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Aspects of Marriage Customs in the North of Ireland & Their Consequences

Submitted by Elwyn Soutter
elwynsoutter[at]googlemail.com

[This article was produced by Elwyn Soutter in response to a query on the CoTyroneIreland.com Mailing List]


I suspect that a full answer to your interesting question could fill a hundred pages.

One source you might want to investigate is: “The Population of Ireland 1750 – 1845” by KH Connell, published in Oxford 1950. One of the many causes of the problems that plagued Ireland in the 1800s was the fact that there had been a massive population explosion. It went up from 3 million in 1741 to 8 million in 1841. (It’s only 6 million today). No-one is entirely certain why. A reduction in neo-natal death rates was a factor. Connell also speculates that they started to marry younger and that consequently the reproductive rate ( R ) increased significantly. And as we all know these days, if the R number rises significantly you can see an exponential increase in whatever you are studying. In this case, children.

The book therefore spends quite a bit of time discussing the customs surrounding marriage, and also different customs between Catholics and Protestants. There’s some interesting but grim stuff about arranged marriages in the West of Ireland, with girls being dragged to the altar by their fathers, bathed in tears, to marry men they hadn’t a notion for. “The Chief time for marriages is from Christmas until Lent, being the season of the year when people have the most leisure for settling such business.” (page 55).

But not all marriages were arranged. Couples mostly seemed to select each other in the ways we would recognise today. Another factor was that marriage was the only thing they could look to, to break the miserableness of their existence. “Perhaps the strongest motives urging young people towards early marriages were the wretchedness of their living conditions and their realization that no ordinary amount of self-denial or industry gave promise of better times. Contemporaries frequently regarded early marriage as one of the evils of poor living conditions.” (p57).

Anyway, as I say, that study contains quite a bit on marriage customs.

Some couples eloped (if they had the means). For years the main ferry between Scotland and the Belfast area was between Portpatrick in Wigtownshire and Donaghadee in Co. Down. So couples eloped to Portpatrick to get married. Scottish law then (and now) allows a couple to marry at 16, and without parental consent. (In England and Ireland parental consent was required till you were 21). Some folk may have heard of people running off to Gretna Green to get married. Gretna Green is on the border between England & Scotland and so was handy if you were English and in a hurry to get married, but Portpatrick was the equivalent if coming from Ireland. Here’s a link to marriages in Portpatrick involving couples from Ireland, going back to 1721. Most of these are presumably elopements. I can’t think of any other reason for marrying there.

The Ulster-Scots are an interesting group. I did a course at Queens University, Belfast a year or two back on migration into Ireland. The lecturer, Dr Gerry Cleary of Queens University, drew a contrast between various invaders such as the Vikings and the Ulster – Scots. In spite of being present for 300 years or so, the Vikings left very little impact on Ireland. There’s a few place names such as Strangford (strong fjord) and the odd surname which may point to Norse origins, but by and large there’s not much sign of them. Part of the reason was that they only settled around the coast, and not in sufficient numbers to dominate the population. But another factor was that they didn’t bring any women with them. If they needed women then the answer was usually a bit of rape and pillage amongst the locals. However the significance of this was that if they settled and remained in Ireland, as some undoubtedly did, then they quickly integrated into the local community and their Norse identity was soon lost. In contrast, the Scots came with equal numbers of men and women. They tended to marry each other and kept their separate identity. They often looked down on the native Irish and on Catholicism which was the denomination that most had fought to get rid of in Scotland in the 1500s, so that limited the tendency for inter-marriage, though for all that there were plenty of mixed marriages. But overall the Ulster – Scots, a high percentage of whom were Presbyterian tended to marry each other. (There were Scots Catholics and Episcopalians who settled in Ireland too, but the majority were Presbyterian). This tendency can be found in Ireland even today and in part accounts for the separate identity that many in Ulster still feel, which is why they often identify as Ulster- Scots, rather than Irish.

You ask about illegitimacy and the churches attitude. There was plenty of illegitimacy around. One study I read suggested that about 1% of births were illegitimate in the mid 1800s. There were local exceptions especially if there was a workhouse in the area, and workhouse births distorted the figures: A sexual revolution in the west of Ireland? 

Before the Poor Law was introduced c1840, the churches were responsible for supporting the poor in their congregations. Consequently they took a great interest in illegitimate children because they might have to support them financially. Presbyterians usually called a woman with an illegitimate child up before the Kirk Session and asked her who the father was. If she revealed that, he too was summoned and interviewed. He was put under pressure to support the child, and to marry the woman if she was willing. They had to admit their sins in front of the congregation (ante-nuptial fornication), and were denied Communion for a while. Sometimes they had to sit separately from the rest of the congregation. Records of these examinations can be found in the Kirk Session minutes where they survive. (Usually in PRONI). Other denominations also pursued errant fathers though – in my opinion - not always with the same determination as Presbyterians.

You can spot some illegitimate children in the 1901 & 1911 censuses where they have been “adopted” by the grandparents. They appear as the apparent extra son or daughter of a woman in her 60s, so the family were evidently often doing their best to reduce the stigma.

In my own family I have an ancestor who had 2 illegitimate children over a 3 year period around 1825. The Kirk Session minutes show that the alleged father readily agreed he was the father of the first and paid up, but he said he was not the father of the second and refused to pay, so the church paid for that child for a while. Eventually 1 child died. Then the mother was arrested for burglary and theft. (She stole a bundle of clothes because she was living rough and destitute). She was taken into custody and eventually transported. Her remaining son was looked after by her married sister. So the family sort of rallied round in some cases, I would say.