Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Reading Bunreacht na hÉireann, The Constitution of Ireland

In order to gain a better understanding of the lives led by those who came before us, it is both interesting and helpful to look at documents and books which detail the social, legal, and political life of the countries in which our ancestors lived.

In the case of Ireland, there is a wealth of material available detailing the history of the country. With respect to the legal life of Ireland after 1937, one very interesting resource to view is Bunreacht na hÉireann, The Constitution of Ireland. By viewing this legal document we can gain insight into both the social and political structures, and strictures, which governed the lives of our 20th century family members.

Bunreacht na hÉireann was enacted by the people of Ireland on 1 July 1937, and was 'fully operational', as they say, on 29 December 1937. This new constitution replaced the 1922 Constitution of the Irish Free State. It is interesting to note that 1,212,050 people voted in the referendum. Of these 685,105 voted in favour of the new constitution, and 526,945 voted against it. The constitution was carried by a majority of only 158,160 votes, meaning fully 43.5% of the voting population was against this constitution. I'll leave it to those historians who write about legislative history to puzzle out this fact.

One of the sections of the Irish Constitution which most interests me is the Statutes section in which Fundamental Rights are defined, in particular those rights which relate to the family and the role of women.

Under the heading THE FAMILY, the following Article appears:


1. 1° The State recognises the Family as the natural
primary and fundamental unit group of Society,
and as a moral institution possessing inalienable
imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior
to all positive law.

2.  1° In particular, the State recognises that by her
life within the home, woman gives to the State a
support without which the common good cannot
be achieved.

2.  2° The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure
that mothers shall not be obliged to by economic
necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of
their duties in the home.

After reading this section of Bunreacht na hÉireann for the first time, I felt as though I understood why, when I was a young girl, my mother was always troubled by the thought that I desired a university career, and was not particularly interested in either getting married or having children. As you can see in the Irish constitution, the role of woman is very clearly prescribed; her place is in the home, and her role is mother. Reading this also gave me some insight into why it may have been that one of the childless women on my paternal family tree, my grand-aunt Mary Magee Halpin, was treated with some contempt. The fact of her not having children was viewed by some members of the family as unnatural and a mark of her selfishness, rather than a fact of her biology. To see the role of mother enshrined in the constitution in this way emphasizes the extent to which this ideal was truly woven into the fabric of Irish society.

There are also many other interesting sections in the Constitution worth a read, such as the articles on the right of freedom of expression, the right to education, and the right to religious freedom. If you have family members who lived in Ireland in the 20th century, during the period after which the constitution was enacted, or who still live in Ireland, you may want to have a look at this document.

You can view Bunreacht na hÉireann online by visiting the Irish Statute Book website. You can search or browse the entire text of the document on this site, as well as view other documents germane to the legal history of Ireland. The site is maintained by the Office of the Attorney General of Ireland.  If you want to access the information via an iPad, The Irish Statute Book is also available as an app on iTunes.


Irish Referendum Results 1937-2012, Comhshaol Pobal Agus Rialtas Áitiúil.  Access online via http://www.environ.ie


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