We’ve come a long, long way together: How Ireland has changed since the last papal visit

Different times: Pope John Paul during his visit in 1979. Photo: Anway Hussein
Different times: Pope John Paul during his visit in 1979. Photo: Anway Hussein

Ahead of the official state visit of Pope Francis this summer, we look back at how Ireland has changed in the 39 years since 1979 and review some of the major events to shake the island.

What laws have changed?  What was illegal? And what has stayed the same?

There were plenty of things you couldn’t do in seventies Ireland that are perfectly legal now, although not everything has changed. 

Same-sex sexual activity was illegal in 1979, Ireland. Legislation which decriminalised homosexuality wasn’t introduced until 1993 and it wasn’t until 36 years later that the Marriage Equality Referendum passed with a large majority voting in favour of same-sex marriage. 

Abortion was also illegal back then. It wasn’t until last month, 39 years later, that an overwhelming majority of the Irish populace voted in favour of abortion access, though legislation is still pending. 

The Catholic church was a powerful force in Ireland at the time, the Vatican had the country in its grip exerting suffocating moral influence on the population, not least when it came to activities in the bedroom. 

So much so that single people couldn’t even buy condoms. In 1979 an act was passed that allowed married couples to be prescribed prophylactics from a GP. However, it wasn’t until 1985 that contraceptives could be bought over the counter in a chemist. 

Divorce was illegal, as was a woman’s right to refuse to have sex with her husband. The former wasn’t decriminalised, once again by referendum, until 1995, while “martial rape” only became a crime in 1990. 

How many people lived in the Republic and at what stage in life did people get married? If they ever did!

Ireland was a more sparsely populated island back in 1979. According to census data from that year, there were 3,3368,217 million people inhabiting the country. In 2016, the last census, 4,761,865 lived in the Republic. 

When it comes to tying the knot, a lot has changed in nearly four decades. 

In 1979, 68,772 people between the ages of 20 –24 were already married, fast forward to 2016 and that number drops dramatically. Census figures from 2016 show that just 6,601 people aged between 20 –24 had already walked down the aisle. 

While 153,687 of 25 –29-year olds had already tied the knot in 1979, 43,264 25 – 29 years olds found someone willing to marry them in 2016. 

Census figures from 2016 show a sharp decline in marriage figures for people in their twenties with just 6,601 people aged between 20 –24 having walked down the aisle, while 43,264 of 25 – 29 years olds found someone willing to marry them. 

Of course, there was no such thing as divorce or being gay in a staunchly Catholic late seventies Ireland. However, by Census 2016 a lot had changed. As of that year, there were a record 6,034 same sex couples. While there were 103,895 divorced people compared to none 39 years ago.

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Wedding of former Taoiseach John Bruton and his wife Finola in St. Savours church, Dominick St, Dublin. (Part of the Independent Newspapers/NLI Collection)

How has religious affiliation changed over the years? 

93.1 pc of the population identified as Roman Catholic in 1979. This number has fallen dramatically since, with 78.3 pc identifying as Catholic – as of the 2016 census. Last time out an estimated 1,250,000 million people turned out to see John Paul II in the Phoenix Park. 

That number is expected to be considerably less this time around, with a maximum of 600,000 being allowed in to see him, and this time you’ll need a ticket. 

A mere 1.1% of people identified as having no religion at the tail end of the seventies. That number skyrocketed to 9.8% by 2016. Other stated religions, not including Church of Ireland, Protestant, Presbyterian and Methodist, also saw a large increase from 0.4% to 3.2%. 

The Pope wasn’t the only show in town: 

While the visit of John Paul II was the undoubtedly the biggest event in 1979, a number of other legendary figures rolled into town that year. 

British rockers Queen, led by legendary front-man Freddie Mercury, played the RDS. A young U2 played several gigs, though their set at Dandelion market was said to be the most memorable, legendary guitarist Eric Clapton played in Limerick, Aussie rockers AC/DC brought the house down at the Olympic ballroom in Dublin, and the one and only ABBA strutted their stuff in the RDS.

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Fans dancing at the Queen concert in Slane Castle. It was Queens final tour with Freddie Mercury as lead singer. 5/7/86. (Part of the Irish Independent Newspapers/NLI Collection)

Slim pickings for sport fans: 

1979 was a year of slim pickings for Irish sport, the country wasn’t the rugby powerhouse it is now and, with little international football to whet the appetite, it was up to Eammon Coughlan to lift Irish hearts. 

The Dubliner did so by breaking the world indoor one-mile record in San Diego with a time of 3 minutes and 52.6 seconds. 

Some things never change, Kilkenny lifted Liam McCarthy cup that year beating Galway in the final 2-12 to 1-8, it was also the year a future Kilkenny legend – Henry Shefflin- was born. 

Others do however, in 1979 Kerry hammered Dublin 3-13 to 1-8, nearly forty years later the Dubs seem unbeatable.

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Kerry captain Tim Kennelly lifts the Sam Maguire cup after they defeated Dublin in the 1979 All-Ireland final at Croke Park. (Part of the Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI collection.)

A turbulent year: 

1979 was a tumultuous year on the island, industrial disputes were all the rage back then. 1979 was one of the worst years in this respect. A postal strike lasted over four months, while a national bus strike led to the army being brought in to act as surrogate drivers. 

A petrol shortage, due to crisis in the Middle East, caused motorists to que for hours at filling stations, and in June protesters opposed to the construction of the civic offices, because remains of an early Viking settlement had been discovered during the excavation of the site, occupied the Wood Quay area. 

On the 27th of August, retired British Admiral Lord Mountbatten was assassinated by the Provisional IRA. The Queen’s cousin, along with two teenage boys one of whom was his nephew, died when an IRA bomb exploded on the boat he was holidaying on in Sligo.

31st December 1958: British Admiral of the Fleet and statesman Louis Mountbatten (1900 – 1979), 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma, as chief of the defence staff. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

The same day, 18 British soldiers were killed in an ambush when two Provisional IRA bombs exploded at Warrenpoint, County Down. 

Pope John Paul II touched down on Irish soil to begin three-day tour of Ireland on September 29. The pontiff kissed the ground as he disembarked the aircraft. Millions of people turned out to see pope at various events throughout the country, including over 1 million in the Phoenix Park alone.

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Unforgettable occasion: Pope John Paul II waves to cheering crowds from his Popemobile in September 1979 (Photo by Anwar Hussein/Getty Images)

When it comes to politics, Fianna Fail were the party to beat in the late seventies. In December, Jack Lynch stepped down as Taoiseach and leader of the party after thirteen years at the helm. 

Later that month, Charlie Haughey took the wheel. 

The birth of a nation:

While Charles Haughey began his tenure as Taoiseach in 1979 a future one was born – Leo Varadkar. That same year a plethora of modern-day Irish icons came into the world including “Bramy” – Brian O’Driscoll and Amy Huberman – football legends Richard Dunne and Damian Duff, comedian Chris O’Dowd and Irish rugby hero Paul O’Connell.

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