Mixed Emotions: A short history of mixed marriage in Ireland

Mixed Emotions: Real Stories of Mixed Marriage
by Northern Ireland Mixed Marriage Association
February 2012

Chapter 11: A short history of mixed marriage in Ireland
by Ken DUNN

For the last century marriage in Ireland between Protestants and Roman Catholics has been a very contentious issue, not fully understood by many. To understand and appreciate the depth of feeling about mixed marriage it is helpful to look at the historical background. Since space is limited, the review will be brief with salient features highlighted. Some additional reading material is appended for those who want further details.

The early Church followed the marriage custom of the Roman Empire. The ring, the bride’s veil and the exchange of promises that we know today all come from pagan Roman betrothal and marriage customs. The young couple announced their betrothal and on the appointed day there was a procession from the bride’s parental home to the new matrimonial home for food and dance. The custom then developed that the procession would detour past the Church where the priest would come out, give a blessing and join the procession.

Such a system is very open to abuse – his word against hers. A man could walk out and journey a dozen villages away and start again! Thus, from the 11th century, the Church began to require that the couple exchanged their marriage vows before three witnesses; a priest and two lay people. A system still in use today. This practice was formalised at the Council of Trent (1563) in a document called Tametsi (nevertheless). This was enforced only where it was promulgated. Ireland was very patchy.

Ulster late 16th century
Tuam 1658-1745
Cashel 1785
Rest of Ireland 1827


Thus in the 264 years from 1563 to 1827 Ireland had time to develop its own approach to mixed marriage.

With the coming of the Reformation, we have ‘mixed marriage’, i.e. marriage between a Roman Catholic and a Protestant. Originally mixed marriage laws referred to marriage with a pagan and required that the children be Catholic. At the Reformation, the Protestants were considered pagans and the same should apply. In Europe, most countries followed the denomination of the ruling King or Prince.

In the Spanish Netherlands in the 1590s, Tametsi was used to persecute the Protestant population:

“The most effective weapon in eliminating the Protestants was the proclamation that marriages celebrated by Protestant pastors were null and void. The children thus became illegitimate and were automatically barred from all public office or honourable careers.” [1]

Thus a decree, intended to eliminate a social evil, was now used to eliminate Protestants.

When the Spanish left and the Calvinists were in the majority the Civil Law in Belgium and Holland required that a mixed marriage be performed before the Calvinist minister only. In 1741 Pope Benedict XIV recognised mixed marriages without Roman Catholic priests being present. [2] This was extended to Ireland by Pius VI in 1785 and used in Ireland up to 1850.

In the 1680s, when Louis XIV was persecuting the Huguenots as a preliminary to revoking the Edict of Nantes Daniel Rops reports that:

“Mixed marriages were prohibited and children born of them were declared illegitimate and snatched from their parents to be brought up in the Catholic religion.” [3]

SharedFuture - NIMMA - Mixed Emotions - 11 Medieval Wedding
Medieval wedding. Portrait of Giovanni and His Wife, by Jan van EYCK; image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jan_van_Eyck_-_Portrait_of_Giovanni_Arnolfini_and_his_Wife_-_WGA7689.jpg

Meanwhile, we have the Penal Laws in Ireland. These were modelled on the French anti-Huguenot laws. Up to 1793 it was a capital offence for a Roman Catholic priest to officiate at a mixed marriage. The last hanging was in 1726. From 1793 to 1833 this was reduced to a fine of £5,000. At the time the Roman Catholic Bishop of Ossory, later Archbishop of Dublin, John Troy said: “marriage between Protestants and Catholics is unlawful, wicked, and dangerous. The Penal Laws should not be repealed because they act as a deterrent.” [4]

Thus, we see mixed marriages are equally popular on both sides.

The Tametsi decree was published in parts of Tuam Archdiocese in 1658, in other parts in 1745, but Galway city was an exception. It was ruled by a Warden in almost total independence of the Archbishop. Mixed marriages were considered in the city to be valid whether performed in the Protestant or Catholic Church. Furthermore, no promise about the children was required. This somewhat confused situation led throughout Ireland to what historians call the Galway Convention, where the boys followed the father’s and the girls the mother’s denomination. [5] This ensured that land and property did not change denomination.

In 1850, the Synod of Thurles imposed on Ireland the equivalent of the future Ne Temere decree. A mixed marriage (a) needed a Papal Dispensation and (b) required that all the children be brought up as Roman Catholics. Both partners were required to make the promise verbally and in writing before witnesses. However, the regulations of Thurles were widely ignored. Furthermore, in 1852 the English Roman Catholic Bishops took the view that the dispensation should be from a parish priest and not Rome. When this was confirmed by Rome in 1853 the practice was widely taken up in Ireland. In 1858 Rome decreed that mixed marriages could not take place in church.

However, at the end of the nineteenth century the Vatican was on a ‘tidy up’ of all its legislation and one result was the Ne Temere (not casually) decree of 19th April 1908.

The result of this legislation was that both partners (a) promised to bring up all the children as Roman Catholic, (b) the Catholic partner worked to convert the other, and (c) the marriage could not take place in Church and there would be no ceremony, only the exchange of vows. Hungary and Germany were exempt until 1917. The decree was then universally applied on publication of the new Code of Canon Law [1917].

Ne Temere was enthusiastically applied by the Irish clergy. At the same time, we have civil unrest, a new border and civil war in Ireland. Dr Garrett Fitzgerald has shown, wearing his statistician’s hat, that Ne Temere was the prime factor in reducing the Protestant population of the Irish Republic by 80%. At independence there was an initial exodus followed by the second phase of attrition using Ne Temere. Contrary to Roman Canon Law this was often applied retrospectively and marriages of long-standing were broken up. We can compare, in the same period, the 60% increase in the Roman Catholic population of Northern Ireland. Dr Fitzgerald asked the Irish Bishops to request Rome for a relaxation of Ne Temere, but they refused. Professor Oliver Rafferty SJ, Maynooth, has said that one of the Roman Catholic Church’s most remarkable self-inflicted wounds was Ne Temere. It gave further evidence that Home Rule was indeed Rome Rule. [6]

This is perhaps best understood by looking at the McCann case. Agnes and Alexander McCann were married in Antrim Presbyterian Church in May 1908. They moved to Belfast where Agnes worshipped at Townsend Street Presbyterian Church. By summer 1910, they had two children, Joseph and Mary. Alexander was informed by a parish priest that he was ‘living in sin’ and must marry in front of a priest. Agnes considered that they were properly married already and would not agree to this. In October 1910, Alexander and the two children disappeared. A distracted Mrs McCann roamed the streets of Belfast asking all she met if they had seen her babies. The case was widely publicised by her minister the Rev William Corkey. [7] This was the first major outing of Ne Temere in Ulster and there were riots in the streets of Belfast, major public protest meetings in Belfast, Edinburgh, Glasgow, London, Dublin and Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Questions were asked in the House of Commons and a debate was held in the House of Lords. We now know that Alexander and the two children were assisted to move to the USA and settled near Pittsburgh. Agnes never again saw or heard from her husband or children.

Prior to 1910 the Presbyterian General Assembly had 30% of its members in favour of Home Rule, after the McCann case just 4%! The future Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin and Armagh John Gregg was then Dean in Cork. He said:

“The Protestant is to surrender every right of conscience that he possesses, except that he is graciously allowed to remain a Protestant himself, though he must submit to reasonable efforts to make a Romanist of him.”

“If you hope to arrive at any reconciliation with Protestants, if you want to make even the thought of Home Rule not a nightmare to us, you will revolt against this portion of the decree: you will protest against it, you will drum it out of Cork, out of Ireland.”

“It did look as if the barriers were becoming less unpassable; this uncalled-for decree from Italy has thrown national concord back by a hundred years.”

“How can you expect us to trust ourselves to you? The decree is an attack on Irish Unity and can only make Protestants more irreconcilable to the idea of Home Rule.” [8]

The hostility of the Orange Order to mixed marriage is overt and widely recognised. In 1916, the Grand Master of the Order, Colonel Wallace, declared that “the decree is final proof that Home Rule is Rome Rule.”

A member entering a mixed marriage must leave the Order if any of the children are brought up as Roman Catholics, despite the claim that the Order stands for religious and civil liberty. This attitude is, of course, simply the mirror image of Ne Temere.

To quote Archbishop Donald Coggan of Canterbury (1967) referring to mixed marriage, “there can be few points of contact which are fraught with more potential opportunity – either for ecumenical advance or for discord”. In Ireland we usually opt for the discord.

SharedFuture - NIMMA - Mixed Emotions - 11 Rev D MAGEEAN
Rev. D. MAGEEAN. Image source: http://lover-of-futility.blogspot.com/2008/02/bishop-daniel-mageean.html

Even in 1941 Bishop Mageean of Down and Connor, at a Confirmation service in St Teresa’s parish on Belfast’s Glen Road, declared mixed marriage evil and boasted that in a neighbouring diocese no mixed marriage had taken place under four successive Bishops. [9]

In 1957 an Interchurch couple, Sheila and Sean Cloney, living in Fethard-on-Sea in south Wexford were visited by the local Roman Catholic clergy and informed that the children “will go to the Catholic school”. The Church of Ireland wife disagreed with such an edict and took herself and the children to Belfast and on to Scotland. The local Catholics were convinced that a mere woman could not have managed this without help from her Protestant neighbours and relatives. They then instigated a boycott of the Protestant owned shops and farms. Even the elderly lady giving piano lessons had her young Catholic pupils withdrawn.

The main boycott lasted for five months, from the end of April 1957, although many local Catholics continued the boycott for many years. The local Roman Catholic Bishop completely supported the boycott and Bishop Browne of Galway preached on the virtues of the boycott. The local Knights of Saint Columbanus and the Gaelic Athletic Association policed and enforced the main boycott. De Valera eventually intervened to condemn the action, but again this outworking of the Irish Roman Catholic clergy’s take on Ne Temere was being used to reinforce the message that Home Rule was indeed Rome Rule. Some readers may have seen the movie ‘A Love Divided’ made of this event. [10]

On a lighter note, Justin Keating, a future Dublin Labour Party Minister for Industry and Commerce, as a protest would go with a friend to Fethard to shop in Protestant shops and then to local pubs to purchase Jameson whiskey or Guinness. They would then say to the locals “you would boycott an elderly Protestant piano teacher, but you are drinking the Protestant drink.” A swift exit usually followed!

Finally, in this sorry tale, we have the Tilson case in Dublin 1950. They were a mixed marriage couple recently working in Dublin. She ran off with another man leaving him with the three children. With no childminder available he put the children into a Protestant Children’s Home until such times as he had childcare in place. She demanded the children be brought up as good Catholics like herself and went to the High Court. The judge ruled that the pre-nuptial agreement overruled the common law principle that the husband was the head of the family with the right to decide the religious upbringing. Judge Gavin Duffy ruled that the Irish Constitution articles 41, 42, and 44 gave precedent to Roman Canon Law over civil law. Of course, it was appealed to the Supreme Court where 4 of the 5 judges agreed with Judge Duffy’s conclusion. The fifth, Judge Black, was the only Protestant judge on the Supreme Court. [11]

SharedFuture - NIMMA - Mixed Emotions - 11 Pius X
Pius X. Image source: https://csb.wikipedia.org/wiki/Papi%C3%A9%C5%BC_Pius_X

Things eased a little in 1966 when Rome issued Matrimonii Sacramentum which removed the requirement that the Catholic partner must “work prudently for the conversion of the non-Catholic spouse.”

I have not discussed the behaviour of the Protestant Churches in Ireland. This is because, with one exception, they have not been proactive, but rather reactive. The one occasion is the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission [ARCIC] report on Marriage (1967) that was co-chaired by Archbishop George Simms of Armagh. [12] Their early reports were partially incorporated into new legislation arising from the Second Vatican Council, Matrimonia Mixta (1970). This now permitted the marriage in Church and required that only the Roman Catholic partner need promise to do all, within his or her power within the marriage, to bring the children up as Roman Catholic.

Next in our historical survey is 1974 and the formation of the Northern Ireland Mixed Marriage Association [NIMMA]. This was the result of a weekend conference organised by Corrymeela for those interested, involved, or hoping to be involved in mixed marriage. The association developed four main aims:

  1. Self help – pastoral care. With a few honourable exceptions among the clergy this did not exist elsewhere;
  2. Provision of advice and information to other couples;
  3. Help for clergy to fully understand mixed marriage;
  4. Influence the local community’s attitudes.

From 1995 to 2004 we were part-funded by the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council with an office in Bryson House, Belfast. However, the Community Relations Council then decided that we were no longer needed and funding ended. We have been funded since 2005 by the Dublin Department of Foreign Affairs Anglo-Irish Division’s Reconciliation Fund.

There are many sister organisations around the world: England and Wales; Ireland; France; Germany; Italy; Austria; Switzerland; New Zealand; Australia; USA; Canada. All but France and Switzerland call themselves Associations of Interchurch Families. The modern definitions commonly used for mixed marriages include: both, one or neither partner practising. When both are practising, they are referred to as an Interchurch couple. NIMMA deliberately kept the options open for all to join. So by our definition, two humanists from perceived Protestant/Roman Catholic backgrounds are in a mixed marriage.

One unexpected outcome has been the international dimension. An international conference has been held every two years since 1980; hosted by NIMMA in 1982 and 1990. This has led to NIMMA having influence in Rome. The international committee has met the Pontifical Council in Rome to discuss the way forward and further meetings are planned. The Council has asked that, initially, local Bishops’ Conferences should be approached to obtain practical changes in their areas. NIMMA continues to argue for changes in the approach to baptism, Eucharistic sharing and education.

The position today

I want to look at the influence mixed marriage couples have had on the Churches and will first quote Bishop Samuel Poyntz, at that time Church of Ireland Bishop of Cork, at an Interchurch meeting in Ballymascanlon in 1984:

“It must be encouragement to many involved in the sometimes lonely tension of a two-church marriage to realise that over the years the Churches have not managed to change the couple, rather have the couple done much to change the characteristic attitudes of the Churches.”

This is most clearly seen in the Roman Catholic Directory on Mixed Marriages in Ireland (1983). [13] NIMMA made written and oral submissions and six of our eight proposals were accepted.

The agreed proposals were:

  1. Joint Pastoral Care from both clergy acting together.
  2. The appointment of Diocesan specialists. This has been a great success.
  3. The wedding should take place in the bride’s Church – the social norm.
  4. There would not normally be a nuptial mass. To declare the couple united in marriage and then disunited at the Eucharist is theological nonsense.
  5. Both clergy to be present at the wedding, robed and taking an active part.
  6. A proper understanding of the Promise.

The two proposals refused were Eucharistic sharing and concelebrated baptism. I will expand on only one, the Promise. This is the most contentious and the one that has caused the most damage to community relations in the past 100 years.

The original promise read:

“I declare that I am resolved, as God’s law demands, to preserve my Catholic faith, and to avoid all danger of falling away from it. Moreover, I sincerely undertake and I will, as God’s law requires, do everything possible, as far as in me lies, to have all of the children of our marriage baptised and brought up in the Catholic faith.”

This has undergone some change and the Catholic partner is now asked:

“Do you promise to do what you can within the unity of your marriage to have all of the children of your marriage baptised and brought up in the Catholic faith?”

This is more understandable and much more user friendly, but what does it mean?

The Directory itself states in section 8.1 that: “The religious upbringing of the children is the joint responsibility of both parents. The obligations of the Catholic party do not, and cannot, cancel out or in any way call into question, the conscientious duties of the other party.”

Section 8.5 continues “ Nonetheless, the decision about the education of the children does not belong to the Catholic party alone. The actual circumstances of the marriage form the context in which this obligation must be carried out and these circumstances are bound to vary considerably. The possibility exists that the Catholic will be in a situation where some or all of the children are brought up in the denomination of the other party.”

Thus now the upbringing of the children is the sole responsibility of the parents to do what is right for them in their marriage. A major grievance has now been removed.

We also need to look at the wider international scene. While the general theological aspects are similar the world over, the living conditions do differ considerably. In Northern Ireland, we have 90% segregated housing, 94% segregated schools, separate teacher training colleges, separate games and separate dances/pubs. These conditions do not exist anywhere else in the world, though they once did in the White-controlled South Africa and, of course, in some southern states of the United States. This has resulted in NIMMA being involved, in association with Housing Trusts and the NI Housing Executive, to provide reserved housing in neutral areas for mixed marriage couples – an alien concept to the rest of the world. NIMMA’s continual lobbying and our representation on the NIHE Housing Advisory Committee has helped bring about the ‘Shared Neighbourhood Programme’, which has developed 30 shared neighbourhoods across the Province over a three-year period. [Shared neighbourhoods are where people choose to live with others, regardless of religion or race, in an area that is safe and welcoming to all. NIMMA’s determination to pursue, for 20 years, shared social housing grew out of our experiences in providing advice and practical help to couples facing intimidation.]

To obtain housing or employment the applicant is generally required to state their perceived religion, but the children of Interchurch couples would argue that they are not either but both. Housing associations and the Civil Service have not found this a comfortable concept. Indeed, refusal to tick one box or to tick both boxes means that a Civil Service job application will be refused. Is this the way to a shared future? As this was being written, the NIHE application form was changed to include a tick box for dual church membership!

Many people would consider that with the present state of religious practice, mixed marriages are no longer a problem. Unfortunately, this is not the case. We still have our dinosaur clergy and laity.

For example in the recent past we have had the problem of:

  1. a couple visiting the parish priest to discuss their wedding plans. When he discovered that the non-Roman Catholic would not be converting on marriage, he declared the couple ‘evil’ and asked them to leave;
  2. a Church of Ireland rector refused to discuss a mixed marriage with one of his parishioners;
  3. community relations are not good west of the Bann, but sympathetic Roman Catholic clergy working there have asked us to help the Presbyterian clergy deal positively with mixed marriage couples.

Laity continue to be a problem, with many demanding that the grandchildren be baptised into their denomination, irrespective of the wishes of the couple. In Ireland, both north and south, land and property have often acquired denominational labels and couples are told that they will not inherit the farm or business if the marriage goes ahead.

Lest anyone think that I have been pessimistic, this is not the case. We have made much progress over the past 38 years as a reading of the stories in this book will demonstrate. The number of mixed relationships in Northern Ireland is increasing steadily, with more mixing thanks to fair employment legislation, Integrated Schools and a desire by most of the wider community for a shared future.

Before the Belfast Agreement, the number of couples calling NIMMA went up because most politicians do not lead, but follow the electorate. Thus, the rate of new mixed relationships is a good measure of the success of reconciliation in the community.

Indeed we cannot and will not have true peace until all can feel free to inter-marry if they so wish.

Further details on mixed relationships and the work of NIMMA can be obtained from our web site www.nimma.org.uk or by email to nimma@nireland.com or by phone to our office 028 9023 5444


1. History of the Belgians, A de Meeus, Praeger New York 1962.
2. Mixed marriage and Irish politics: the effect of Ne Temere, Eoin de Bhaldraithe, Studies, Autumn 1988.
3. The Church in the Seventeenth Century, Daniel-Rops, London: Dent 1963.
4. Priests and People in Pre-Famine Ireland, 1780-1845, SJ Connolly. Gill and Macmillan, 2001.
5. The Wardens of Galway, RJ Kelly, J of the Roy Soc Antiquarians, Ireland 1896.
6. Catholicism in Ulster 1603-1983, Oliver P Rafferty SJ. Gill and Macmillan, 1994.
7. Glad did I live, William Corkey, The Belfast News- Letter Ltd, Belfast, 1962
8. The Ne Temere Decree, JF Gregg. APCK, Dublin, 1911
9. On this day, E Phoenix. The Irish News, June 17, 2010
10. The Fethard-on-Sea Boycott, T Fanning. The Collins Press, 2010.
11. Church and State in Modern Ireland, JH Whyte. Gill and Macmillan, 1980.
12. George Otto Simms, L Whiteside. Colin Smythe Ltd, 1990.
13. Directory on Mixed Marriage, Irish Episcopal Conference. Veritas Dub. 1983.

Further reading

Beyond Tolerance: The Challenge of Mixed Marriage, Ed Fr M Hurley, Chapman London, 1975.
Two Churches One Love, Rev A Heron. APCK 1977.
Mixed Marriage in Ireland, A companion for those involved or about to be involved in a mixed marriage, NIMMA, 3rd edition 2003.
Interchurch Marriage in Ireland, A &W Odling-Smee. Catalyst, 2001.
For the impact of Ne Temere on Ireland see Fr Ralph, G O’Donovan. Macmillan and Co London, 1913.
Waiting, G O’Donovan. Macmillan and Co London, 1914.

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