Marriage: Part Four

Part OnePart Two | Part Three  | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six

This articles covers the rites and ceremonies in Ireland:

Sceilig Mhichíl, or Skellig Michael, once a traditional destination for marriages, by OlivIreland

Sceilig Mhichíl, or Skellig Michael, once a traditional destination for marriages, by OlivIreland

Early modern marriage customs in Ireland share many of the same basic similarities as those found in Scotland, with a general process of the betrothal or contracting, the preparation, and then the wedding itself. In terms of detail we see certain aspects emphasised in the sources that aren’t in Scotland, but overall there is much the same process to be seen. This may, or may not, have a lot to do with the much more conservative type of Protestant Christianity that told hold in much of Scotland compared to Ireland.

The kind of sources we have to hand may also have their influence, and it must remembered that many of these romanticise a lot of detail to the point that one might wonder if there has been a certain amount of embellishment on the proceedings. Lady Wilde, for one, might be singled out here. However, the value of these sources – imperfect though they are – cannot be ignored, and it is with this caveat in mind that we’ll turn now to look at what marriage in Ireland was like.

Matchmaking and negotiation

Marriage was a rite of passage that most people to aspired to in Ireland – or at least one that the parents of those young, unmarried, and eligible people thought their offspring should aspire to. Otherwise, options were somewhat limited: holy orders, or spinsterhood and bachelordom. Underpinning this outlook was the fact that men and women – no matter their age – never achieved full recognition and status as adults if they remained unmarried. A man of fifty was therefore still a ‘boy’ if he had never had a wife, and likewise a woman of sixty was still a ‘girl’ if she had never taken a husband.1 In this respect, an unmarried person, of any age, was considered to be under the authority of the head of the household. A married man or woman, on the other hand, had full independence and privileges of an adult.2

In spite of the inherent pressures on a young man or woman to find a partner and settle down, there was equally the expectation that it would be a good marriage that was made – not just with a decent spouse of good character, hard working and (of course) capable of producing and raising plenty of children, but one with good prospects and a good amount of land, livestock and household goods to contribute to the marriage as well.

One thing the Irish sources emphasise is the detailed process of negotiation that went on in arranging and agreeing to marriages. While undoubtedly there were, and always had been, marriages based on an emotional, romantic bond between the couple in question, as far as the families were concerned the primary importance was in making the best possible match in terms of property, livestock, and household goods. Thus in some cases, at least, marriages were essentially made to the highest bidder.3 Marriage between close relatives was not unheard of after the famine years, especially if it meant that the land and livestock that made up the bride’s dowry would be kept in the family.4

In this respect, things were much simpler for those who had no land. They may not have had much else, but between those of their own class, they had much more freedom to choose a partner when there was less in the way of inheritance at stake.5 Considering this fact, there is very little else to say about those who didn’t have such factors to take into account, and so we must look at the customs and traditions associated with those who did.

Where a family decided it was time for their son or daughter to be married off, matches were not so much in the hands of the son or daughter as it was in the hands of the parents, who decided on potential matches. Matchmakers – spéicéirí – were a common feature in the more rural parts of Ireland in particular, and they were either family friends or relatives, tasked with broaching the subject of marriage with the parents of the potential bride or bridegroom, or else professionals who specialised in the field of making such delicate enquiries and negotiations. For those of greater means, the professional spéicéirí were more likely to be sought out to help,6 and they were usually fairly elderly gentlemen – sometimes women – known for their skills in diplomacy and negotiation. Usually it was the parents of the son who hired the matchmaker, who could make discreet enquiries on their behalf with the family of the hoped-for bride.7

More often than not, however, it was a family friend or the parents themselves who broached the subject. Sometimes the person playing the role of matchmaker simply helped bring the families to agreement over a marriage between a couple who had already made their own decision to marry. In cases where the social status of a couple was vastly differing, the opposition to the marriage could be strong, and an agreement unlikely; even between a couple of similar status, the negotiations could be lengthy so that both parties could eek out the best deal for themselves.8

The matchmaker, would begin with general enquiries about the possibility of marriage, and when things were more definite, the negotiations would begin in earnest, aided by a liberal amount of whiskey – a three gallon keg or so. The publican, when selling the keg, might join in for a toast and say:

“Good health and good luck and may the Lord spare the man that’s going to settle down from heartbreak, harm and want. (Seo bhur sláinte, go gcuirí Dia an t-ádh oraibh, agus go n-éirí bhur dturas libh, agus go sábhálaí Dia an fear atá ag gabháil i gleann an tsaoil ar chrá croí, díth nó díobháil).”9

Writing in the late seventeenth century, Sir Henry Piers describes a typical agreement being made between two families, which Wood-Martin details:

“…the parents and friends on each side meet on the side of a hill, or, if the weather be cold, in some place of shelter about midway between both dwellings. If agreement ensue, they drink the ‘agreement bottle,’ as they call it, which is a bottle of good usquebaugh (whiskey), and this goes merrily round. For payment of the portion, which is generally a determinate number of cows, little care is taken. The father or next of kin to the bride sends to his neighbours and friends sub mutuae vicissitudinies obtentu, and everyone gives his cow or heifer, and thus the portion is quickly paid. Nevertheless, caution is taken from the bridegroom on the day of delivery for restitution of the cattle in case the bride dies childless within a certain day, limited by agreement; and in this case every man’s own beast is restored. Thus care is taken that no man shall grow rich by frequent marriages.”10

The meeting on a hill would presumably have something to do with either showing off the value of the land that would be inherited, or allowing a more neutral arena in which to make the negotiations, which might occasionally get heated.

In some cases, friends and relatives might help to contribute towards the marriage portion agreed for the couple. In 1596 an inquiry into a possible case of adultery mentions that the couple received horses, cows and harness, sheep, ‘a plough of garrans’ and a harp and a pair of tables from some of the guests who attended.11 The dowry or portion could be quite impressive – one example, recorded in 1587, refers to “foure score cows, four-and-twentie mares, five horses, a paire of playing tables, and a harpe, beside household stuff, after the wedding delivered to the said Thomas, as mariadge goods with Margaret Toben.”12 Amongst the nobility, their tenants might be called upon to levy a part of the marriage portion for the couple, and so helping to mitigate some of the cost, with some examples recorded as late as the seventeenth century.13

If an agreement couldn’t be made between two families, or the bride herself, then there was always the option of forcing the matter by bringing about an abduction or an elopement. While the Church demanded that consents should be freely given by both parties, it wasn’t always the case that this point was strictly observed, and there were some cases where a wealthy unmarried heiress was forced into marriage against her will for the sake of her fortune. Generally, however, the elopement involved the willing abduction of the bride, who was then taken to a friend’s house and kept until the families agreed on the marriage. Even if the bride’s virginity was carefully kept in tact, the very fact of her abduction would have damaged her future prospects of marrying anyone else, since whispers about her virtue would have been inevitable and a marriage was more than likely to happen.14

The wedding day

As in Scotland, weddings didn’t necessarily have to take place in churches, and the priest would often come to the house and perform the wedding ceremony there, with the following celebrations taking place in the house where the couple would begin their married life.15

The weather was thought to give a good indication of what the marriage held in store – if the sun was shining, there would be luck on the bride; if it was raining, the marriage would be one of hardship, or else the bride would be in tears for the coming year. Or, as the saying goes:

“Happy is the bride that the sun shines on;
But blessed is the corpse that the rain rains on.”16

Marriages mostly took place during the winter, between Epiphany and Lent, but it was thought to be especially unlucky to marry in May, or during the harvest (for then the couple would spend the rest of their days gathering). In the south and west of Munster there was the tradition of the Sceilg marriages, where it was said that a couple who missed the Easter deadline for the year could make the journey out to Sceilg Mhichíl and make their marriage there. The reason for this was the belief that there was a hangover from the controversy over the proper dating of Easter and that the holy day was celebrated later on the rocks of Sceilg than on the mainland. The only alternative was for the couple to have to wait until the following year, and this was not a desirable option, not least because eligible but unmarried men and women opened themselves up to ridicule, pranks, taunts and even abuse and bullying by groups of young men and women.17

Seeing three magpies is a sign of good luck, by Peter Trimming

Seeing three magpies is a sign of good luck, by Peter Trimming

Seeing three magpies were considered good luck, as was the bride being greeted and wished well by a man; where there was a spurned woman, who might be jealous of the marriage, care was taken to make sure that she didn’t contrive to make sure that it was she would was first to meet the bride – something that was especially important if the wedding was to be held in the church and so the wedding party would have to make a procession to get there. Meeting a funeral procession on the way was about as dire an omen as one might think to see, and so to avoid any chance of it happening, a different route to the ones that funeral processions typically took was taken. Every detail was looked at and taken care of where possible to make sure that nothing cast an ill shadow over the day and the couple’s future.18

Lady Wilde gives one of the most detailed descriptions of an Irish wedding, which she says she heard from a traveller who chanced upon the wedding in the wilds of Kerry ‘some fifty years ago.’ The description holds many things of interest for our purposes, and deserves a full quote:

“A large hawthorn tree that stood in the middle of a field near a stream was hung all over with bits of coloured stuff, while lighted rush candles were placed here and there amongst the branches, to symbolize, no doubt, the new life of brightness pre­paring for the bridal pair. Then came a procession of boys marching slowly with flutes and pipes made of hollow reeds, and one struck a tin can with a stick at intervals, with a strong rhythmical cadence. This represented the plectrum. Others rattled slates and bones between their fingers, and beat time, after the manner of the Crotolistrai–a rude attempt at music, which appears amongst all nations of the earth, even the most savage. A boy followed, bearing a lighted torch of bogwood. Evidently he was Hymen, and the flame of love was his cognizance. After him came the betrothed pair hand-in-hand, a large square canopy of black stuff being held over their heads; the emblem, of course, of the mystery of love, shrouded and veiled from the prying light of day.

Behind the pair followed two attendants bearing hung over the heads of the young couple a sieve filled with meal; a sign of the plenty that would be in their house, and an omen of good luck and the blessing of children.

A wild chorus of dancers and singers closed the procession; the chorus of the epithalamium, and grotesque figures, probably the traditional fauns and satyrs, nymphs and bacchanals, mingled together with mad laughter and shouts and waving of green branches.

The procession then moved on to a bonfire, evidently the ancient altar; and having gone round it three times, the black shroud was lifted from the bridal pair, amid they kissed each other before all the people, who shouted and waved their branches in approval.

Then the preparations for the marriage supper began, on which, however, the traveller left them, having laid some money on the altar as an offering of good-will for the marriage future.”19

Presumably this wedding took place in warmer weather, and the situation of the wedding beside a hawthorn might be significant as a fairy tree; one might suspect Wilde of a little embellishment here, on the one hand, but while most lore associated with hawthorn’s in Ireland is generally negative, there is some evidence that some hawthorns were in use as clootie trees of sorts, and at a stone circle in County Kildare, near Naas, it was once a custom for girls to hammer nails into the trunk of a hawthorn that grew in the middle of the circle in order to give fruit to their hopes of marriage.20

With the ceremony over, it was time for the banais21 – the wedding feast – which was held at the couple’s marital home. The guests would often race each other to get to the house first, and in County Down this was known as ‘running for the broth’ (the broth being the prize for the winner).22 Sometimes the race would take place on horseback, the men in charge of the reins and their wives riding pillion behind them. Instead of ‘running for the broth,’ this was ‘the race for the bottle’ – a good bottle of whiskey being the prize up for grabs. Sometimes, such was the competition that a man’s wife would get unseated from the horse – even deliberately, to give the horse more of an edge with less weight to carry – and often it was no bother to the husband so long as the whiskey was won. One might assume that many a wife disagreed…23

At the wedding feast there was the usually food and drink, followed by dancing, music and song. Any disputes and disagreements were to be avoided, even with the drink in full flow, as any fighting would be an ill omen indeed, and a terrible slight on the couple to boot. The bridegroom would present his new wife with a brand new dress, in exchange for which the bride’s father would hand over the dowry, a reciprocal exchange.24

It was considered unlucky for the bride or bridegroom to sing at their own wedding, but others were more than welcome to put on some entertainment and of course the newlyweds took the first dance on the floor.25 One of the most eagerly anticipated events of the evening was the arrival of the strawboys, though, or geamairí, or buachaillí tuí.26 Danaher gives a good description of them:

“No wedding was complete without the visit of at least one group of strawboys, or ‘soppers’ as we called them, although they had laid aside the straw cloaks and masks formerly worn, and were disguised in old clothes, their faces blackened with burnt cork or soot. They seldom came before the fall of night, and they always included a musician in their number. They never entered a house unless invited to do so by the groom or his father, but the invitation was always given, for to turn them away was unheard of. After all, they were neighbour’s sons, and, besides, their coming was taken as a token of the esteem for the married pair and their people. Usually there were six or eight in the group, and when they were admitted their leader went straight away to the bride, wished her joy and asked her to dance, while three of his companions asked three other girls, and they all danced an eight hand reel to their own music. The dance finished they were treated to drinks all round. It was a point of honour that the company should recognise them, in spite of the disguise, and if there happened to be a noted singer or dancer among them he was asked to entertain the guests. Then they raised a loud cheer for the bride and groom and took their leave.”27

While by Danaher’s time the straw disguises had largely fallen out of use, Wood-Martin tells us that they consisted of tall conical masks, decorated with strips of green and red cloth, along with bright white shirts and red petticoats with lots of ribbons attached. Their arrival was loud and boisterous, and sometimes they might demand payment in return for a good show, but either way they would be well lubricated with drink and would stay until the small hours of the morning, at least.28

Of course, if by some chance the strawboys were refused entry, they would feel free to show their displeasure.29 But generally, their presence was more than welcome, and it became a sort of game to try and keep their identities a secret (from the young ladies, in particular). Sometimes they would claim to be shipwrecked sailors, looking for a little hospitality to lift their spirits while they were down on their luck, and being careful to maintain the pretence of being strangers.30

As in Scotland, once the newly married bride entered her marital home she was ceremonially installed as housewife. The mother-in-law met the bride on the threshold and handed her over the tongs to show that she was now the mistress of the hearth. Sometimes she was handed the churndash to show her dominion over the butter-making (the profits of which would be hers), or else she was handed some of the fine china to show that the household goods were now all hers.31

A cake was broken above her head, and again, this was usually done by the mother-in-law at the threshold. The cake itself was usually an oatcake – again, just as in Scotland – and it was considered to be a sign of good luck, beautiful children, and happiness if some of the crumbs fell in the bride’s hair. The rest of the crumbs were scrambled for by the guests, mostly the unmarried girls who wanted a piece to bring dreams of their future husband when they put it under their pillows that night.32


Like any rite of passage, there was a certain sense of danger, a fear of the unknown, underlying many of the customs associated with the wedding day and even the arranging of it. It was only natural, when dealing with something so life-changing, that every possible effort was made to ensure the luck, prosperity, and healthy progeny, for the couple involved, and as a community affair it was incumbent on everyone to make a show of good will and blessing on them and their families.

One of the major elements of a wedding in Scotland and Ireland was that it formed an important rite of passage for a couple. Both assumed full status within their community, with as much legal and familial independence as was due to them, and for women in particular, much of the customs involved in the wedding day were to do with recognising her new-found status as a woman, a housewife, and likely a mother in the not too distant future.

At its core, it could be said that marriage was about sex. Sex for intimacy, sex for procreation – under the influence of the Church it was about sex that was morally sanctioned. Looking at the myths, however, this was not always the case, and now we shall turn to looking at attitudes towards sex in the literature as far back as we can see, and in turn, attitudes towards sexuality and relationships that were not able to be recognised by marriage.

Continue to Part Five –>


1 Danaher, In Ireland Long Ago, 1962, p158-159.
2 Ó Danachair, ‘Marriage in Irish Folk Tradition,’ in Cosgrove, Marriage in Ireland, 1985, p100.
3 Evans, Irish Folk Ways, 1957, p284.
4 Evans, Irish Folk Ways, 1957, p286.
5 Evans, Irish Folk Ways, 1957, p286.
6 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Folk Custom and Belief, 1967, p46; Danaher, In Ireland Long Ago, 1962, p157-158.
7 Evans, Irish Folk Ways, 1957, p288.
8 Danaher, In Ireland Long Ago, 1962, p158.
9 Ó Catháin, Irish Life and Lore, 1982, p115-116.
10 Referencing Sir Henry Piers in A Description of Westmeath written about the year 1682, p122 in Wood-Martin, Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland: A Folklore Sketch, Vol II, 1902, p32.
11 Lucas, Cattle in Ancient Ireland, 1989, p233.
12 Lucas, Cattle in Ancient Ireland, 1989, p234.
13 Lucas, Cattle in Ancient Ireland, 1989, p234.
14 Ó Danachair, ‘Marriage in Irish Folk Tradition,’ in Cosgrove, Marriage in Ireland, 1985, p108.
15 Danaher, In Ireland Long Ago, 1962, p154.
16 Wilde, Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland, 1887.
17 Ó Danachair, ‘Marriage in Irish Folk Tradition,’ in Cosgrove, Marriage in Ireland, 1985, p101.
18 Ó Danachair, ‘Marriage in Irish Folk Tradition,’ in Cosgrove, Marriage in Ireland, 1985, p101.
19 Wilde, Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland, 1887.
20 Mac Coitir, Irish Trees: Myths, Legends and Folklore, 2003, p54.
21 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Folk Custom and Belief, 1967, p46.
22 Evans, Irish Folk Ways, 1957, p288.
23 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Folk Custom and Belief, 1967, p46-47.
24 Wilde, Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland, 1887.
25 Danaher, In Ireland Long Ago, 1962, p156.
26 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Folk Custom and Belief, 1967, p47.
27 Danaher, In Ireland Long Ago, 1962, p156-157.
28 Wood-Martin, Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland: A Folklore Sketch, Vol II, 1902, p35.
29 Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Folk Custom and Belief, 1967, p47.
30 Evans, Irish Folk Ways, 1957, p286-287.
31 Ó Danachair, ‘Marriage in Irish Folk Tradition,’ in Cosgrove, Marriage in Ireland, 1985, p114.
32 Ó Danachair, ‘Marriage in Irish Folk Tradition,’ in Cosgrove, Marriage in Ireland, 1985, p114-115.