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Dying Man Granted Ireland’s First Divorce An Estimated 60,000 People May Be Waiting Their Turn

Sat., Jan. 18, 1997, midnight

A court did what once was unthinkable and granted the first divorce in Ireland’s history Friday, quietly embarking on a new era forged by a bitter and closely fought debate in this Roman Catholic country.

Justice Henry Barron announced that he had granted a divorce to an unidentified man who was said to be gravely ill and unwilling to wait until divorce legislation became effective on Feb. 27.

After a private hearing, Barron concluded that the constitutional amendment approved by voters in November 1995 provided authority for dissolving the marriage.

The divorce issue had been settled last summer when the Supreme Court unanimously ruled against a lawsuit filed by anti-divorce activists.

News of the first divorce was taken in stride - the story was fourth in the lineup on the 6 p.m. radio news on RTE, the state broadcasting service.

“Nobody’s getting excited about this at all, because it is a special case,” said Louise Smith, 49, a north Dublin woman who has been separated from her husband for a decade.

“I’m not terminally ill, so I imagine I’ll have to wait ages,” she said.

Gerry Hickey, spokesman for the Department of Equality and Law Reform, said Friday’s ruling meant that any Irish citizen wanting a divorce could now apply under the constitution.

Hickey said he had no indication how many divorce cases were waiting to be heard. During the referendum campaign, Hickey said the government had estimated that 60,000 or more men and women in this nation of 3.5 million people were involved in marriages that had broken down.

The wife in the historic case did not want a divorce, but she did not contest her husband’s application. The couple had two daughters and a son, all grown, and the man has a daughter by a continuing relationship with another woman.

“He is reported to be seriously ill, and wishes to regularize that relationship,” Mary Wilson of RTE said.

The court’s action represented a beginning to one of the most controversial changes in Ireland since the state gained independence in 1921.

Divorce had been difficult but possible during the period of British rule - but not since independence, owing to the opposition of the Roman Catholic church, the faith in which 92 percent of the country’s people were baptized.

xxxx The new rules The amendment allows divorce if the couple have been separated for four of the previous five years, and if there is “no reasonable prospect of a reconciliation.” It is not necessary to find either party at fault.


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