When I told my husband I was to speak about the idea of life-long marriage, he frowned. I suspect he feared the curse of Hello magazine, the phenomenon which condemns anyone talking in public about their marriage to an early visit to the divorce courts. He calmed down when I assured him that a joyous exposition of our wonderful marriage was not what they wanted from me. But the challenge was how to deal with current issues around marriage and what I, living in the reality of Irish life today, might say about it.

A generation ago, when family life was largely traditional, unremarkable and fairly homogeneous, the approach might be simply to praise the work of marriage counsellors and extol the virtues of traditional marriage. To do so would have been like praising Kerrygold - part of what we are, with no competing brands vying for the top spot. So I began to reflect on how two brands that dominated much of the last century - the Catholic Church, and traditional life-long marriage - have both undergone radical change in the last half century. Everybody here knows roughly what those changes are. Existential crises face both church and marriage, and the State is unsure as to what extent either should be supported.

On the Church side, we've had political controversy on, the move to remove direct Church control from the schools, and accusations that some members of Government are bent on pursuing a secular agenda. While some might protest at the suggestion that the State's cooling on the Catholic Church is echoed in a similar cooling on traditional marriage, people who support traditional, life-long marriage and view its support as a matter of public and not just private interest, see the facility of divorce, of civil partnerships and same-sex marriage, allied to an official unease at favouring the traditional family at the expense of other types of family units, as undermining support for traditional marriage. As the little boy says in the children's movie The Incredibles, "when everything is special, nothing is special."

Church opposition to liberalising measures is treated little differently to that of any other interest group, and whatever spin is put by either side on any of these issues, there is no doubt that this State is now a colder place for Catholics than it was even in 2000. This is a matter of empirical fact rather than a value judgment. The question to be asked is: does that cooling matter to anyone apart from devout Catholics? Is any public interest at risk in the current civil attitude to traditional marriage or is this reflective of a dominant current of Western thought that Ireland simply can’t avoid?

Undoubtedly, much of what has happened was inevitable. In this globalised world, our little country is not immune from the contemporary Western cultural influences of secularism and individualism and where the pursuit of personal growth as a dominant value would, like everywhere else, undermine the social values of long term commitment, self sacrifice and all of those intangibles that serve not just the individual but the community.

The Catholic Church's power in this country was a political construct as much as a religious one and for the first few decades of our State it suited successive governments to blur the lines between State control and Church control as it set itself apart from its former coloniser. But times changed; and by the time the clerical and institutional abuse scandals were exposed from the mid 1990s, government was already discreetly changing the locks on the doors of Leinster House.

Before we sanctify the old ways and demonise the new, or vice versa, we must be honest and clear-sighted in our understanding of both. No doubt the traditional marriages of the past did much to embed community values and to provide secure foundations for children as they made their way in life. Life-long marriage as a norm helped to create united cohesive communities and to develop shared sets of values which also supported children in safe and secure environments.

My husband and myself - and here I risk the curse of Hello - have parented five children into adulthood, and I will not pretend that it is all unalloyed joy. As the children each experience their various ups and downs, of varying degrees of seriousness, I do not know how I would manage without the support of my husband and vice versa ... if only for the comfort of being able to vent to someone who completely understands. I raise my hat to all those single parents who manage to do it on their own, because parenting is the most difficult and the most responsible thing that we adults do in life.

However, the dominant norm of traditional marriage was enabled to become precisely that, a norm, because anything outside of that was treated as profoundly abnormal and either rejected or punished. Male homosexual practice was criminalised, unmarried mothers institutionalised or shunned, the children of outside-the-norm families similarly treated. In short, anyone who did not fit the dominant cultural norm was to be institutionalised, jailed, or forced to flee. And even within many life-long marriages, the life-long part was almost enforced though financial coercion on the part of the State. I speak of the marriage-bar, the lack of property rights on the part of married women, her legal indivisibility from her husband, and other measures which severely limited the life choices of Irish women. Attempts to even out the financial playing pitch as between husband and wife were met with strong opposition from those who valued life-long marriage but who knew, consciously or unconsciously, that a bit of coercion greatly helped the personal commitment along when a relationship might be in danger of falling apart.

Consider the Dáil debate over the introduction of The Married Women’s Status Bill in 1958, a bill which was essentially an anti-fraud measure but which, in order to effect this, gave married women a separate legal identity. One Fine Gael member, Tom Finlay (later Chief Justice) said, "In an attempt to tidy up the law, we may create a situation where husbands and wives will find it easier to part, than is the case at present." Around the same time, there was much concern at the plan to introduce women Gardaí. At one point the debate centred on the waste of money this might cause if these women had to leave the Gardaí on marriage as was then the law. But rather than resolve that problem by removing the marriage-bar, one Deputy suggested that they employ only plain women - not horse-faced ones, he suggested, but sufficiently plain so as not to attract marriage proposals.

Arguably, individualism also flourished in those days but it was the individualism of the male who, although subject to many of the legal constraints imposed on women, enjoyed an independence of action that women could only dream of. What is remarkable about those years is that while no child born out of wedlock ever lacked a father, not one single man ever scrubbed a sheet in a Magdalene laundry.

I was fascinated by Claire Tomalin’s biography of Charles Dickens, a book I would highly recommend to all of you. Dickens’ wife Catherine features strongly in the narrative but her voice is silent while Mr Dickens strides the public stage and is clearly in control. We get barely a sense of Catherine, certainly nothing she said is reported but we do learn about her endless pregnancies, at least ten in all, child after child born into a traditional family unit but with a father who no longer loved his wife and who betrayed her time after time. The dominant image is of Catherine Dickens trapped in perpetual pregnancy while her self absorbed husband does, in effect, whatever he pleases and all of this within the starchy confines of Victorian England. And while everything Dickens did was larger than life, the imbalance in his marriage found its mirror image in the lives lived by many couples in Ireland when commitment to life long, faithful marriage was at its most intense.

Still, if the good old days weren’t quite so good in every respect, we also need to examine the claims, positive and negative, that are made about today's new cultural and social norms regarding marriage. It seems clear, no matter how statistics are manipulated or spun, that marriage is in decline throughout the western world and that new forms of social units are being normalised. Having children is decoupled in many instances not just from marriage itself but from other forms of longer-term commitments. The decline is particularly sharp in Western Europe, and Ireland is hardly going to stand in a league of its own in this regard. Couples are marrying later in life and there seems to be some evidence - although the stats are confusing - that marriage is becoming the preserve of the better off and the better educated, an essentially middle class phenomenon. If the trends in the USA, where married people with children living under one roof now comprise about 20% of households as compared with 43% in 1950, marriage might soon become a niche market. Might marriage become the elite institution of the future, and if it does, who will help and encourage the rest?

Sometimes it isn’t statistics that demonstrate the changes that have come about. It is when a man says to you, when appraising his slightly older girlfriend, well "I think she's make a good first wife", or when a young child, when told of the impending marriage of some gay friends of his parents doesn't bat an eyelid, or when a city doesn’t go into hysterics about their First Gay Wedding Fair , or when a child comes home from school and says that Mary in his class’s mummy is now living with Jack in the same class’s Daddy. And then you might see them all at Mass together.

This is the new reality that we have to work with and the slow leeching of the cultural and legal supports that once helped to keep even slightly dodgy relationships going, must add considerably to the task of marriage counsellors. A new emphasis on individual rights and entitlement, added to a national revulsion and shame at how we treated many of those who did not fit the norm, has enabled an increasingly dominant culture of live and let live, be happy, go your own way, just follow your own dreams . While yes, all of this can promote gross selfishness and self absorption to the detriment of the common good, it is also a culture that has as part of its core, a recognition of the humanity of each individual soul.

I speak in particular about the gay community who from a position in this country thirty years ago, where the abuse and even murder of gay men barely registered on the Richter Scale of outrage because of course, these were other, lesser persons, we now have entered a time where these human beings, indistinguishable in God’s eyes from anybody else are allowed to assert themselves and express their own selves with a general tolerance that would have been unimaginable a few scant years ago.

In the 1980's, a young gay man, Declan Flynn, was beaten to death by four youths in Fairview Park in Dublin . The young men were on one of their regular "queer-bashing" sessions. They didn’t intend to kill him but they did and in an interview with journalist Maggie O’Kane for Magill magazine they said they fully expected to get at least seven years in jail for the crime. In the end, they served not a single day, the judge giving them all suspended sentences. He saw no purpose, he said, in sending them to jail for killing the young man. For some of you, this is not easy to hear. But if this Church is to about anything, it has to be about love and I don’t mean that in the romantic sense, I mean it in the sense that Jesus Christ meant it; for to love is to listen, to understand, to tolerate, because the pain that is inflicted when people are not listened to or understood or when their humanity is downgraded is immense and we, of all people, should know that now.

Some time ago, I spoke to an elderly woman that I met who confided in me how her son told her that he was going to enter a civil partnership with his male partner of some twenty years. She loved her son but she found this hard to bear; she didn't know if she could attend the ceremony, for she could not pretend to be happy with what they were about to do. I knew how much this mother loved her son and I suspected that her son very much wanted acknowledgment of what he was doing and that his long-term commitment should be recognised and celebrated. Equally, I appreciated that for a woman of her generation, it wasn’t easy to throw off the cultural norms she had grown up with and embrace a new reality. So I told her that the main thing was her relationship with her son, that she was getting older and that perhaps she wouldn’t want to die in sadness at the thought that she hadn't been able to bring herself to celebrate something with her son that meant so much to him, even if she had her fingers crossed behind her back. I don't know whether it changed her mind but I do know, with absolute certainty, that the thoughts all of us will have on our death-bed will be about the extent that we showed love and how we experienced that love in return.

The pressure many people feel in keeping their marriage going is not just because they are going through difficult times for a myriad reasons, but also because the world outside is displaying so many alternatives and the dominant culture is becoming somewhat indifferent as to whether they stay married or not. The fact that they seek counselling in the first place suggest that they do want to stay married. It is arguable that, were the same people living in the US, where marriage appears to be more easily dissolved, many of them would have separated by now or not even gone to counselling in the first instance.

Every couple has a different idea of what is tolerable in the marriage. An affair may break one marriage but not another. The empty nest might drive some couples apart and bring others closer, financial worries might break some families yet remain just about tolerable for others. Sexual boredom might cue a flight in one marriage yet be managed in others for all sorts of reason, the desire nonetheless for companionship and friendship. Physical and emotional abuse is on different planes - no one should feel compelled to remain in relationship through fear or duress.

But there is still one issue which should compel married couples to put aside their own desires for flight or self fulfilment or whatever personal imperative might be leading them away from their commitment to marriage, and this the children of the relationship. All bets must be off when it comes to safeguarding the happiness and security of children. I have no doubt that there are intolerable situations where a parent has no option, or feels that they have no option, but to separate and then manage the care of children as best as they can between them but that has to continue to be the avenue of last resort.

As adults we have made our choices, our children do not have that freedom or independence, they utterly rely on us for their happiness and certainly through their early formative years and only in extremis should we put that happiness and security at risk. I am aware that when this issue is raised many single parents and many adults raised by single parents will attest to the fine job that was done in their parenting. But here I am not talking about outcomes; I am well aware that children from the most ostensibly stable, and conventional families are capable of going off the rails much to the bewilderment of their parents who felt they had done everything by the book down to sacrificing perhaps their own personal desires and ambitions in order to keep a family structure happy and secure. I am also aware that the children of single parents are not predisposed to dysfunctionality. But from my own experience as a mother, I am acutely aware of how much the security of the stable home means to children, how much equally they love their parents, how unwilling they are to take sides, to betray one for the sake of the other, and how much they long for everything to be the same, to be happy, even to the point of domestic boredom.

So I'm not talking about who became a doctor or who went to jail and what impact the family environment had on them long term, rather I am talking about the daily bits of happiness that children care about when they are precisely just that, children.

I am not always sure that we as parents are aware of the small things that happen in our lives with our children, that leave the most profound marks on their souls. Now that my children are older and into remembering mode I am frequently startled by a reminisce of some tiny event - the way that I made homemade pizza on a Saturday night, the way their Dad always read out the Santa letter on Christmas morning, the way we always went to a particular local restaurant to celebrate birthdays with a cake and the whole place singing Happy Birthday, the way even that the table was always set in a particular way when a grandparent came to visit.

And because all these things still touch them in their adolescence I can’t bear to think of what they would have felt on the days I didn’t make pizza because it wasn’t my turn to have them on the weekend, or when Daddy no longer read the Santa letter because he was somewhere else now on Christmas mornings.

I am sure this is familiar stuff to many of you. I too have heard tales from friends of how Christmas in particular was handled in the wake of a break up and for the mothers who told me these stories, it was as though they were describing the wrenching off of a layer of skin such was their pain on those Christmas mornings when it wasn’t their turn. Even I found the details unbearable as I had such a visceral sense of what it must have been like. And yes, the children weren't exactly bawling their eyes out because it was still Christmas and every adult in their family circle was over compensating for what they were doing without but I have no doubt that a part of them will always remember those times, no matter how parents and grandparents tried to make it lovely for them, will always be pierced with a tiny arc of sadness. And equally, their parents, no matter how profound and insuperable their marital difficulties were, will feel, if only in memory, that profound sense of loss.

There's a book in which the UK author Rachel Cusk documents in relentless detail the tale of her separation and divorce from her husband. There was much internet chatter about the seemliness - to use an old fashioned word - of her endeavour and while some have praised its honesty and its observations others have wondered about the value of this kind of confessional journalism and marvelled at its sheer narcissism. I read one extract in a newspaper and was struck by Rachel’s certainty of the rightness of her view of the marriage and how disparaging she was of her husband's take on it. Her version, she called "the truth" while her husband's side of things was classified as "the story". All her life, Rachel said, had been spent trying to reconcile story with truth. It's something, she said, almost as an afterthought that children do when they're trying to reconcile divorcing parents.

"My own children do that," she said, "forcing my husband's hand into mine when we're all together. They're trying to make the story true again, or to make the truth untrue." To me, what is remarkable about that is that the passage is primarily about her, serving as a further articulation of her omniscience and of the fantasy world her husband supposedly lives in. But what quite literally shocked me was how she could so blithely write about that exquisitely painful image of her two tiny children trying to mend their broken family by a physical forcing together of their parents’ reluctant hands. I should perhaps salute her honesty but if I ever had to tell of that I would be beside myself with shame, not at the decision to separate per se but at the fact that my actions had imposed so much pain on two small people.

Then when I read beyond that, I saw that Cusk was fully aware of what she had done, fully aware of the effect on her small children, fully aware of her own culpability in this. "My children", she said, "have been roused from the unconsciousness of childhood; theirs is the pain and gift of awareness. I have two homes, my daughter said to me the other day, clearly and carefully, and I have no home." "Sometimes they cry in the bath," she notes. "Yet it is I who am the cause of the crying. And for a while, I am undone by the contradiction, by the difficulty of connecting the person who acted out of self interest with the heartbroken mother who has succeeded her." From a distance, from outside the windows looking in, as she describes it, there is regret for the small losses of the ordinary life of family. And sometimes it is only when it is gone, that you realise how much the humdrum, even the banal meant.

A friend told me of how her unemployed husband had taken to cooking her dinner every evening for when she came home from work. She enjoyed the meals as he cooked well, and always made a little fuss by lighting candles and pouring wine. Sometimes she was annoyed with him because she wasn't comfortable with the house husband arrangement and one day they had a major row and didn’t speak to each other for days. During those few days he was so despondent that he didn’t bother making dinner - not to get back at her, but because he hadn’t the heart to recreate that small piece of love and companionship for a relationship that had temporarily gone awry. It was only then that she realised how much those dinners meant, how symbolic they were of love, and kindness and the need to share and to be happy just with a simple act. It put things in perspective for her and helped her to rebalance her feelings about what he was going through and how his own situation must be affecting him and yet how in spite of everything, he continued to honour and celebrate their union in the best ways he could.

While some couples, like that one, will weather the storms of shifting cultural mores, others will feel set adrift, question their union when and if they perceive that the world is increasingly indifferent to the values they once thought they had to hold for all of the days of their lives. Traditional marriage may continue to decline as new family units continue to be created and the binding twine of law and religion and other social forces continues to unravel. And that may be a reality that no amount of yearning for the old ways can dislodge.

I cannot believe that the fundamental need for connectedness and for community will be so eroded or so dissipated that people will not continue to form those family units and seek to do what Rachel Cusk failed to do, to ensure that children remain in the unconsciousness of childhood, undisturbed by the tidal drifts of their parents faltering relationship, having but one home for as long as humanly possible. And that need speaks to a wider sense of connectedness and speaks to the adult as much as to the child. Rachel Cusk recognised this when she said, "In breaking marriage you break more than your own personal narrative. You break a whole form of life that is profound and extensive in its genesis. You break the interface between self and society, self and history, self and fate as determined by those larger forces."

Perhaps that is what those who value the traditional married state perhaps fear most. That in the unravelling of traditional units, in the blending of disparate families, in the separation of procreation from the linear narratives captured in multi-generational family trees, we grow closer to a chaotic state where our connections weaken and where the common good is not ultimately served.

So how do we stop that from happening? How do we deepen within society that certain knowledge that it is in unions, in families and in communities that we find ultimate fulfilment, ultimate sanctuary, ultimate solace and that the State has a duty not just to recognise this but actively to promote it?

It was suggested by the organisers of this conference that the thread that links my work with yours is the absence of accord that presents in the cases that come to us to resolve, in your case husbands and wives, in my case ordinary men and woman and the public bodies they deal with. And common to both is the absence of real communication that lies at the heart of the most intractable disputes and by that I mean the failure to recognise the humanity of the other. Outside of straightforward benefit and grant issues that I deal with, the most common desire of the people who come to my Office is that somebody would simply listen to them.

I am never surprised that parents will sometimes push their disabled children in front of the gates of Leister house or that elderly people, as happened recently, will come out of their nursing homes in their wheelchairs and protest a possible closure. What they are attempting to do is force through that human connection between their sensate minds and bodies and the rather less sensate minds of the bureaucracy. They want someone not to see them as a budget line to be threaded through with red ink, or a PPS number who may or may not meet the ever heightening bar of the medical assessors for a disability benefit or a medical card and so they choose to present themselves in all of their humanity in the hope that that act of simple communion will be acknowledged.

As Jacob Needleman, a professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University, said, "Simply put, there is nothing, nothing in the world that can take the place of one person intentionally listening or speaking to another. The act of conscious attending to another person can become the centre of gravity of the work of love." And that has to be at the centre of your work as you intentionally listen to people and as you encourage couples intentionally to listen to each other.

But there is another piece of work to be done not just by Accord but society as a whole, and Government in particular, and that is to protect family units by mindfully seeking to remove as many barriers as possible from them...

If we are to foster a healthier society and foster the sense of community and connectedness that can enable people to survive and thrive in the bleakest of times, we have to ensure that the benefits of marriage, of life-long commitment are enabled to be enjoyed not just by the middle class but by people who feel themselves at the margins, whose own lives may have been chaotic and may find it difficult to know how to begin to form and maintain stable bonds that in turn will provide stable structures for their children also to survive and thrive. I read somewhere in the literature I was given in preparation for this conference that the Accord client base tends more to the middle class. I don’t know what your plans are for the next phase of your development but the fostering of programmes - with Government help - that seek to support those who instinctively know that long term family commitments are the best things they can give their children but may not have the emotional supports they need to make that a reality. Because if we as society do not get to grips with a culture where nihilism and the annihilation of hope take root, then the very meaning of what society is becomes lost, then a future economic boom may provide even bleaker rewards than the last one did.

Above all we must not be smug, must not pat ourselves on the back for the gift some of us have of happy stable marriages and imagining that that is a free choice and that more could will it if they chose. We must always be mindful of the chaos that attends many lives, and of how intention is frequently battered into submission by so much that is outside of their control.

Before I end, can I tell you of two recent experiences which brought home to me the great happiness into old age that life-long commitment to another human being can bring, and also how, even in out increasingly secular age, many people are renewing their engagement with the Church as a means of reaching out of their individualistic, personal selves and into a wider community that gives support when times are not good.

A friend recounted how she got a visit from her Dad the other day, who at the age of 90, is still driving. He wanted to get her advice on what gift he might give his wife on her 80th birthday. He wanted something beautiful for her and so together they decided on an exquisite pair of pearl earrings. The way she told the story conjured up an image of a besotted couple for whom age really was just a number and who continued to delight in each other and still desired to make each other happy.

The second is about a teenage girl troubled by depression and whose parents have begun slowly to bring her back to the church and to church events. It’s not that the family is religious but as this girl’s mother reflected back on her childhood, she remembered that sense of connection the Church provided. She also believes, rightly or wrongly, that very few young people committed suicide when she was growing up because religion did provide some sort of barrier against it, "I want to show her," said her mother, "that she is not alone, that she is connected, that she has a community all around her." Connectedness and community - the twin strands of what everyone here believes in and strives to bring people back to. And it is within that space that I believe the Catholic Church, in this country, can find renewal...

 

(from a talk given by Emily O'Reilly)