Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 1 (January/February 2021), Reviews, Volume 29

Cambridge University Press
ISBN 9781108731904

Reviewed by Mary Kenny

It was said that a traditional Irish marriage proposal was ‘Would you like to be buried with my people?’, which was thought both comical and macabre. If ever such a proposal was made, however, it did underline quite shrewdly the familial and dynastic element of the marriage match—elements of which Jane Austen, too, was acutely aware. This person that you take to be your spouse until (notionally) death do ye part becomes part of your family history, and if the marriage produce issue, which normally it would, the genes are pooled for generations yet unborn. How elementally the marriages of our forebears affect our personalities and even our fate!

Maria Luddy and Mary O’Dowd have set themselves a Herculean task in describing, investigating and documenting marriage in Ireland between 1660 and 1925. Their work is a hugely admirable achievement, which not only provides an outstanding history of wedlock and its vagaries but also rescues so many individual voices of men and women from the past. The family, indeed, was a determinant of many a match; Quakers, for example, for all their respect of the individual conscience, were quite controlling of whom their offspring married, and expelled from the community those who contracted ‘mixed marriages’.

And yet, among all groups, there were always spirited individuals who stubbornly defied parental wishes when love and attraction struck. Kathleen Clarke’s story is a vivid case. Her Limerick family, the Dalys, ‘expressed concern that she planned to marry Tom Clarke, a man who was twenty years older than her’. Clarke was a veteran Fenian, hardened by years in English prisons, who lodged with the Dalys on emerging from gaol. Sometimes it’s just a moment in time that strikes the light of desire and attraction, and Tom Clarke described it thus to Kathleen:

‘… do you recollect the morning in the dining room I astonished you by tossing your hair—that was done on impulse and my own astonishment was far greater than your own—even yet when I think of it I can’t understand how it came about—I couldn’t help it.’

Unwanted advances? No one can tell whether an advance is unwanted until it is tried! Kathleen reciprocated Clarke’s feelings, and ‘despite strong family opposition’ she managed to travel to New York, where Tom had gone to find work (and promote the Irish Republican cause), and married him there in 1901. The marriage was a success—until Tom Clarke’s 1916 execution made her a widow, and thereafter a fierce defender of his flame.

Daniel O’Connell’s marriage to his wife Mary was in the teeth of opposition from his uncle and benefactor, the renowned Maurice ‘Hunting Cap’ O’Connell. To the end of his life (and his last will and testament) the uncle never approved of the match. Dan O’Connell was financially disadvantaged by his choice of wife but the marriage endured, even though Dan was often absent and Mary somewhat unsupported on the home front. The extensive O’Connell letters are charmingly romantic, written at the beginning of a romantic period:

‘I have received many letters from you and you certainly cannot conceive what pleasure they afford me, my sweet, my delightful darling. You are my comfort and the soother of my cares … My love, you are dearer to my heart than ever any woman was to man.’

Similarly, a love letter, with a warm erotic undertone, from Eamon de Valera to his wife Sinéad appears as a startling witness to the character of a most uxorious man.

From the annals of history appear, too, many other unknown individuals, although often more in association with the problems linked with wedlock—irregularities, breach-of-promise suits, abductions, clandestine weddings, bigamies, domestic violence, desertions, divorces and separations—because such issues came to the attention of the law, or of the newspapers. Breach-of-promise lawsuits—essentially, when an engagement broke down—were not uncommon in Ireland, and women were quick enough, and confident enough, to sue. Mary Mays, a young woman in her twenties living with her widowed mother and farming a meagre seven acres, sued Miller McIntyre, who was 43 years older and held 56 acres. Both were Methodists and had met at prayer meetings—churches and local fairs were among the most usual places of encounter. The marriage was fully arranged but the older farmer broke off the agreement, ‘saying he had heard stories disparaging her character’. Mary Mays sought damages of £800—quite a sum in 1871. She was awarded £200, plus sixpence in costs. The jury accepted that the lady had been unfairly treated.

This was among the copious lawsuits brought, usually by women, against men who had jilted them. The courts were generally sympathetic towards women in these situations because they recognised that a woman was more ‘damaged’ by being left in the lurch than a man would be. This in itself was a form of patriarchy, but patriarchy had its uses, especially when it came to women’s defence. In cases of bigamy and of domestic violence, the judges and juries may often have had in mind the protection of their own daughters. Wife murder could be severely punished: between 1726 and 1925, 40 Irishmen were hanged for spouse-killing.

The period from 1600 to 1925 covers a wide area of social evolution and change: the law of marriage was, as the British social historian Lawrence Stone outlined in his own ground-breaking study, patchy in the earlier period. Ecclesiastical practice was gradually being replaced by the secular law, although in both Ireland and Britain it drew on Christian tradition. The Christian denominations shared a broad agreement on what marriage constituted, although the Presbyterians were more ‘flexible’ when it came to marital breakdown, since they didn’t regard marriage as a sacrament. (On the other hand, in the case of adultery, you might be called to appear before a panel of ‘the Elders’ to be arraigned for your sins.)

There was also an intriguing tribe of freelance, ‘degraded’ priests, known as ‘couple beggars’, who offered clandestine marriage ceremonies. Their services were sought for a number of reasons: perhaps a ‘mixed marriage’, opposed by families, or a hasty wedding, or simply because they were cheaper. Before the Famine, the fees charged by orthodox clergy could be demanding. Some couple beggars, such as Joseph Wood, Johann Georg Schulz and Patrick Fay, made a fine living from offering market competition. Sometimes these marriage ceremonies seemed to work out as well as any other. In other cases, men (notably soldiers) inveigled women into a quickie marriage ceremony as an excuse for sexual intercourse. You don’t say!

Although the authors provide evidence of legal and social patterns in Irish marriage, it is evident that circumstances and individuals differ. Dowries, for example, could be used against women—the author Peig Sayers ‘complained about the undue influence of a dowry’ in a family marriage—and women without dowries were at a notable disadvantage. Quarrels over unpaid dowries could destabilise a relationship. (The authors might have cited here the best-known dowry quarrel of all—the storyline of Maurice Walsh’s The quiet man.) The dowry could empower a woman, but it could also rebound unfavourably on siblings. Incidentally, the Catholic Church halted the dowry practice by the 1940s, considering it overly mercenary.

It surprised me to learn that the matchmaker was not a major feature of Irish marriage arrangements, although there were often intermediaries who effected introductions. It is also interesting that the pregnant bride did not, in general, attract opprobrium, although, as we know, the unmarried mother did. As is also well known, marriage numbers fell after the Famine, and by the 1930s the Irish rate of never-married people was surely the highest in Europe. Even by 1911, in Donegal, 38% of middle-aged women had never married. (A good man was indeed hard to find!)

The book is a fine balance between historical data, meticulously sourced, and individual stories. There were, as there always are, unhappy marriages, but there were also fulfilled and contented ones. More public spaces to meet potential partners (concert halls and lecture rooms, for example) were opened up to women during the nineteenth century—to which I would add the department store, started in Paris in the 1850s. Then, serious-minded couples sometimes chose celibate unions, like Margaret and James Cousins, friends of the Sheehy-Skeffingtons—mostly, it seems, because of the woman’s distaste for sexual relations. Canonically, however, an unconsummated marriage is not a marriage at all.

When we come to the Irish Free State’s early ban on divorce, the authors concede that this largely reflected Irish public opinion in the 1920s. Kevin O’Higgins, here, is judged somewhat harshly for his passionate involvement with the beautiful Lady Lavery, despite his well-affirmed Catholic values. But must it be ordained that a man of strong faith and ardent temperament never falls in love? O’Higgins’s letters were full of yearning and desire for Hazel, but there is no evidence that their relationship was ever consummated. Their connection strikes me as much more of an amitié amoureuse than the presumed adultery of which he stands accused.

Altogether, however, this is a terrific, amazingly comprehensive work: we get everything from Valentine cards and engagement rings to cooking for the wedding feasts and the delicate issue of consanguinity (cousin marriage). Money, class and location—most people married within 60 miles of home—were always factors involved. And yet there remains an element of the unknown as to why one person chooses another for their ‘other half’. Perhaps the truth is sometimes suggested by the lyrics of popular songs (It had to be you). Perhaps as primitive an element as a sense of smell plays a part—I have met women who said they preferred one boyfriend among several because they liked his particular smell. Sometimes it’s almost a matter of chance. A neighbour of my mother—this was in Sandymount, Dublin—recounted that she had told the priest in Confession that she was thinking of marrying a Protestant. ‘And why can’t you marry a Catholic?’ ‘Because a Catholic never asked me, Father.’ ‘Fair play to you, then’, replied the cleric, realistically. And they lived happily ever after!

Mary Kenny is the author of Goodbye to Catholic Ireland (New Island Books, 2000), and is currently working on a social history of twentieth-century Ireland, The way we were—why Ireland was Catholic.


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