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Lost Irish Wedding Traditions

posted Feb 28, 2015, 7:13 AM by Anna-Lena Dubé Fuller   [ updated Feb 28, 2015, 7:21 AM ]
This post is a Part Two following on from my last blog on the history of the Western White Wedding. This was going to be a brief word on Irish wedding traditions that have been lost, but it seems to have ended up quite long, sorry, I kinda just copied and pasted from my thesis. At the end of the blog I have listed a few of the books and articles that I used and I recommend them if you wish to know more, I found them invaluable, in addition I really enjoyed the 'Symposium on Marriage in Ireland', by Professor Maria Luddy and Professor Mary O'Dowd, on their AHRC-funded project Marriage in Ireland, 1660-1925, held on 27th May 2011 as part of Women's History Association of Ireland Conference 2011 'Gender and Sexual Politics/the Politics of Sexuality' held in University College Cork.

To Start I will assume that you know a bit about Ireland's history as a colony of Britain and the famine of 1845 to 1852 which decimated the Irish population from 8million to 6.5million. These facts are important as the famine coincides with the industrial revolution and eventually leads to several attempts at self rule and culminates in the Easter Rising of 1916 and Independence in 1920. Part of the colonial policy was the suppression of the native Irish language, Gaelic, religion, Catholicism, traditions, community bonds and culture. So in the twentieth century as an effort to differentiate Irish culture from British Catholicism was embraced almost unquestionably and many pre-famine traditions were already lost and the white wedding came to dominate.

How did People Marry?

Anyway back to colonial time, post-Brehon laws, post-Norman invasion, and the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Most of the laws that were passed regarding marriage in Ireland were interested in preventing intermarriage between the natives and the colonists, i.e. between Protestants and Catholics when the Church split. Interestingly laws passed in England did not necessarily apply in other parts of Britain, and so when the 1753 Marriage Act in England set out very clear laws regarding a valid marriage, (there must be public Banns for three weeks before the wedding, it must take place in church, be registered by a clerk and there must be parental consent if an individual is under age) this act did not apply in Ireland and before the Irish parliament was dissolved in 1800 there were remarkably few laws passed regarding marriage at all. As research by O'Dowd and Luddy indicates, all legislation passed to this point concerned intermarriage between Catholics and Protestants of the landed classes, and these were more interested in defining what was not marriage. Weddings, therefore, were subject to medieval cannon law into the 1820's, which recognised a valid marriage as beginning with a private act, a promise between a man and woman, in the presence on a priest in holy orders, not necessarily in a church or even in front of witnesses. A priest in holy orders included Catholic priests, as the medieval laws recognised them as such, and remarkably included men who had been ordained but may have left the church, these became wandering priests or couple beggars. Couple beggars (or buckle beggars) married a wide range of classes, and were often found in cities and towns and at fairs where up to 10% of the couples they married did so on impulse, or even while drunk. (See image of “Father Harris, the Couple-beggar, and the Fair-Trader,” from a Drama, 1814 Irish Magazine, and Monthly Asylum for neglected Biography, (Jan.), Issue 7) These weddings were informal, often quite short and only recorded by the wandering priest (one was recorded as taking three minutes); they were a common choice as they were a lot cheaper than a local priest, for whom weddings were quite lucrative. The costs of a priest could be off-putting, as this account of a Kerry wedding from the mid-1800s shows;

“[B]efore he is married, [the groom] pays down to the priest the marriage fee according to his circumstances. The friends of both parties are also called upon to pay down something, and between their reluctance to meet the demand and the priest's refusal to marry them till he is satisfied, a scene, sometimes humorous and sometimes discreditable, often arises … The cost of the ceremony is … very considerable; and not infrequently, the bride and bridegroom have to begin life within empty walls, their savings barely sufficient to recompense the priest for uniting them.” (Ballard, Forgetting Frolic p.57)

A number of couples in each parish never had a wedding, and cohabited regardless, saving the cost of the priest, although most couples married in private in their home, a neighbours or the priests home, into the mid-1800s a wedding in a church was the exception. In the great majority of weddings, whether by priest or couple beggar, marriage was brought about by a promise, with only a blessing and no service as such. The Council of Trent was part of Catholic reform that attempted to regulate Catholic marriages and included the requirement of a church wedding and the reading of the Banns, unless the couple could afford a special licence, yet this initially did not apply in Ireland until the 1820's and was followed by Westminster’s Marriage Registration Act of 1844. Due to strong lobbying the marriages carried out by Catholic priests continued to be recognised, yet under the Act all other weddings had to be civilly registered in addition to their religious service. Therefore there was a gradual change throughout the 19th century as the majority of people married in church, often paying extra to avoid the shame of the reading of the Banns. The most common day for weddings was a Sunday and the blessing would take place before a regular mass.

Arranged Marriage Irish Style

The variety of ways of having a wedding reflected the variety of reasons to marry; some weddings were performed by the couple beggar at a fair and the couple then parted until the issue of bigamy was revealed; women with illegitimate children subsequently married; and many couples cohabited. The issue of class affected everything however, and the more property involved the more rules governed who married and how. The majority of marriages throughout these periods were influenced by economic reasons and the importance of the promise to marry cannot be underestimated. The promise of marriage was in many cases binding, with the difference between tenses, whether present tense or future being the crucial point; a present tense promise indicated that neither party were free to marry anyone else until the death of one, and future tense indicated an engagement, also binding but not as rigidly. The seriousness of this can be seen by the hundreds of Breach of Promise cases taken to the courts.

A particularly strong element of Irish wedding custom related to the need of women to have a dowry, many men inherited land from their parents and women were valued by the size of their dowry before attractiveness and sometimes even character. The need of a woman for a husband was unquestioned, and in many cases those who had property negotiated the marriage of their children and viewed them as business deals, with occasional help from a matchmaker. As in the case of Peig Sayers (1873-1958) the couple may first meet at the altar (Peig married a man arranged by her brother, and was well satisfied with the match, although it was on Great Blasket Island and far from her family. Luddy, Maria. edt. 1995. Women in Ireland, 1800-1918 pp.22-25), although in a great number of matches the couple would be known to each other. There is evidence that in Ireland gifts of rosary beads, lovers knots and lockets of hair were given in courtship, with a ring seen as a definite sign of engagement. The patrilocal need of men to inherit land also resulted in an age disparity between available men and women as a man may have to wait to inherit, and the dowry paid to the man's parents would often be used in turn as a dowry for a daughter sometimes the same £100 being passed through several matches. A traveller in 1914 reported a Cork wedding thus:

On Shrove Tuesday – the eve of Lent, during which, as I have said, marriage is prohibited – there were a number of peasant weddings in a chapel in County Cork. The brides and bridesmaids sat in the front seats, and some little distance behind them were the bridegrooms and their male friends, waiting their turn to go to the altar rails for the service. One of the boys was congratulated by an acquaintance: 'An' where is your intended, Joe?' asked the friend. 'Bagob, Mick, I couldn't tell you, ' said the unconcerned bridegroom: 'but Maggie Dunphy is her name, and she's up there above among the feathers and ribbons.' MacDonagh. 'Marriage Customs in Rural Ireland' pp.196-197.

When there was no money available, as with the labouring class, marriages were made young and informally, and were done to ensure survival.

The legacy of Anglo Saxon law affected the Irish landowning classes directly and by the 19th century trousseau and contracted dowries were well established. The example of the 'brides by abduction' is illustrative of the dowry system in Ireland. The daughters of landowning classes and wealthy farmers would be targeted and carried off, sometimes held for a few hours, sometimes longer, occasionally raped, and in order to preserve the family honour the father would have to pay the kidnapper to marry his daughter, in later years many of these were disguised elopements, yet in the early 1800s men were hanged for their part. The pressure of the dowry system cannot be ignored;

Depending on the state of domestic finance, it might also be used to cancel arrears of rent … or simply to fund a lavish wedding celebration. By 1880, small farmers in Connaught were frequently lodging bank deposits of fifty or one hundred pounds against their daughters' weddings, and their daughters 'naturally' became 'very furious' if the parents raided the deposits for other purposes since 'they cannot get married without money'. A modest Connaught match had become ten times as expensive as a passage to America.” (Fitzpatrick. 'Marriage in Post-Famine Ireland' p.121.)

Why Marry?

The interest of the community in marriage is evident in the stigma attached to being single. Traditions varied by region, mostly concentrated at the end of the marriage season (the weeks before lent, Jan-March) when popular disapproval of single status resulted in pranks like Chalk Sunday. Chalk Sunday, or Domhnach na Cailce, was when young and old would ambush single men and women and mark their coats with chalk on the first Sunday of Lent, or Tears Sunday, yet in some areas these forms of 'licensed aggression' were no more than harassment. “Thus in Waterford town, men and boys armed with bludgeons paraded through the streets on Ash Wednesday, accompanied by a piper and pulling a log; bachelors and spinsters were summoned from their homes to help them draw it through the streets”. Connolly. 'Marriage in Pre-Famine Ireland' p.92. These happened into the late nineteenth century, several other traditions include parading the unfortunate through towns, or publicly posting names of single people as passenger lists to Sceilg Mhichíl, where folklore said it was possible to marry after Ash Wednesday etc. there were also traditional 'taxes' of newly married couples by young people, called gathering May-Balls in Leinster and east Ulster. The community may express displeasure at an old man marrying a younger girl by 'horning' or 'kettling' the couple with loud noise and music at night. Ó Danachair. 'Marriage in Irish Folk Tradition' pp.101-102.

At times daughters could be discouraged from marrying until after their peak years of health, yet the motivations for marrying and being the mistress of her own home were strong and on getting married, at any age, a person became an adult. “A young married woman of twenty had all the independence, all the rights, all the privileges of a full member of the community, while her unmarried aunt of fifty was still called a 'girl', and, if she lived in the family home, was no more than a dependant, still subject to restriction and authority of the head of the family. In the same way … (an) unmarried uncle of fifty was still a 'boy', to be ordered around or set to menial tasks”. Ó Danachair. 'Marriage in Irish Folk Tradition' p.100.

Celibacy and delayed marriage were a characteristic of Irish marriage patterns at various times. After the famine especially, the mass emigration of young fertile women, in many cases motivated by a desire to earn a dowry for themselves, left a deficit of eligible women. The church and education also left a legacy of sexual aversion that even into the 1950s small rural towns in Ireland had inhabitants that knew so little about the mechanics of sex that they were unwilling to marry.

Irish Traditions

There were many regional differences in wedding customs, such as firing guns (See the image to the left) “In some areas, a way of expressing community involvement in a wedding was to fire gunshots after the bride and groom. This group waited to honour a bridegroom as he left his C. Antrim home at Killycoogan, near Portglenone. Early 1960s”. Ballard, Linda M. 1998. Forgetting frolic. Other traditions included the blocking of the road or the raising of particular flags on local fishing boats, however some customs were more widespread. The whole wedding party may set out for the church (if the wedding took place there) from the brides home, often on foot, later on horseback or by bicycle, and returned to their mutual residence or the grooms home (See the image below). “Young Kerry woman being led on horseback from her parents' home to the house of her bridegroom, mid nineteenth century.” Ballard, Linda M. 1998. Forgetting frolic. p.124

If the family was wealthy money would be thrown to children and “In many places it was customary to throw a handful of money, small change such as coppers and silver to the crowd. This was expected from people of means such as comfortable farmers or shopkeepers, and often was done by people who could ill afford it, as a way of gaining status. Formerly the beggars, who gathered from far and near scrambled for the coins.”Ó Danachair. 'Marriage in Irish Folk Tradition' pp.111-112.

If the bride were replacing the grooms mother as the bean an tighe (lady of the house) she might be formally handed the tongs or some such symbol of her domestic role. Sometimes races were held on the way back from the church, with prizes provided by the bride. Many of these traditions, such as the bride throwing a sock (sometimes containing bridecake) to indicate the next to marry were also seen in peasant communities in other countries in Europe. After the service the wedding breakfast was common, usually held by the brides parents where there would be food available, and many guests brought food or drink, or a collection might be taken to buy drink. Feasting and drinking were important throughout the history of Irish weddings and reflected the connectedness of the community to the couple. Bridecake, sometimes an oatcake, was often eaten with some traditions holding that it be cut above the head of the bride and the cake would then be shared among guests or parcelled and sent to distant relatives, the cutting in some areas was done by the grooms mother, and there are records of the priest charging guests for pieces of cake to augment his fee. Guests at a common wedding would wear their own clothes and, in the case of an early morning wedding in the twentieth century, the couple (sometimes with friends) may go for the rest of the day to the beach or to a city for shopping while their guests returned to work, and later in the evening all would join again for the wedding breakfast. Often each neighbouring family would have one representative and uninvited guests were generally allowed to participate.

Irish traditions such as the Straw Boys, or buachaillí tuí, masked single men from the locality who would 'crash' the wedding looking for revelry, gifts and flirtation with the bride reflect the importance the wedding feast had in the community and also the role of superstition as, if they were not pleased with their reception, they could ruin the wedding and cast their masks into neighbouring trees as an inauspicious omen. See the painting here of 'Wedding Dance at Rosanna, Co. Wicklow', 1815 by Maria Spilsbury Taylor (1776-1820) It was unusual for the tenantry to celebrate in this way with their landlords, however the Tighe family were model landlords and it made sense for the community to celebrate their daughters wedding. The painting also gives a glimpse of the brides white dress. “Taylor's scene seems to include the (straw)boys in a positive mood, with dancing that symbolised the integration of the couple in the community. … while just inside (the big house) a young women, who must be the bride in her fashionably low-cut white dress, looks out.” William Laffan from Rooney, Brendan, edt and National Gallery of Ireland. 2006. A time and a place: two centuries of Irish social life. Dublin: National Gallery of Ireland. p.76

See also the photograph below of 'Wedding Maskers', A Sligo Marriage Custom, c.1910, W.A. Green Rooney, Brendan, and National Gallery of Ireland. 2006. A time and a place: two centuries of Irish social life p.9 this shows that the Straw Boys were one of the last traditions to die out.

There were many superstitions that indicated bad luck, for example if a bride was not carried over the threshold by her kin, or anti-love spells that may be said by a

jealous person, as well as many spells of marriage divination.

The most popular season to get married were the weeks preceding Lent, as Cannon Law prohibited solemnization during Lent. Therefore Shrovetide (the months of February and March) were busiest for weddings. Yet this was also an economically sound decision, as it worked around the farming calendar, and “it prevented matchmaking from interfering with the serious business of potato planting.” (Fitzpatrick, David. 'Marriage in Post-Famine Ireland' p.124)

White Weddings

By the later half of the nineteenth century the influence of the white wedding as we understand it today had become more important. Some churches lent rings to people for the ceremony, or it could be for the occasion, or a key-ring may be used, and even when a woman had a ring she may have worn it on any finger, its establishment in the nineteenth century was encouraged by the church.

This is also when wedding clothes as distinct from daily wear became more important. Although the white dress was popular it was not the only colour to marry in and throughout the twentieth century it was not unusual rent or borrow gowns or to marry in travelling clothes for the growing practice of 'bridal tour' ('going away' straight after the wedding breakfast)

This photo is of James Heron and Sarah Harris, 'both of full age', married on 23 July 1874 in St. Peter's Church, Drogheda. The bride wears a brown silk dress, now part of the collection of the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum. Ballard, Linda M. 1998. Forgetting frolic. p.79

In the next blog I will write about the Victorian Age and the establishment of the White Wedding as we would recognise it today.


        Article: MacDonagh, Michael. 'Marriage Customs in Rural Ireland' The Englishwoman 1914 vol 22 Apr-June :186-197.

        Selected Books:

        Ballard, Linda M. 1998. Forgetting frolic: marriage traditions in Ireland. Belfast London: Institute of Irish Studies                 Folklore Society.

        Cosgrove, Art. edt.1985. Marriage in Ireland. Dublin: College Press.

        Luddy, Maria. edt. 1995. Women in Ireland, 1800-1918: a documentary history. Cork: Cork University Press.

        Rohan, Dorine. 1969. Marriage Irish style. Cork: Mercier Press.


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