriage. Because of the close alignment of religions, with cultural, social and political interests in Irish society, cross-community marriage assumes a peculiar significance, and the resolution of the problems surrounding it becomes an urgent concern not only for the churches but for the whole nation'. (Heron, 1977, p. x)

A total of 79 interviews were carried out with people in a cross-community marriage resident in Northern Ireland. These interviews represented some 96 individuals or 64 families. Interviews were conducted throughout Northern Ireland. The families represented were at various stages in the family cycle; they covered a broad spectrum of Northern Irish society, but were over representative of the middle classes and those with third level education. Forty eight families had children, and in over half of these, the children had been baptised in a Roman Catholic church. There would appear to be a slight tendency for the children to be more often brought up in the religion of the mother.

The people interviewed came from a wide variety of backgrounds but for the vast majority there had been quite a bit of religious involvement as a child. This tended to diminish for many as they reached adulthood. The level of mixing with the other community as a child was very low with the majority not even knowing someone of the other religion, never mind having one as a close friend. This was primarily due to the fact that respondents had attended segregated schools. The level of mixing increased with age; many people had made their first friends from the other religion at work or at university.

Parental attitudes to mixed marriages were generally negative as respondents were growing up, with parents stressing the difficulty in any marriage without adding the extra dimension of coming from two different religious traditions. The majority of those interviewed had had at least limited contact with others in a mixed marriage. A few people would have had a previous 'romantic' relationship with someone from the other religion but, for most, their partner was their first serious relationship of that kind.

People met in a variety of places but predominantly university, work or out socially in pubs and discos. Almost without exception people were immediately aware that their partner was not a co-religionist. This awareness was usually based on name. In some cases the new friend would have been introduced at home quite early on in the relationship but some people were hesitant because they feared their parents reaction. For the most part parents reacted in one of two ways: either they initially accepted the relationship (perhaps not enthusiastically) but became more opposed as they became aware that it was becoming more serious, or they initially refused to accept the relationship but gradually came to accept it as they realised it was becoming serious. While some people were expecting a hostile reaction from parents, for some it came as a shock in that parents who they would have considered liberal, having themselves Catholic friends, would unexpectedly show a bigoted streak.

For the most part people did not face hostility from friends or in the work-place with the exception of a few people who had troubles at work years ago.

Security was a question for some couples, in Belfast this was to do with going into predominantly Catholic or Protestant areas. In the more rural areas it was more a fear for relations in the security forces or fear for the couple themselves as a target for an attack.

The rate of split-ups in the general population is not known, but for our couples, the reason for splitting up for a period was often associated with the perceived or real difficulties facing them. Most couples discussed religion to some extent and the associated political and social issues.

The decision to marry was often a lengthy process with discussions ranging over where to marry, where to live and the up-bringing of children. While some of the decisions were made easier for couples themselves because one or other partner was not practising their religion, the families still had to be pleased. The decision often caused the first major flashpoint with family. Most couples went out of their way to try to please their families. A common problem faced at this time was the lack of information available to the couple. If their minister or priest was not inclined to be helpful the couple was often left in a sort of limbo. Very often people turned to relations in the ministry for help and advice. A few couples contacted NIMMA while others contacted the marriage guidance organisations.

From those we met there is a sense that few people consider converting. Those that had converted were few in number and for the most part did not practise after the marriage.

The decision on where to marry seems to tilt in favour of the traditional wedding in the girl's church; where this was not the case the wedding usually took place in a Roman Catholic church. Many weddings were in fact held in a neutral church, that is, neither of the couple's home church. This was for various reasons; in Belfast it was primarily because of fears of going into a predominantly Protestant or Catholic area. In the country this seemed to be more to avoid the neighbours.

A majority of couples did not attend pre-marriage courses however those that did for the most part found them a useful experience. The joint pre-marriage course was found to be particularly useful from the point of view of meeting others in a similar position.

Discussions at this time of deciding to marry usually included some discussion on what religion the children were to be brought up in. Although quite a few couples recalled that they simply could not decide at that point about something that seemed quite remote, others had the attitude 'we'll cross that bridge when we come to it'. For others it was a relatively straight forward decision with the most religious partner taking responsibility. It would appear to be a more recent trend to wish to bring the children up in the knowledge of both traditions and a small number of our couples hoped to do this.

At this stage people also considered where to live. This seemed to be more of a problem in Belfast although many people said that if you could afford to buy your own house you could afford a mixed area.

The next step was to arrange the wedding. Only five couples chose to marry in a registry office. The rest married in church and the vast majority did get the required dispensation. For some this was not a problem but for others it was not straightforward with couples not knowing until shortly before the wedding whether they would in fact receive the dispensation. At this stage the support of the clergy was particularly needed. Many people were made to feel embarrassed by their Church at this time: unsympathetic priests or ministers, who refused to attend services in a Roman Catholic church or to allow a priest into their church.

For most people their family did attend the wedding but in several cases even with more recent weddings parents did not attend. This caused considerable hurt to both partners and would appear to have a lasting effect on the couples relationship with those parents, even though the rift was eventually healed.

Very few of the couples we met actually both continued to practise and fewer still made efforts to attend both churches. For the most part one or both did not practise regularly after the marriage. Despite this only three couples chose not to have their children baptised. The baptism of children very often caused more family disagreement, with grand-parents finding it very hard to accept that their grand-children were going to be baptised in the other tradition. In fairness, many grandparents chose not to express their discontent and did attend the services but for others that was impossible and again family relations broke down at this point. For the couple themselves the decision was not always easy. Some couples wished to have a joint Christian baptism but this proved very hard to get. One couple managed to have their first child baptised in a Roman Catholic church with a minister taking part, however, when they wished to reverse the procedure for their second child the Roman Catholic priest would not agree to participate in the Protestant church. While some couples did wish to bring their children up in the knowledge of both religions, in practice, this did not happen to any great extent. There was some tendency to use Church organisations such as Scouts or Guides to link children with the other religion.

Given the importance of names in Northern Ireland it is not surprising that most of our couples tried to choose neutral names for their children. This was not always done consciously but when asked many people said 'well we wouldn't have called him a very Irish Catholic name you know'.

For those who had the option of sending their children to an integrated school this was usually their choice. However the decision also rested on whether the school had a good academic record or not. For those who did not have this option the decision was more difficult. Many people were sad to see that despite their attempts at home to ensure the children were not brought up in any way bigoted, young children would come home talking about 'Fenians' or 'Orangies'.

Contraception no longer seems to be an issue; certainly for younger Roman Catholics, most were happy to use some form of contraception.

Relations with family in most cases eventually calmed down and for most people a close relationship was established with both sets of parents. Grand children were loved by all regardless of religion.

Most couples felt that their marriage was stronger because of being mixed. For those whose mixed marriages had broken down the individuals concerned did not feel that the religious differences had contributed significantly to the breakdown.

When asked for suggestions on further help or advice that might be made available to couples entering into or living a mixed marriage the majority of people felt that there was a need for more help to be available. This help included the provision of more information, specialist counselling services, self-help groups, increased support from family and Church, and increased provision of integrated schools.

The findings of this study suggest several conclusions:

1. Couples themselves should obtain as much information as possible before they marry: including finding out about the other religion; options open to them in respect of place of marriage; baptism and schooling of children.

2. Marriage guidance organisations should play a role in supporting those in a mixed marriage through providing information, specialist counselling services and also examining how they can support parents and enable them to become better parents who can accept their children's decisions and support them in their choice of partner.

3. NIMMA should consider increasing its public image so that more couples are aware of the organisation and avail of its information and support. If this is not possible then perhaps there is a role for a new support group.

4. Integrated schooling was the choice of a majority of our respondents where it was available. More integrated schools would provide further support to those in a mixed marriage. All schools have a role to play in promoting more understanding of mixed marriage.

5. The Churches are in the best position to teach and guide their clergy in ways to better support such marriages. The Churches must attempt to standardise their procedures in the short term, and in the long term, seek to explore means of providing more support.

For all concerned with the divide in Northern Ireland - family, Church, school, marriage guidance organisations and others - supporting, and being seen to give support to cross-community marriages may be one way of working against the context of conflict in the Province.

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