How ‘women in the home’ provision in the Constitution came about

Éamon de Valera’s family history, Archbishop John Charles McQuaid’s views and the trends in Europe may all have contributed

It is one of the great paradoxes of Éamon de Valera’s life that somebody who valued the role of mothers in the home so much grew up without his mother.

De Valera, who was born in New York on October 14th, 1882, was taken to Ireland at the age of two to be brought up by his grandmother Elizabeth Coll, with only occasional visits from his biological mother Catherine Coll – who he knew as that “woman in black”.

Many of de Valera’s biographers have surmised that his reverence for the family unit based on marriage and for the role of mothers within the home was compensation for the absence of a family of his own or for a mother at home. Hence the inclusion in the Constitution of articles 41.2.1 and 41.2.2, the first of which recognises the role of women in the home and the second of which endeavours to ensure that mothers “shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home”.

However, as Prof Laura Cahillane, associate professor of law at the University of Limerick has written, such clauses recognising the primacy of the family based on marriage and the role of women in the home were common in constitutions throughout Europe at the time.


Similar provisions can be found Weimar Republic, Polish, Czech, Estonian, Yugloslav, Spanish and Portuguese constitutions written around the same time.

She concluded: “Thus, while it is sometimes felt that Article 41.2 was the result of a particularly Catholic Irish influence, it is important to remember that such sentiments were very popular in Europe at the time, even in non-Catholic jurisdictions.”

It would appear that it was Fr John Charles McQuaid, soon to be the archbishop of Dublin, who came up with the original phrasing in a draft from February 1937. “In particular the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State support with which the common good can be achieved”.

While this was accepted, his recommendation that the State shall therefore make it an “aim to see that women, especially mothers and young girls, shall not be obliged to enter avocations unsuited to their sex and strength” was rejected.

When the Constitution was eventually published a month before the public voted on it in July 1937, there was a ferocious backlash from women’s groups, much to the bewilderment of both de Valera, then the president of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State, and McQuaid, who thought they were doing Irish women a favour. De Valera opined that 98 per cent of Irish women would support the provision. In the end the Constitution was approved by 56 per cent of the electorate to 44 per cent.

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times