The outcome was hailed as "a defining moment in the separation of church and state" by Frances Fitzgerald, a minister in the government of Prime Minister John Bruton, which had campaigned for the right of the 40,000 Irish couples in broken marriages to remarry.
However, the result also showed the country split down the middle between liberal and conservative Catholic opinion, and anti-divorce campaigners, who were bitterly disappointed, at once demanded a recount. The revised figures after a second count that lasted almost three hours - on top of a nearly 10-hour long original one - showed that 818,889 voters had supported reform and 809,726 were against.
The outcome became clear only when the verdicts were declared in a handful of large Dublin constituencies, showing the urban majority for divorce had just cancelled out opposition majorities in rural areas.
It reversed the result of the 1986 referendum, when the Irish upset predictions by voting by two to one to keep the constitutional ban. The turnaround this time was partly caused by big turnouts in the Dublin area - overall turnout was 65 per cent, four points higher than in 1986.
The result reminds politicians of the strength of conservative opinion in the country. All six Dail parties and Sinn Fein supported divorce, yet their advice was rejected by almost half the electorate.
Government ministers throughout the campaign stressed that only a limited form of divorce was offered, and not the "quickie" option alleged by their opponents. The referendum proposal means courts may permit no-fault divorce to couples living apart for four of the five preceding years.
By the same token, the vote marks a low-water mark in the influence of the Roman Catholic church. Opinion was divided over whether the Pope's intervention last week brought out more pro-Vatican votes or antagonised non-Catholic minorities into registering support for divorce.
n Top British officials last night ruled out prospects of an Anglo-Irish summit before US President Bill Clinton arrives in London on Wednesday, writes Stephen Castle.
Senior civil servants from Britain and Ireland met yesterday but were unable to break the deadlock in the peace process over the decommissioning of terrorist arms.
Full story, page 2Reuse content