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Marriage and the Irish, Salvador Ryan (ed)

Marriage and the Irish, A Miscellany, Salvador Ryan (ed), Wordwell, 283 pp, €20, ISBN: 978-1916492226

This fascinating miscellany comprises seventy-nine short pieces on marriage practices in Ireland over approximately 1,300 years. During this period the institution of marriage was organised around property, status, succession and, in the case of the elite, politics. For about four of those thirteen centuries confessional loyalty played a significant role. The other constant was the formal insistence on a basic level of consent compatible with marriages which, for the most part, were arranged by a couple’s elders. Blatant force was not approved of and could backfire, as in the case of some elite women who did manage to escape marriages their fathers forced on them by proving coercion, “force or fear” being the technical term. A small number managed to have their marriages annulled on the grounds of non-consummation which could be physical or refer to a pre-existing mental infirmity. Limited forms of divorce existed for the elite and were more widely available for the poor until the more restrictive post-Famine social order became embedded.

It is argued that monogamous marriage, usually associated with Christianity, constituted an improvement in women’s social status in that it was superior to the serial marriages and polygamy which are said to have prevailed in the pre-Christian era. This may, or may not, be true. Certainly, the decline of serial marriages amongst the Gaelic aristocracy was slow. Clodagh Tait tells us the practice was widespread in the West and North as late as 1500. It seems that the multiple polities and shifting alliances of the pre-modern period required multiple marriage alliances in the lifetime of a single aristocrat. While we do not know how wives who were “set aside” fared thereafter; it cannot be assumed that an overwhelming loss of status followed.

The earliest Gaelic documents on the regulation of marriage date from the eighth century and include what one contributor describes as the equivalent to what is now known as no-fault divorce. Significantly, when separating, a spouse left with the property he or she came with, including its natural expansion. Moreover, the “financial” boss in the marriage was the one who brought most property and it was this person, whether male or female, who decided which contracts the family entered.

It is not quite clear how practices of this sort gave way to a more pronounced patriarchal order. It seems likely that the spread of Christianity played a part and perhaps more importantly, economic change. Presumably, arrangements for the protection of property and associated status became more stable and long-term as agriculture developed from small-scale herding into a more complex and large-scale economy. Christianity proved highly compatible with the sophistication of the agricultural economy and this may, at least in part, explain why pagan kingdoms, one after another, embraced the religion of Rome in the centuries following the collapse of Roman political and military power.

The hierarchical norms of the ordered Christian feudal state came to be replicated in the institution of marriage, with the male lord at the apex of power. The persistent problem for women under this arrangement, as to varying degrees in other forms of union, was the danger of “ill-use”. From earliest times there are examples of intervention in marriages to prevent and stop extreme cases of violence. In one medieval case a Gaelic aristocrat was sanctioned for beating his wife with a metal rod and similar examples of intervention occurred over the centuries. Nevertheless, society’s policing of male violence was poor and, undoubtedly, vast swathes of serious abuse went undetected and unremarked. The experience of violence by women may have been more common in the upper echelons of society, where daily lives was more isolated, than among the poor, where families lived cheek by jowl and where informal interfamilial policing of violent marriages may have existed.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries particularly, elopement and planned abduction were used by the young to secure marriage to a loved one. The idea was to present one’s elders with a fait accompli in the assumption that they, in time, would come around on the question of property. Abduction was also used to force a wealthy, or desired, women into marriage; such abductions were sometimes violent and could include rape.

Whatever about love and lust, the transfer of property was at the core of all marriage settlements and across all social classes. In “The Courtship of Phelim O’Toole” William Carleton describes the moment of truth in the marriage settlement negotiation for a peasant couple. The father of the male declares:

I’ll tell you what you must do … otherwise I’ll not stand it. Give the colleen a chaff [straw] bed, blankets and all other parts complate, along wid that slip of a pig. If you don’t do this Paddy Donovan, why we’ll finish the whiskey an’ part friends – but it’s no match.

Things hadn’t changed too much by the 1960s judging by advertisements for marriage partners published in the Irish Farmers’ Journal, where the question of property was addressed in plain language. Property and dowries were important for both men and women.  One typically direct advertisement from a woman who signed herself “Up Tipp” revealed that she had 100 acres “well-stocked” and that a dowry was “expected”.

The aesthetics around baldly referring to property have changed in recent times. This does not mean that class and wealth no longer matter. The regular use of code words such as “professional” and “educated” leaves little room for misunderstanding.

Until the post-Famine period, the social control of the church-state nexus was limited, particularly at the lower levels of society, where it seems ordinary people made their own socially accepted arrangements regarding separation, divorce and re-marriage. The extensive social power of the Catholic church, which characterised the early decades of the independent state, only really began with the cultural and economic transformations which occurred in the second half of the nineteenth century. It was a process which, arguably, did not reach its apotheosis until well into the twentieth century. In earlier times it seems the poor observed their own autonomous cultural practices, within which there was widespread acceptance of marriage breakdown.

The rigid social prescriptions of the twentieth century Catholic church in Ireland, extending across the social classes, were unsustainable in the long term and in the short term led to social dysfunction and alienation among those who would not or could not conform with the practices of the disciplined social core. It could be argued that this relatively short historical period was only possible under conditions of continuous population decline, economic stagnation and emigration.

The changes which began in the 1960s would tend to support this analysis. That decade saw economic growth of around four per cent per annum in a country which had been in economic difficulty since the late eighteenth century. A new social oxygen began to spread alongside the prevailing and stifling culture of conformity. Slowly, the social power of the church was questioned, and calls were made on the state to legislate on social matters without reference to Catholic doctrine. It was not until the late 1990s, following the disclosures of widespread child abuse perpetrated by clergy, that the church’s social power was generally rejected.

If wealth still plays a central role, there have been transformations in recent times which challenge, if not the future of marriage then certainly its character, in particular the internal power relations. The key to this has been the arrival of the possibility for women’s control over their fertility through contraception and access to abortion. This transformative development, along with women’s full engagement in the economy, has significantly empowered women within marriage.

Women today have been liberated from the subordination of continuous and uncontrolled reproduction, and in many cases have achieved equal control over family resources. However, the issue of violence within the privacy of married life appears to remain unaltered.  Valerie McGowan-Doyle writes that one in seven women in Ireland will experience domestic violence. This dispiriting statistic highlights a remaining dark phenomenon within marriage, and it is a danger which women, however obliquely, are conscious.

 Awareness of the possibility of violence is sometimes indirectly apparent in the terminology used by women when advertising for a potential partner. A good sense of humour [GSOH] is often indicated by women as a desired personality trait. This does not mean someone who tells jokes but rather a person, such as Elizabeth Bennett prized in Pride and Prejudice, who could laugh at himself. The assumption, or perhaps hope, is that a person with a GSOH is less likely to be characterised by an all-absorbing ego.

But why should women bother at all? What is the point of coupling? In this volume there are occasional and memorable references to love. The persistence of matrimony has something to do with the desire for true love. There is the case, which the reader instinctively admires, of the young man who declares to his father that he would rather cut off his head than give up the woman he loves. But most memorable of all is the young woman’s declaration in Carleton’s “Shane Fadh’s Wedding”; it is a declaration of love made in full awareness of the danger and risk involved.

I’m going to trust myself with you for ever ‑ for ever Shane, avourneen … I can bear poverty and distress, sickness and want with you, but I can’t bear to think that you should ever forget to love me as you do now; or that your heart should ever cool to me: but I’m sure … you’ll never forget this night, and the solemn promises you made me, before God and the blessed skies above us.

Maurice Earls
21/6/2019

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