Under Article 41 of the Irish Constitution, the state pledges to "guard with special care the institution of marriage, on which the family is founded." This position of marriage as the basis of the family was further reinforced in 1966 when the Supreme Court interpreted this Article to mean that the family as structurally defined is based on the institution of marriage. Although this Article in the Constitution reflects the ideology of Ireland in the 1930s and does not represent the reality of Irish family life today, marriage has remained relatively stable when compared to other European countries.
Although the marriage rate has decreased from a high of 7.4 per 1,000 of population in the early 1970s, to a low of 4.3 by 1997, marital break-up has remained relatively low. For example, the divorce rate in the European Union for the year 1998 was 1.8 per 1,000 of population, while in Ireland it was 0.6 (Census 1996). However, divorce rates alone are misleading in Ireland because most couples who break up tend to separate rather than divorce. Trends seem to indicate a pattern of people using separation as an exit from marriage and divorce as an entry to a new relationship. In addition, divorce has only been available in Ireland since 1996. In the 1996 census 78,005 people reported themselves as separated, compared to fewer than 10,000 divorced. Nonetheless, even taking account of the numbers reported, marital break-up is comparatively low, and there has been a slight upward turn in the marriage rate, which in 2000 was 5.1 per 1,000 of population (Vital Statistics 2001).
Attitude studies also show a strong commitment to marriage, with companionship more highly valued than personal freedom outside of marriage (MacGreil 1996). These attitudes are further reflected in a Eurobarometer study (1993) that showed that 97.1 percent of Irish respondents placed the family highest in a hierarchy of values. In addition, alternatives to marriage, such as cohabitation, are not a strong feature of Irish families, with only 2 percent of couples living in consensual unions.