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Ring-a-ring-a-wrangle

When I was a boy I sometimes heard grown-ups use the phrase “wasting a girl’s time”. It was always a bad thing done by a bad person, who was always a man. I had no idea what was meant by the words, which remained the case for many years and may explain why the phrase has stayed with me.

Memory, as we all know, is an odd business. In school I was instructed on a variety of things, most of which I’ve forgotten. I could once rattle off the towns in Ireland where boots, shoes and hats were manufactured but alas ‑ or otherwise ‑ no more. Once again it is the more mysterious bits I recall. And one of the most mysterious things told to us in religious instruction classes was that “the church frowns on long engagements”.

I suspect that it was its sheer oddness that made this phrase lodge firmly in my memory and I will admit that over the years I have occasionally been known to declaim the words in a monseigneurial voice late at night. The commandments and lots of the other stuff we learned made a certain sort of sense – obviously killing people was bad ‑ but from where I was sitting my instructors might just as well have been saying that the church disapproved of pedestrian crossings or chips for all the sense I could make of their objection to long engagements.

Of course I’m older now and I realise that the grown-ups and the church were taking positions on issues around the important matter of the biological clock. This question, of course, is still a subject which causes concern, featuring regularly in the weekend supplements and even in the news from time to time. But when we read of the difficulties experienced by modern women in balancing the demands of family and work or learn of a fifty-year-old who conceived after a strict vitamin regime, we understand the subject as part of the individual freedom debate. In pre-liberal times, however, it was quite different. Then, shared attitudes around the biological clock were part a consensus on social conformity, one which assumed the utility and virtue of individual behaviour following socially approved patterns. It was a world which did not celebrate individual choice and diversity.

The crucial event which occurred between then and now was the contraception revolution, a revolution which allowed for 1960s libertarian radicalism, and not only as it affected women, to become simply the way things are. (Unforeseen and unintended consequences of course abound, but that’s another story.)

The society in which I spent my boyhood and which as teenagers myself and many others began to challenge was anthropologically more straightforward than the world of today. The patterns of today are the transient patterns of a cultural flux which may, for all we know, be permanent. Contraception, after all is unlikely to be the end of history in the area of human reproduction. Hold onto your seats, there’s more from the labs coming down the line and whatever next pulls into the station might be just as disruptive as contraception, maybe even more so.

In olden pre-contraception days society’s structures resembled the chapter headings of a basic anthropology text book. The issues and controls around female reproduction were very much the underlying shaping force in society. In those days the anthropological and the cultural were fully aligned and the significance of this became very evident in the social responses which surfaced when their imperatives were publicly disrespected.

“Wasting a girl’s time” meant that some procrastinator or exploiter was taking up a girl’s valuable reproductive years with no intention of marriage and thus possibly permanently undermining her chances of matrimony, motherhood and fulfilment. People, back then, took a dim view of that sort of thing.

The church, in its own special way, joined in and frowned on long engagements. This was because it had no time for delays in matrimony which threatened, if not God’s plan then at least the church’s preference for large families. (It seems there was insufficient scriptural or theological support to make long engagements a sin, so in this important matter the church confined itself to frowning.)

It is a widely held belief today that back in pre-liberal times the Catholic church in Ireland ruled the roost. While there is no denying the social power of that church, actually there were limits and these limits tell their own story. Believe it or not, the church’s influence was ultimately quite fragile. It depended on the consent of the ruled and in our lifetimes we have seen that consent dramatically withdrawn and the church sent scurrying back to deal with its core business of human relations with the transcendent and, at a more everyday level, the performance of good works.

However, even in the heyday of its social power, the church did not always get its way in what is sometimes represented as a “priest-ridden society”. In particular its preference for short engagements was widely ignored in rural Ireland for sound everyday economic reasons. The reality was that in many cases it was necessary for a male to await the death or serious illness of his father before he got his hands on the farm – subdivision being taboo in post-Famine Ireland.

A couple who were not in line for inheritance could of course emigrate to “pagan England” and marry early. Presumably many did, not that exposure to the lures of Anglicanism and worse would have given much pleasure to the church. But for a girl to take the decision to stay behind in the countryside she would need a clear and publicly noted commitment to marriage. Anything short of that would be eccentric. This public commitment took the form of an engagement, which was a promise of matrimony and one which carried legal weight. As the no longer quite so youthful couple waited for the death of the paterfamilias, their engagement could run on for quite a few years. It might be said that its length was in God’s hands.

As it turned out in practice there was a sort of compensatory prize for the church. Due perhaps to a certain pent-up energy, couples in rural Ireland who wed in their early thirties generally went at the business of matrimony with great enthusiasm, managing to produce impressively large families in the limited time available.

The church and informal society were not the only ones with a position on the fertility window. Formal society, in the shape of the law, also had something to say. An attempt to withdraw from an engagement, which was a sort of unilateral divorce lite, involved serious social and legal consequences. Breach of promise cases which came before the courts were frequently reported in the Evening Press – regular reading in the pre-teenage years of the present writer. These painful cases usually resulted in the former boyfriend paying money to the spurned girl or her father, considerable detail having been aired in the courtroom prior to such typical judgements. As best I could see breach of promise was where a man tried to slither away from a promise of marriage. Obviously, what with the courts and everything, this was something one shouldn’t do. In those days engagement was not a state to be entered into lightly.

In the vast majority of cases, for a young woman getting an engagement ring marked the end of a period of uncertainty and allowed for a level of relaxation as she took on a socially approved status. In many cases it was a great relief to be released from the mannered behaviour of the courtship and related inconveniences. Mind you an excessive “phew thank God that’s over” approach would not have been recommended to girls by the nuns and others as prudent. Time enough perhaps for the hegemony of the quotidian to emerge.

But for whatever reason, sometimes the male would go off message or would get cold feet and it would transpire that he had been “wasting the girl’s time”. He could then be taken before the courts and sued for breach of promise. That would involve massive social disapproval and a significant financial penalty.

Mind you, sometimes the retrograde male could simply walk away because the girl’s family didn’t want the scandal. In the case of my own family, the invitations were out “not once but twice” to the wedding of a relation, and in both cases the (same) bridegroom-to-be funked it. There was no court case which, in retrospect, I believe was more to do with the attitude of my relation than fear of scandal. (Her beau was subsequently to veer off in a quite different erotic direction.)

But for those who didn’t want to let their former catch “get away with it” there were the courts and it was these breach of promise cases that I pored over as a boy. Actually they were a common feature of court reporting through the nineteenth century and for most of the twentieth century. I haven’t heard of one for quite some time. We live in a changed world.

Recently I came across a case a breach of promise case reported in the Cork Examiner around the time of the 1916 Rising. Unsurprisingly, life’s core business did not cease in the face of the national drama under way elsewhere.

Rubenstein versus Gross, which came before the Dublin courts on March 1st, 1916, reflected the usual mix of personal anguish, money and getting a ring which I recall from the cases I read about as a child. It was nothing to do with the Catholic church. When it came to the matter of reproduction the pre-liberal pre-contraception world was, despite all the denominational noise, something of a level playing field.

The plaintiff was Miss Jeanne Rubenstein, who being under twenty-one was suing through her father, Myer Rubenstein, a butcher of 27 Ovoca Road in what is now known as Dublin 8. The defendant was Bernard Gross, of 30 Dufferin Road, Dolphin’s Barn. Both plaintiff and defendant were members of Dublin’s Jewish community.

Counsel for Mr Gross described his client as a dealer who hawked his goods and said he had a valid defence in that he had never declined to marry Miss Rubenstein, to whom he had become engaged the previous September. The proposed marriage was semi-arranged in that it involved a matchmaker, Simon Benjamin of Lombard Street, who approached Mr Gross suggesting it was time he married and that he knew a nice girl. Gross said he knew the plaintiff from seeing her in her father’s shop and agreed she was a nice girl but said he was not in a position to marry because of his financial circumstances.

Mr Benjamin, it seems, later brought Mr Gross to Miss Rubenstein’s house, where he met her father. Her father said he understood Mr Benjamin was trying to make a match and asked whether he wished to marry his daughter. The defendant said he did but that he had “no business”. The plaintiff’s father asked whether he had any money, to which he said he replied “a little, but not much”. He further maintained that the father said it did not matter if the marriage did not take place for two or three years. He said he agreed to the marriage on condition that it was delayed. He said the plaintiff was there all the time but took no part in the conversation.

Before Christmas the plaintiff’s father approached the defendant to say the marriage should take place, to which he replied that it could not because of his circumstances. He “continued to keep company with the plaintiff” and heard nothing further until he received a message from the plaintiff’s aunt, Mrs Louis of Wolseley Street, that he should call no longer and that the engagement was off. He ceased to see the plaintiff and heard nothing further until he was served with proceedings. He added that his business consisted in going around the country selling small drapery goods and that at present he was unable to earn more than one pound a week. He further added that he was willing to marry the plaintiff as per the terms of their engagement once his circumstances permitted.

The plaintiff’s father then gave evidence, saying he was the owner of a butcher’s shop with a weekly turnover of £50-£60 and was the chief butcher to the Jewish community. He said it was the custom in the Jewish community that marriages take place “at the outside within six months of the betrothal feast”. Counsel for the plaintiff said this was quite incorrect and that he had an affidavit from a Jewish lady, Mrs Lapedus, who declared that she had been engaged for twelve years (laughter in court). Miss Rubenstein’s affidavit stated that she had never sought to marry Mr Gross and that at the interview with her father he stated that he would marry her around Easter, by which time the period of mourning for his mother would have expired. She also said she never instructed Mrs Lewis or any other person to say the engagement was off.

It was stated that a betrothal ceremony took place at her father’s house on September 15th, when in front of the rabbi and seventy guests they were formally betrothed and she was given an engagement ring by the defendant. “For some months afterwards the defendant was constantly at her father’s house and behaved and was accepted as her betrothed. Shortly after Christmas he began to show coldness towards her and about January 14th he said it would be better for them to remain single.” She said the next day he returned a book she gave him and that since then she had not seen him.

Behind all this swearing of evidence and employment of solicitors and barristers we can see people trying to navigate difficult straits in a manner which enhanced their interests. Probably both sides lied a bit. It was a sad but not untypical business.

That world lasted a long time but it has changed and tellingly it was a poet (Philip Larkin ) rather than a sociologist who dated the great change with some exactitude:

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) ‑
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

Whatever its unforeseen and even unwelcome elements, there can be little doubt that the altered world is a decided improvement.

Source: Cork Examiner 3/03/1916

14/7/2014