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Marriage Customs Of Ireland

( Originally Published 1897 )



AMONG the peasants in many parts of Ireland the match-maker conducts all matrimonial preliminaries, both " affairs of the heart," where the messages she conveys are dictated by true love, and affairs fostered by calculating parents, who consult rather their children's interest than their inclination.

The most successful match-makers are mid-wives and " cosherers." The cosherer is a very respectable and well-treated female vagabond. She goes from the house of one relation to that of another, and is always hospitably received. She sews, knits, retails the news, tells old stories and (incidentally) doctors the children. The " senachie " is the male counterpart of the cosherer, but infinitely her inferior in the art of match-making ; he concerns himself chiefly in prophecy and genealogies. Mr. Carleton, the novelist, knew a cosherer (by name Mary Murray) who was highly successful in the task of match-making, which indeed requires astuteness of no common order, and a fine instinct for a bargain, so shrewd and provident are the Irish in the matter of marriage. Many a time have marriages been broken off, because one party refuses to give his son "a slip of a pig," or another his daughter "a pair of blankets" ; and it was no unusual thing for the match-maker to say, "Never mind ; I have it all settled but the slip."

Mary Murray often met a young girl quite accidentally, and in the course of conversation would bring in the one important subject—in this fashion.

Cirra, Biddy Sullivan, how are you, a-colleen ? "

" Faix, bravely, thank you, Mary. How is yourself? "

Indeed, thin sorra a bit o' the health we can complain of, barrin' whin this pain in the back comes upon us. The last time I seen your mother, Biddy, she was complainin' of a weid (bad cold). I hope she's betther, poor woman ? "

"Hut ! bad scran to the thing that ails her ! She has as light a foot as e'er a one of us, an' can dance ' Jackson's mornin' brush ' as well as ever she could."

"Throth, an' I'm proud to hear it. Och ! och ! Jackson's mornin' brush ! ' and it was she that could do it. Sure I remimber her wedding-day like yestherday . . . an' how the Squire himself an' the ladies from the Big House came down to see herself an' your father, the bride and groom, dancin' the same `Jackson's mornin' brush!' . . . An' is there no news wid you, at all, at all?"

"The sorra word, Mary ; where 'ud I get news? Sure it's yourself that always on the fut (foot) that ought to have the news for us, woman alive."

"An' maybe I have too. I was spaikin' to a friend o' mine about you the other day."

"A friend o' yours, Mary ! Why what friend could it be ? "

" A friend o' mine—ay, an' o' yours too. Maybe you have more friends than you think, Biddy . . . an' friends that e'er a girl in the parish might be proud to hear named in one day wid her. Awouh ! "

" Bedad we're in luck, thin . . . Cen' who may these great friends of ours be, Mary ? "

" Faix, as dacent a boy as ever broke bread the same boy is, 'and,' says he, 'if I had goold in bushelfuls, I'd think it too little for that girl ' ; . . . 'I'm afeard,' says he, `that she'd put scorn upon me, an' not think me her aiquals'

. . . Poor boy ! throth my heart aches for him !"

"Well, can't you fall in love wid him yourself, Mary, whoever he is?"

"Indeed, an' if I was at your age, it would be no shame to me to do so, but . . . the sorra often ever the likes of Paul Heffernan came acrass me."

"Paul Heffernan ! Is that your beauty? If it is, why, keep him and make much of him."

"Oh wurrah ! the differ there is between the hearts an' tongues of some people . . . Well, well, I'm sure that wasn't the way he spoke of you, Biddy, an' God forgive you for runnin' down the poor boy as you're doin' . . ."

"Who? me? I'm not runnin' him down. I am neither runnin' him up nor down. I have neither good nor bad to say about him—the boy's a black stranger to me, barrin' to know his face."

" Faix, an' he in consate wid you these three months past, an' intends to be at the dance on Friday next, in Jack Gormby's new house. Now, goodbye, alanna ; keep your own counsel . . . It's not behind every ditch the likes of Paul Heffernan grows . . . My blessin' be wid you."

Next day, by a meeting similarly accidental, she comes in contact with Paul Heffernan, who, honest lad, had never probably bestowed a thought on Biddy Sullivan in his life.

" How is your father's son, ahagur ? "

" My father's son wants nothing but a good wife, Mary."

An' it's not every set day or bonfire night that a good wife is to be had, Paul—that is a good one, as you say ; for, throth, there's many o' them in the market, sich as they are. I was talkin' about you to a friend of mine the other day-an', trogs, I'm afeard you're not worth all the abuse we gave you ? "

More power to you, Mary ! I'm oblaged to you. But who is the friend in the manetime? "

" Poor girl ! Throth ! when your name slipped out on her, the point of a rush 'ud take a drop of blood out o' her cheek, the way she crimsoned up. ' Ah, Mary,' says she, ' if ever I know you braith it to man or mortal, my lips I'll never open to you to my dyin' day.' Trogs, when I looked at her, an' the tears standin' in her purty black eyes, I thought I didn't see a betther favoured girl, for both face and figure, this many a day, than the same Biddy Sullivan."

"Biddy Sullivan ! Is that long Jack's daughter of Carga?"

"The same. But Paul, avick, if a syllable o' what I tould you--"

" Hut, Mary ! honour bright ! Do you think me a stag, that I'd go and inform on you ? "

Fwishper, Paul : She'll be at the dance on Friday next in Jack Gormby's new house . Think o' what I bethrayed to you."

Thus did Mary very quietly and sagaciously bind two young hearts together, who probably might other-wise have never for a moment thought of each other. Of course, when Paul and Biddy met at the dance on Friday, the one was the object of the closest attention to the other ; and each being prepared to witness strong proofs of attachment from the opposite party, everything fell out according to their expectations.

As a rule Mary was received everywhere with the greatest kindness and hospitality. Every one knew that what she did, she did always for the best ; and if some small bits of execration were occasionally levelled at her, it was not more than the parties levelled at each other. All marriages cannot be happy ; and indeed it was a creditable proof of Mary Murray's sagacity, that so few of those effected through her instrumentality were unfortunate.'

According to Mr. Arthur Young, there was a very strange custom in the interior of Ireland last century. A number of country neighbours among the poor people fixed on some young woman that ought, as they thought, to be married; they also agreed upon a young fellow as a proper husband for her. This determined, they sent to the fair one's cabin to inform her that on the Sunday following she was to be horsed," that is, carried on men's backs. She must then provide whiskey and cider for a treat, as all would pay her a visit after mass, for a hurling match. As soon as she was " horsed " the hurling began, in which the young man appointed for her husband had the eyes of all the company fixed on him ; if he came off conqueror, he was certainly married to the girl ; but if another was victorious, he most certainly lost her, for she was the prize of the victor.

If a young woman's fiance dies it is a common practice among the peasantry for her to solemnly give back her promise." We had given one another a hand-promise," said an old woman, speaking of her dead lover, and I had to go, when he was dead, an' take him by the right hand afore witness, to give back my promise."

A belief in the fairies, once so prevalent, still lingered on in some parts of the country not long ago. As an example of this kind of folk-lore, we may mention here that the country people used to say that if a man, at his marriage, unbuttoned one button of the right knee, the fairies could not harm him in any way.

In some parts of Ireland, the Mullet of Mayo," for instance, there is a strange survival, namely, the wedding dance with a straw mask, and in parts of Leitrim with a straw petticoat. On this subject the author consulted the Rev. W. S. Green, an authority on these matters, who writes from Dublin Castle as follows :—" The Wedding Masks to which you refer are used by the ' Strawboys,' or Clagheras, at weddings. A gang of nine visits the home in the evening of the wedding. The ' captain' dances with the bride, and the others with the other girls. They leave in a short time, and another gang arrives. It is unlucky if their identity is recognised. In the west of this county it is still much in vogue, but dying out in other parts. I have heard that a similar custom exists in Wexford." Masks of straw are sometimes used on other occasions, such as Saints' Days.

As a good example of Irish humour we submit the following story :

Though the Irish are so prone in general to early and improvident marriages, no people are closer in their nuptial barter when they are in a condition to make marriage a profitable contract. Repeated meetings between the elders of families take place, and acute arguments ensue, properly to equalise the worldly goods to be given on both sides. Pots and pans are balanced against pails and churns, cows against horses, a slip of bog against a gravel pit . . . a little lime-kiln sometimes burns stronger than the flame of Cupid, the doves of Venus herself are but crows in comparison with a good flock of geese, and a love-sick sigh less touching than the healthy grunt of a good pig.

"A marriage bargain was once broken off because the lover could not obtain from the father a certain brown filly as part of the dowry. He afterwards met the lady in a tent at a fair, and being newly stirred by the sight of her charms, asked her to dance, but was astonished at her returning him 'a look of vacant wonder,' which said ' Who are you?' as plain as looks could speak.

Arrah, Mary,' exclaimed the youth.

Sir ! ! V ' answered Mary, with great disdain.

" ` Why, one would think you didn't know me ! ' "'If I ever had the honour of your acquaintance,

sir,' answered Mary, ' I forget you intirely.'

" ' Forget me, Mary ?—arrah, be aisy—is it forget the man that was courtin' and in love with you ? '

" ` You're under a mistake, young man,' said Mary with a curl of her rosy lip. . . . ' No one was ever in love with me. . . . There was a dirty, mane black-guard, indeed, once in love with my father's brown filly, but I forget him intirely.' "

In Ireland degraded clergymen, known as Couple Beggars," sometimes perform irregular marriages.

The ancient custom of seizing wives by force and carrying them off had not died out towards the end of last century. A remarkable instance occurred in the year 1767. A Kilkenny farmer's son, being refused a neighbour's daughter of only twelve years of age, took an opportunity of running away with her ; but, being pursued, the girl was brought back and married by her father to a lad of fourteen. But her former lover, determining not to lose her, procured a party of armed men and besieged the house of his rival. In the fight which took place her father was shot dead, and several of the besiegers mortally wounded, and so the would-be husband retired with-out his prize.



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