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The Iona Blog

The Irish family: an international comparison

Author: Tom O'Gorman
Date: 24th January 2013

When Irish commentators turn their attention to the family they like to assure us that the Irish family is basically in good shape and we have little to worry about, especially when compared with other Western countries.

However, a new international study released last week suggests otherwise.

It cites figures from our 2006 Census showing that the number of Irish children born outside marriage, and who are being raised outside marriage is as high as it is in most other Western countries, if not higher.

In addition, the number of Irish people aged 18-49 who are married is among the lowest in the Western world.

It also shows that levels of cohabitation here are in line with many other Western countries.  

In other words, the popularly held belief that the traditional family is somehow stronger in Ireland than elsewhere in the West is a myth.

According to data from the The World Family Map 2013, in 2006, 39 percent of Irish adults aged 18-49 were married. Another 13pc of adults in this age bracket were cohabiting.

This compares with 52pc of Italians in this age category who were married, with another four percent cohabiting, In Germany, 51pc of 18-49 olds were married, with 15pc cohabiting, while in Poland, 52pc are married with five percent are cohabiting.

Furthermore, the raw figures conceal the fact that the disruption of traditional family disproportionally affects the most disadvantaged areas of our society.

In many of those areas, a clear majority of children are born outside marriage, many never know their fathers, and many couples never marry but move from one cohabiting relationship to another.

According to Census 2011, 28 percent of Irish children now live outside the ‘gold standard’ family unit (to use family law expert Geoffrey Shannon’s term). That accounts for 456,661 of all children under 18 in the country. That is a lot of children and in fact, 28pc is quite high by the standards of other OECD countries, especially the number being raised in single parent families.

That 28pc is disproportionately to be found in disadvantaged areas. In middle class areas, the vast majority of children are indeed being raised by their two married parents.

This is a trend which exacerbates the social disadvantage of those who are already trying to cope with economic disadvantage.

We rightly worry about the fact that unemployment is concentrated in these same areas. When will start to worry about the fact that family breakdown and the decline in marriage generally is concentrated in these areas too?

And when will we start to recognise that the Irish family hasn't been innoculated from the contagion from the rest of the Western world, but is in crisis?

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