From This Day Forward


As I searched the burial ground surrounding the Church of Ireland that late October morning, it never occurred to me that I would end up a spectator at a very formal Irish wedding. Men in suits and women in fancy dresses, complete with gloves and hats, started arriving shortly after I began my search. One of the women stopped to talk to me and asked if I would like to attend the wedding. I accepted the offer but chose to sit in the balcony where I would be less conspicuous in my jeans, sweatshirt and athletic shoes. As I savored that unique experience, I couldn't help but wonder about the weddings of my ancestral Irish family members in Donegal and Cork Counties a century or more earlier.

Arranged marriages

Were the marriages of my Irish ancestors arranged? This was a common practice in Ireland, particularly among the upper or landed gentry class. Negotiations were entered into by the families of the potential bride and groom. Sometimes the services of a matchmaker were used. What kind of a dowry would the bride bring into the union in terms of livestock, household goods and cash? If the terms were acceptable, an arranged marriage might be agreed upon. These matches were made for economic reasons rather than for love.

Like most of the Irish population, my ancestral families lived in rural areas. The fathers were tenant farmers in very humble circumstances judging from what records I could find of the areas where they lived. It is doubtful that arranged marriages would have been financially beneficial.

The relatives

In Irish Protestant families, it was permissible for cousins to marry. Such unions were often advantageous to the landed gentry, ensuring that property remained within the family. Irish Catholics were discouraged, but not prohibited, from marrying cousins. With special dispensation from the church, a marriage could take place between a distantly-related Catholic bride and groom, usually second or third cousins. The priest who recorded the marriage usually made note of the fact that a couple was related, the degree of the relationship, and that it was by special dispensation.

Marriages between cousins happened in my Damery family, from Cork County. The extended family lived in rural townlands and parishes near the Bandon. Property was not an issue in choosing a mate. Because there were only a few families nearby and many were related, it was not surprising that cousins married. The same situation may well apply to your Irish ancestors.

The rules

Laws were passed over the centuries that regulated Irish marriages. The marriage of a Catholic couple by a Catholic priest was legally recognized. Although legally recognized by the civil courts, Presbyterian couples married by a Presbyterian minister often appeared before the local Church of Ireland minister and confessed to fornication to avoid paying a fine to the church. All marriages performed by a Church of Ireland minister were legal. Not only did he officiate at marriages of his own parishioners, but he also was the only person who could legally marry people of mixed religion. In 1870, a new law gave Catholic priests the authority to officiate at the wedding of a Catholic and Protestant couple.

Most Irish marriages were performed by clergymen in the home parish of the bride. Some people, for a variety of reasons, chose to be married outside of their parish of residence. This required a license from a Church of Ireland minister or a letter from a Catholic priest or Protestant minister stating that they were free to marry.

Marrying by license allowed a couple to marry immediately rather than wait the obligatory three weeks for banns, which are public proclamations of an intended marriage, to be read. It was also a status symbol and popular among the upper class. Because of the expense of marrying by license, most couples married by banns.

In addition to the cost of a license, ' money was paid to the officiating minister. Those who could not afford it might choose to be married by an unlicensed or suspended Catholic or Protestant clergyman called "couple-beggars" or "buckle-beggars." While the fee they charged was much less, sometimes even free, the marriages they performed were not valid. Official sanction for these illegal marriages could later be given if the offending couple performed an act of public penance.

Marriages were also performed by government officials such as the civil registrar. This usually happened if the couple was of mixed religion. According to family tradition, one of my uncle's relatives was supposedly married by an Irish justice of the peace who was somehow related to the bride or groom. No record of this marriage has ever been found.

Several years ago I worked on an interesting project for a client. One of her ancestral families was landed gentry and staunch members of the Church of Ireland. Her ancestor made the mistake of falling in love with and marrying a Catholic girl, and was prompdy disowned. Although I found no record of marriage, it appears that one took place as their five children, all baptized in the Catholic Church, were not listed as illegitimate. Possibly they eloped or were married by a "couple-beggar" or government official. Much to my surprise, I discovered that the local Church of Ireland minister remarried the couple a few years after the birth of their youngest child. I suspect the son was hoping to appease his father who was on his deathbed. It did not help and no mention of him was made in the father's will. In fact, die feelings this family had toward the wayward son were so strong that years later, when the son died, the family would not allow his coffin to pass on the road in front of their house on the way to die burial ground.

The traditions

Most Irish marriages were celebrated in the late fall, or between Dec. 6, known as Little Christmas or Epiphany, and Lent. Irish superstition also played a part in the timing of weddings. According to one old Irish ditty, "Monday for health, Tuesday for wealth, Wednesday the best day of all, Thursday for losses, Friday for crosses and Saturday no day at all." Catholics did not marry on Sunday.

Although Irish church records are replete with marriage entries, this does not mean those marriages took place in a church. If the home was suitable, many Catholic and Protestant dissenter marriages took place in the home of the bride or the officiator. Church of Ireland marriages were usually performed in the church. By the end of the 19th century, the common practice was in a church.

Prior to die passage of the Republic of Ireland Marriage Act of 1972, girls could marry at 12 and boys at 14. Historically, Irish women tended to marry earlier than did women in other parts of the British Isles and Europe.

It was not uncommon for Irish men to be several years older than their wives. Parents usually retained control over property, however meager, as long as possible. Without an inheritance to bring into a marriage, many potential grooms were forced to wait.

Charms, superstitions, tokens and other traditions are all part of the charm of the Irish way of life. Marriage is no exception. In the 10th century, a betrothed couple walked to church together on their wedding day. If the parishioners approved of the marriage, diey threw rice, pots and pans and other household items toward the couple. It was considered good luck if the bride or groom saw three magpies or heard a cuckoo on their wedding morning. A wedding on a fine day was good luck, but a rainy day meant hardship. The groom gave cash to the bride. This custom dates back to the time when a groom paid luck money to his bride's family, hoping it would bring happiness and blessings into their marriage.

The records

The customs surrounding Irish weddings resulted in a variety of records. These records include:

* Marriage dispensations

* Civil registration records of marriage

* Marriage licenses

* Court records

* Irish deeds

* Newspaper announcements

* Church records

References to Catholic marriage dispensations are found in the Catholic parish registers. If the dispensation was granted because the couple was related, the degree of relationship is often stated in the record.

Unfortunately, almost all Church of Ireland marriage licenses and marriage license bonds were destroyed. Indexes to the marriage licenses survive for most dioceses. The indexes list die names of the prospective brides and grooms and the year of the license. The fact that people are listed in the indexes does not prove that they married, but only that they took out a license.

Inheritance was often an issue in the case of arranged marriages or marriages of the middle, upper or landed gentry class. Agreements were made between the contracting families to protect the bride and provide her with a means of support should something go awry with the marriage.
Marriage articles and marriage settlements were recorded in deeds and legally registered with the Registrar of Deeds in Dublin. These documents list some important information such as the names of the prospective bride and groom, their fathers including a notation if he was deceased, additional family members, occupations, places of residence and other details. One such deed that I studied listed relatives of both the bride and groom for a total of five generations. Sometimes a marriage date is listed if the deed was drawn up after the wedding. Most were contracted before. Marriage articles or settlements recorded in deeds are a rich source of genealogical information.

Marriages are also alluded to in deeds but are not listed in the index or noted in the deed as a "marriage article" or "marriage settlement." For more information about marriages recorded in deeds, see the chapter "The Registry of Deeds" in Irish Genealogy: A Record Finder, edited by Donal F. Begley.

Marriages performed by a minister were usually recorded in church records. Not all marriages that took place in a home are listed in the church records. The officiating clergyman may have forgotten to record the details or recorded them incorrectly, once he returned home.

Marriage records list the names of the bride and groom, the date of the marriage, and often the names of witnesses who may have been related. Other details could include occupations, places of residence and names of parents. The information varies from denomination to denomination. Church of Ireland registers usually record whether a couple married by license or by banns.

Catholic, Quaker, Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Methodist marriage records are discussed in detail by James G. Ryan in Irish Church Records.

Protestant marriages were recorded with government authorities beginning in 1845. All marriages were recorded as of 1864. Ministers were charged with registering the marriages they performed. Unfortunately, not all of these records were taken to the local civil registrar. In the research I have done for clients, I occasionally have found that some parishes had no marriage records for a period of time in Catholic or civil registration records. It appears that records were missing or destroyed. Civil registration marriage records include date, place and denomination if the event was a church marriage; names of the bride and groom; their ages, occupations, marital status, places of residence at the time of marriage; names and occupations of the fathers and names of witnesses. If the fathers were deceased, this was usually noted.

Although divorce was supposedly not allowed in Ireland, it did happen as evidenced by the British Parliamentary Papers. References to divorce have also been published in Irish newspapers.

Sometimes betrothed women went to court to sue for breach of promise. Irish law allowed this action as early as die mid-18th century. Mention is made of this practice in Linda May Bollards book Forgetting Frolic: Marriage Traditions in Ireland.

Marriages were seldom noted in newspapers. If information appears at all, it is usually for the upper class or landed gentry.

The blessing

Marriage was a pivotal event in the lives of our Irish ancestors. Superstitions and customs are a traditional part of Irish life. These customs are apparent in the actions of our ancestors, from the choosing of a mate and the marriage ceremony to the lovely Irish blessings. This one was penned for an Irish wedding by an unknown author.

May God be with you and bless you.
May you see your children's children.
May you be poor in misfortune, rich in blessings.
May you know nothing but happiness.
From this day forward.

     Judith Eccles Wight, "From This Day Forward." The Everton's Genealogical Helper, Volume 58, January-February 2004; p. 51; digital edition, ( : posted 26 Jul 2012)

This content is licensed to with copyright owned by the Grantor and the Everton Genealogical Helper Magazine.

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