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Marriage in Ireland Pre-civil Registration

A Case-study from Coleraine & District
Submitted by
Robert Forrest, Co. Down, Northern Ireland
forrestgen[at]gmail.com

Mr. Forrest is genealogy researcher and the author of several booklets available in our Ebook Section which contain very valuable historical background and transcriptions from archive records. He lives in Co. Down, Northern Ireland.


Marriage details are the raw material of genealogical research providing as they do the names of spouses that reveal a wider network and pattern of kinship. Compulsory civil registration of Protestant marriages in Ireland began in 1845 and Catholic marriages in 1864. Thus, in the period before civil registration the primary source for marriage records lie with church registers where they are extant. Under the Public Records Act 1867, an amendment of 1875 and the Parochial Records Act 1876, Church of Ireland parish registers of marriages prior to 1845 and of baptisms and burials prior to 1871 were declared to be public records and the originals were deposited in the Public Record Office in Dublin. The great majority of these registers of the former Established church were destroyed in an explosion in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, although copies of some had been made before they were deposited. Presbyterian and Roman Catholic registers were kept at the behest of the local incumbent but were rarely kept before the nineteenth century. The geographical distribution for surviving ecclesiastical registers, furthermore, is very uneven.

Only three ecclesiastical registers pertaining to the town of Coleraine record marriages before the period of civil registration namely, St Patrick’s Church of Ireland from 1769; New Row [2nd Coleraine] Presbyterian, 1809-1840 and Coleraine Roman Catholic from 1845. A broader examination of the barony of Coleraine and north-east liberties reveals a similar patchy coverage; 1st Garvagh Presbyterian [Errigal], 1795-1802, 1807-1814, and from 1822; 2nd Garvagh [Main Street] Presbyterian from 1830; Killowen Church of Ireland from 1824; Ballywillin Church of Ireland from 1825; and Portrush/Bushmills Roman Catholic from 1848.

The earliest recorded church marriage in the Coleraine area dates to 1769. For the record, the first marriage recorded in St Patrick’s church occurred on 25th February 1769 [PRONI: MIC/1/7A, p.92] between James Williamson of the parish of Beldrashan [Ballyrashane] and Elizabeth Conn of the parish of McGelegan [Magilligan] by Licence [for an analysis of the Coleraine parish registers see: - Valerie Morgan, ‘The Church of Ireland Registers of St Patrick's Coleraine, as a source for the study of a local Pre-Famine Population’, Ulster Folklife, 1973, ps. 56-76]. The majority of the marriages recorded in the registers were arranged by ‘licence’, but there are also recorded marriages ‘by asking’, and ‘by proclamation regularly made’. The number of recorded marriages 1769-1800, a thirty-two year period was ninety-four, averaging almost three per year, a relatively low figure for a regional town the size of Coleraine. There appears to have been selective registration occurring in the Coleraine registers in the later eighteenth century. Marriages seem to have been recorded only if the parties were of a high social standing or if the groom was a soldier, that is, in cases where documentary evidence might be needed to prove a lawful marriage. Clearly gaps and under-registration are also responsible for such a meagre return. The scarcity of recorded marriages in early registers also reflects the vagaries to which the marriage rite was historically subjected. A number of factors may have contributed to the pattern of under-registration.

Not all marriages were church based. It was probable that many marriage contracts in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were made in houses. A recorded example appeared in the Londonderry Journal newspaper in July 1776 – ‘married in the house of Samuel Delap, Rathmelton, Robert Given, jnr, of Coleraine to Miss Stevenson, daughter if the late James Stevenson of this city, merchant’ [Londonderry Journal, Friday 5 July 1776], and also recorded in the family notebook of James Holmes of Dublin, ‘Saturday 26 October 1799, Mary Orr was married to Rob Macnaghten of Coleraine, attorney at her father’s [Thomas Orr] at Richmond by the Rev’d Mr Cramer’ [Irish Ancestor Vol. VI, No.2, 1974 p.79]. Whether church or home based, the essential requirement for a valid marriage was the presence of witnesses and the absence of compulsion but it was not always necessary to have a minister present, although this was traditional in Ireland in the post-Plantation period. Many church rites were home-based and recorded in the family Bible, a strong Protestant tradition in Ulster; thus, they may not have been necessarily recorded by the minister who was present.

Other routes to marriage were also available. ‘Clandestine marriages’ were performed, and the ‘couple-beggar’ minister who toured the countryside offered couples a less expensive option to the cost of marrying publicly at a centrally located church. The couple-beggar ministers drew scorn from the civil authorities and traditional churches alike, though only occasionally was action taken against them. Eloping was frowned upon by all religious denominations and both the couple and those who assisted were left open to censure. Aghadowey session book records a case of elopement in 1715, ‘William Hodge appeared before this session acknowledging that he helped and accompanied Jane Cargill to run away with Hugh Montgomery in order to be clandestinely married’. The session judged the practice scandalous and offensive and ordered him to appear before the session to be rebuked. This was done accordingly.

Prior to civil registration only those marriages performed under the aegis of the Church of Ireland, the official and established state church, were legally valid – in theory at least. In practise, de facto recognition was given to marriages validated by other denominations. Nevertheless, the legal validity of Church of Ireland unions meant that some marriages, particularly those of members of other Protestant denominations, were recorded in the Church of Ireland registers, and this was perhaps more likely when land and property interests were involved. Having a marriage officially registered and validated through the auspices of the Church of Ireland ensured legitimacy and legality. Parish registers were kept and used to denote ties of kinship, and this was important not only in marriage but also in courts of law where there might be some dispute about the status of an individual.

The new marriage Act of 1844, which was introduced to regulate Protestant marriages, recognised the efficacy of Presbyterian ministers officiating at all marriages for the first time. In the pre-civil registration period the legislature did not regard the clerical faculties of Presbyterian clergy as equal to those of Anglican ministers or Roman Catholic priests because Presbyterian clergy had not been episcopally ordained [thus, in some eyes rendering the marriages at which they officiated invalid]. The Presbytery of Laggan, County Donegal, as early as 1673, complained that marriages conducted by its ministers were regarded as ‘fornication’. The Presbytery decided that marriage should always be celebrated in the presence of the congregation [Laggan Presbytery Minutes, Nov-Jan, 1673-74]. Even so, some did go to the bishop or rector to be married to avoid the obloquium that followed marriage in their own church.

The ‘Sacramental Test Act’ of 1704, added further insult to Presbyterians, and they faced discrimination, unable to enter parliament or hold any office under the crown. More galling, perhaps, than these restrictions, was the fact that Presbyterian ministers had no status in the eyes of the law. In 1712, the Reverend John McBride [Belfast] in his ‘Vindication of Marriages as solemnized by Presbyterians’ complained of episcopal attacks on Presbyterian marriages and condemned episcopal clergy for demanding and taking fees in respect of marriages they declared to be invalid [marriage dues appear to have been one important source of income for the clergy of the Church of Ireland in this period]. Presbyterian ministers continued to conduct marriages for the majority of their flock in their own churches and they followed the form and practice of the Church of Scotland. A ‘Bill of Indemnity’ of 1737 gave indemnity from prosecution in ecclesiastical courts to Presbyterian marriage contracts. Marriages by Presbyterian ministers of their own members was legalised in 1782 but marriages between a Presbyterian and a member of another denomination only became legal in 1845 [John Barkley, ‘Marriage and the Presbyterian Tradition’, Ulster Folklife, Volume 39, 1993 ps. 29-40].

In the Catholic tradition marriage is a sacrament that elevates the nuptial bond beyond the natural state. Banns were to be published and the contracting parties were required to participate in the sacrament of confession before the marriage. In Ulster Roman Catholic registers were not kept in more than the exceptional parish until the 1830s or later. During the penal period, registration was probably neglected due to fear of having incriminating documentary evidence at a time when the Catholic faith was being suppressed. The keeping of parish registers, an Irish priest complained in 1789, ‘is a point too much neglected’ [S.J Connolly, ‘Illegitimacy and Pre-Nuptial Pregnancy in Ireland before 1864’, Irish Economic and Social History, volume VI (1979), p.6]. In the case of mixed marriages between Catholic and Protestants often an agreement was reached to raise the female offspring in the faith of the mother and the male offspring in the faith of the father. Apparently, this was a common occurrence in mixed marriages of the time under a benevolent convention known as the Palantine Pact [Francis X McCorry: ‘Parish registers – Historical Treasures in Manuscript’, Lurgan, 2004, p.17]. Such marriages were looked on with disfavour by the Catholic Church but they were admitted to be canonically valid. If a mixed marriage had taken place in a Protestant church it was to be followed by a Roman Catholic ceremony [and where this had not occurred the Catholic party was to be excluded from the sacraments], and this remained the discipline until the middle of the nineteenth century.

The lower orders entered mixed marriages without much hesitation in the early modern period and they appear to have occurred more regularly in mixed areas with heavy Protestant settlement. Mixed marriages were only illegal if they involved property and as a result all sides trod carefully. In law a priest who conducted mixed marriages could incur the death penalty. This act remained in force till 1833, and was only repealed in 1870 [Marianne Elliott, ‘The Catholics of Ulster, A History’, 2000, England p.179]. Occasionally, inter-faith marriages created controversy. One recorded case, that became newsworthy even in America occurred in November 1824, when Samuel Loudin, a Presbyterian of Linenhall Street, Newtownlimavady, [supported by his brother-in-law John Canning] lodged a complaint to the civil authorities in Derry that his two daughters had been married without his consent by a Popish priest [British Parliamentary Papers: Sessional Papers, 1825, Volume 22 (166).]. Martha Loudin married William Quigley around the 29th October 1824 in the chapel at the Roe Mill in Limavady and Annie Loudin married John Kyle shortly afterwards. Quigley and Kyle, both tradesmen in relatively comfortable circumstances, not wishing to marry in a Protestant church, were about to have recourse to a couple-beggar when the Reverend Mr O’Hagan took liberty to intervene and united both couples in holy matrimony.

A petty sessions was hastily arranged and held in Newtownlimavady on the 22nd November 1824 before six magistrates and both couples were called to account together with Frederick O’Kane who was the witness to both marriages. All five defendants refused to give evidence against the clergyman, and as a result all were committed to the gaol in Derry for three years unless they recanted and submitted to be examined to appear before the next General Assizes. Their humiliation was further compounded as the five prisoners were escorted by foot to Derry, some sixteen miles, by a guard of dragoons. Whilst in prison both the Loudin sisters having lodged information against the Reverend O’Hagan were discharged. Under threat of capital offence, Mr O’Hagan was obliged to abandon the care of his flock and fled to France [‘The Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics’, 12 Feb 1825, volume 36, Issue 7 p.2, USA]. The Reverend O’Hagan had returned to Ireland by the end of the decade as he was curate in Donaghmore parish [Tyrone] in 1829 and he was later installed as Parish Priest of Limavady in 1839, and died there in 1844 [Edward Daly and Kieran Devlin, editors, ‘The Clergy of the Diocese of Derry; an index’, Four Courts Press, 1997, Cornwall, p.140].

Church registers often indicate the type of the marriage arrangement made and three options are generally recorded: - ‘marriage by asking’; ‘marriage by banns or proclamation’; and ‘marriage by licence’.

The banns of marriage are the public announcement in a Christian church that a marriage is going to take place between two specified persons. The purpose is to enable anyone to raise any legal impediment to it. Obligatory notification of the intention to marry was to be given in church on three consecutive Sundays [but written records of these are relatively rare]. Couples were ‘allowed proclamation’ that having satisfied the minister’s criteria, he allowed the banns to be read out and posted up. Sufficient time was, therefore, allowed for the preparation and proclamation of marriage banns on three successive Sundays prior to the wedding. When anyone applied to have banns published a fee was lodged. Banns were published and read in two parishes, which added to the cost. The importance of proclamation may be seen from the fact that the Presbyterian Synod of Ulster in 1701 unanimously approved that a minister who transgressed the rule of proclamation ‘three several Sabbaths shall be rebuked and suspended at the discretion of the Presbytery, whereof he is a member’.

It was a legal entitlement of marriage within the Church of Ireland either to have banns read out in church three weeks in a row, or for a licence to be issued. While most people had marriage banns, some opted for a marriage licence, which was effectively a document authorizing a couple to marry. A license was issued by the Bishop of the Church of Ireland diocese in which a couple lived, and in order to be granted a license, a couple was required to make an allegation of intent to be married and post a bond ensuring that all information given was valid. Marriage bonds and allegations were records created for licensed marriages. Such a bond had to be entered into before a Bishop would grant his licence for a proposed marriage. The parties lodged a sum of money with the diocese to indemnify the church against their being an obstacle to the marriage; in effect, this system allowed the well off to purchase privacy. Most original marriage licences were destroyed in 1922 but some indexes to these have survived [for the diocese of Down and Connor, 1721-1845 see PRONI: MIC/5B/5 A-F; MIC/5B/6, G-Z].

Irregularity continued to be a problem for all denominations before compulsory civil registration and the legitimacy of a marriage contract could be challenged on a variety of grounds such as the failure to publish banns, not seeing that banns were published in the other congregation, not being orderly proclaimed or being only twice proclaimed, being married without consent of parents, marrying an unknown person, or at the ‘back of the hedge by a spoilt priest.’. In some cases of irregular marriage the parties, after censure, were remarried but this appears to have occurred only in cases where the officiating person at the offending ceremony was a ‘debarred’ clergyman. However, irregularity did not always mean that a marriage was invalid, as the presence of witnesses and consent were at the heart of the marriage contract.

As previously mentioned the earliest recorded marriage in the Coleraine register occurred in 1769 and there are serious gaps in ecclesiastical registration in many parishes. Of course, other sources exist apart from church registers that might help in this regard, for example, local and regional newspapers often carried marriage announcements, particularly from the merchant classes and those of higher social rank. The marriage of ‘Mr Samuel Bryan of Coleraine, merchant and Miss Kitty Hyland of said town’ was recorded in Finn’s Leinster Journal of August 1767, which was two years before the earliest ecclesiastical register was begun in Coleraine [Finn’s Leinster Journal: No. 58 Saturday 8th – Wednesday 12th August 1767]. A few years later in the Londonderry Journal we find the same Samuel Bryan declared bankrupt in August 1773 and his debts were assigned to one Samuel Dick including the lease held under the late John McAlester of land near Coleraine [Londonderry Journal Tuesday 10 August 1773 and Friday 19 August 1774]. Other genealogical sources that might contain marriage details or arrangements include the registry of deeds, indexes to marriage licence bonds and grants, wills, printed pedigrees, military records, and ecclesiastical court records, to name just a few. Church registers and comparative sources, however, are usually only available for limited areas and limited periods but many early registers do record marriages over a wide geographical area.

With regard to the establishment of the planted settler community in the seventeenth century and its evolution in the eighteenth century, evidence suggests that a broader economic and social kinship network was in operation that went beyond parish, barony and even county. An examination of the early registers for Templemore, [St Columb’s cathedral], from 1642 and Ballykelly Presbyterian Church [marriages 1699-1740] confirm that marriages were often contracted over a wide geographical area. Although some of the cross-currents that determined such contracts were complex it seems that both mercantile and kinship bonds were the key factors in operation that affected marriage settlements in this period. For those interested in local or family history in the early modern period research methodologies need to take into account that interaction within the settler population covered quite an extensive geographical area and nuptial arrangements were often determined by such factors as an earlier or previous familial connection, merchant networking, sharing a common landlord, or belonging to the same landed estate.

In Ireland no church registers were begun before the seventeenth century, and as far as Ulster is concerned, the great majority of the registers available before the nineteenth century belong to the Church of Ireland. The clergy of the established Church of Ireland were not required by canon law to keep parish registers until 1634. Templemore parish is only one of five extant church registers in the whole of the island, which pre-date 1650 and the registers are a fairly complete set of births, marriages and deaths dating from 1642. The registers indicate that there was a degree of interaction between families in Derry and Coleraine, and eleven marriages were recorded in the period 1650-1771 where either bride or groom was a resident of the Coleraine area. Most likely these marriages occurred as a result of economic interaction between the two largest towns in the county and the consequential merchant activity and social networking. Mercantile and social contacts could of course extend to any part of Ireland or the British Isles, and examples include the recorded marriage between James Ferguson of Coleraine and Mary Rainey of Dublin in 1747 as noted in the Betham Abstracts and the marriage of Michael White, Esq, an eminent surgeon in Dublin to Miss Neill of Woodtown, Coleraine in 1770 [Finn’s Leinster Journal: No 94: 21st November 1770].

Ballykelly Presbyterian registers reveal that the church served the needs of Presbyterians from the contiguous parishes of Faughanvale, Tamlaght Finlagan [Ballykelly] and Magilligan. The Reverend John Stirling, the minister from 1699-1752, [son of the Reverend Robert Stirling and Marion Campbell of Dervock, Antrim] kept a note-book of marriage proclamations, 1699-1740. The register reveals that there were obvious close ties between the Ballykelly congregation and the other parishes in the Roe valley and across the Foyle Lough to Donegal, and Inishowen in particular, which was connected by regular ferry and, therefore easily accessible. However, there was also a remarkably strong connection between the Ballykelly congregation and the parishes/congregations in the Coleraine district and there is mention in the registers of Aghadowey, Ahoghill, Ballymoney, Ballyrashane, Ballywillin, Ballyachran, Billy, Boveedy, Dervock, Desteroghill, Dunboe, Errigal, Finvoy, Kilcronaghan, Killowen, Kilrea, Loughgiel, Macosquin and Rasharkin. Sixty-nine marriages, dated between 1701 and 1740 have been extracted that lists a spouse resident within Coleraine and liberties or just across the Bann into the west of county Antrim.

This may indicate that even into the early eighteenth century that pockets of Protestant settlements were not self-sustaining and therefore, it was necessary to arrange nuptial contracts beyond parochial boundaries. There may also have been established connections through trade and merchant activity as the Roe valley was within easy reach of Coleraine, which was much closer to Limavady than Derry. The two regions, the Roe and the Bann valleys were amongst the most Scottish regions of the county and Presbyterianism was the predominant form of Protestantism in these areas. The establishment of a strong Scottish colony in north of the county in the early seventeenth century was a result of a planned settlement under the auspices of Sir Robert McClelland of Bombie, Kirkcudbrightshire, who became the common landlord of both the Haberdashers’ estate [1616] centred on Artikelly/Ballycastle in Aghanloo parish and the Clothworkers’ estate [1618] centred on Killowen/Articlave. Thus, his estate, which stretched from Coleraine right down into the heart of the Roe valley at Limavady, became a bridgehead for Scottish entry into the north of the county. The relative closeness to Scotland may have encouraged further migration. Families became established in the north of the county encouraging colonial spread.

Many of McClelland’s relations, extended family, neighbours, and tenants from his Scottish estates in Kirkudbrightshire moved to his new estate in north Derry. An examination of the hearth money rolls [1663] for the parishes that made up McClelland’s estates reveal that there were many families of the same surname, more than likely related, living on both McClelland’s Haberdashers’ and Clothworkers’ lands. These strong family bonds and kinship ties that were established and forged in the early plantation period continued into the early eighteenth century in the contiguous parishes that made up McClelland’s Londonderry estate. Deep rooted familial bonds endured well into the Georgian period and kinship and economic ties were maintained as marriage had both a social and economic function.

Merchant families of course maintained broader social and economic networks and I have also noted two marriages of Coleraine inhabitants to spouses from Argyll in Scotland both dated to the earlier part of the eighteenth century. There is recorded in the Argyll Sheriff Court book a deed [1720] of marriage dated 1706 between Isabel, daughter of Duncan Campbell of Elister to Alexander Stewart, a saddler of Coleraine and recorded in Christchurch, Limavady [Drumachose] Church of Ireland register in 1730 is the marriage of Duncan Campbell, Laird of Sunderland on the island of Islay, Scotland to Esther Law of Coleraine.

The church registers reveal a number of interesting trends highlighting the seasonal pattern of marriage with fewer marriages recorded in March during Lent. The 24th of March was the final day of both the church and calendar year [before the change to the Gregorian calendar in 1752]. It is probable that the surviving Ballykelly manuscript is a register of proclamations rather than strictly a marriage book. The original Ballykelly register, preserved in the Presbyterian Historical Society in Belfast, is written in a difficult although legible hand but dates were difficult to decipher as the minister, the Reverend John Stirling sometimes used a codified format of numerals to indicate months of the year. The register contains a number of variant spellings with regard to both surnames and place-names, so I have added in brackets the modern spelling of place-names where appropriate.

Please go to Ballykelly Presbyterian Church, Tamlaght Finlagan Parish, Co. Londonderry, Northern Ireland Marriage Strays 1699-1771