‘Last Monday at the fair held at the city of Limerick a very ludicrous and uncommon circumstance happened. A man offered his wife up for public sale. Many offers were made and the highest struck a bargain for 10 gns (guineas). Two shillings earnest money was given and the bargain was closed with a brimmer of all-powerful whiskey. On the successful bidder demanding the delivery of his bargain, an obstacle arose viz. the fair one’s consent.’
We’re unsure how this “uncommon circumstance” from a 1789 edition of the Wexford Herald played out, but it set us to thinking of the more unusual references we find in folk tradition pertaining to love, relationships, and marriage. With the romantic interlude of St. Valentine’s Day crowning on the horizon, we thought this an opportune time then to delve into the National Folklore Collection archive to investigate how our forebears regarded the concept of ‘love’ and relationships. Were they romantics or realists? Was it a matter of eroticism or economics? A bit of both it seems, if these three examples are anything to go by.
We couldn’t discuss relationships in folk tradition without a nod to the practice of matchmaking; captured, exaggerated and romanticised in film, theatre and literature alike. The renowned Lisdoonvarna matchmaking festival continues apace to this day with great spirit and success. In the days before Tinder and online dating, many marriages were made by way of matches, with the guiding hand of the matchmaker in evidence. Although many love matches were made between two willing partners, we have instances within the archive of couples meeting for the first time on the night of the match itself.
A substantial questionnaire was compiled and issued on this very topic, matchmaking, by the Irish Folklore Commission in 1956, which is available for public consultation. Running to seven pages of questions, it garnered a rich trove of responses, on the choice of spouse, the methodology of the matchmaker, the economics of the dowry settlement, and much more.
A messenger would be sent to the woman’s house to ascertain whether her father was agreeable to the match. If so, the suitor, with his father and brothers, might then visit soon afterwards to conclude the bargain. This would necessitate the crucial discussion of the dowry the young woman was to bring to the marriage. This would depend on her father’s wealth, the number of remaining unmarried daughters in the family, and the suitor’s settlement and situation. Dowries might usually consist of money and goods, while some women also travelled to their new homes with the luxury of a milking cow.
Many marriage matches were often made at local fairs. One such reference from Co. Mayo speaks of aonach na gcogarnaí, or the fair of the whispers, a wonderfully drawn image of fathers busy negotiating and securing matches for their sons and daughters.
Marriage by Abduction
Perhaps less well-known was the older practice of marriage by abduction, or capture. There was a time, as recently as the mid-19th century, when young women of marrying age were abducted by potential suitors in order to secure a marriage agreement. Finding themselves alone in their homes, or in a remote hillside booley, these young women were particularly vulnerable to the unwanted attentions of local lotharios, and could be swept from their security by a band of men, numbering anywhere between one and fifty. Such abductions could be voluntary, however, with the woman consenting readily. This might be the case where her family disapproved of the young suitor in question, despite the mutual fondness of both partners. Having been taken to the man’s house for a night’s stay, it was more often than not the case that the marriage would then be permitted.
One Co. Kerry recollection states that ‘the lady’s parents always arranged for the marriage, though disliking it, for they were afraid of immorality.’ Despite nothing untoward necessarily happening between the two, it was felt traditionally that the woman’s honour was tainted to some degree, and that she may not procure another marriage proposal. In Co. Clare and Co. Galway we have references to ‘the Terries’, a band of professional abductors led by Terence O’Brien who would sweep away a lover for the right price. However, for some, such abductions must have been a matter of great fear and trepidation. The archive offers a number of references in which the young woman, in a feat of cunning and guile, outwits her unwanted intruders, and sends a covert warning to her family to come to her aid.
Another custom known to have featured in the romantic lives of our forebears, as it does still for some, is the practice of elopement. Again, this might be pursued to counter family distaste for the wedding or proposed coupling, or to avoid a match made for one of the parties elsewhere. Such elopements, like matches, often took place at local fairs. One reference from Gortahork in Co. Donegal speaks of aonach na lanúin or the runaway fair (see above). Taking place on the 6th January, couples were known to elope on this day, with so many eloping from Ulster to Scotland at one time, that Port Patrick in Dumfries and Galloway, south-west Scotland, was referred to as the ‘Gretna Green of the Irish eloping couples.’ Many couples never returned to their native townlands again. However, in many instances the families, on seeing the commitment of the young couple, acquiesced and soon the practicalities of the marriage were being agreed. On the night of such an agreement being struck, much merriment followed, and led to the moniker of oíche na mbuidéal or ‘the night of the bottles’ being coined.
But with all this talk of matches, abductions and elopements, what of those who didn’t marry, who weren’t swept away by suitors, literally or metaphorically? The tradition of the Skellig Lists in the South of Ireland is indicative of the ill treatment visited on these singletons. Satirical verses and songs were composed naming those who failed to become engaged before Shrove Tuesday, the traditional period for weddings, and were thus believed likely to remain single for another year. Some were even marked by chalk if caught unawares on ‘Chalk Sunday’, the first Sunday in Lent. Other instances in the archive tell of ashes being thrown at them, or salt, to ‘preserve’ them for the year ahead. A belief thereby arose that young men and women could steal away to Skellig Mhicil in Co. Kerry to marry, as the theory went that the Julian calendar still held sway there, allowing for an extra 11 days to secure a spouse before Lent.
Abductions, arranged marriages, wives for sale. It doesn’t exactly lighten one’s heart as St. Valentine prepares for his annual visit, does it? But despite such curios, the National Folklore Collection archive also abounds with tales of love, songs of longing and desire, and recollections of lives shared with warmth and great fidelity. Well worth some further investigation for interested parties. As the proverb goes, spéir gan réiltín, tinteán gan leannán. Well, we couldn’t leave you on a morbid note, could we?