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Marriage and Divorce Laws

in Early Medieval Ireland

St. Valentine's Day history

The Lovers a stone carving from
All Saints Parish

by Gael Stirler

"When the twelfth-century reformers encountered Irish marital customs they found them outlandish, barbaric, and utterly corrupt. In fact, they were neither the relics of pagan barbarism nor proof of Irish degeneracy: they were very old-fashioned, and were to appear even more so –as the Irish clung to them until the end of the middle ages."— Donnchadh Ó Corráin, Marriage in Early Ireland

When Catholic missionaries arrived in Ireland in the mid 5th century they found a Christian community was already thriving on the Emerald Isle. An independent form of Christianity had been established during Britain's Roman times even before St. Patrick converted the King of Ireland. These early Christians brought with them Roman laws which became entwined with the well-developed Druidic legal canon regarding marriage and divorce that already existed. The Irish Christians held to their traditional ways and were still practicing polygamy, temporary marriage, concubinage, marriage between first cousins, and many other "old-fashioned" forms of marriage long after they had been rejected on the continent.

The Irish marital law was not put into writing by Christian clerics until the seventh century. Until then legal tradition in Ireland was handed down orally and administered by a special class of judges and lawyers called brehon. To the early Irish, monasticism was seen as a matter for God, and marriage a matter for secular law. Above all marriage was a contract for the ownership and distribution of assets, and therefore merited no more interest from God than any other contract. To wit, all parties should be treated fairly and honestly and, when they are not, they should be able to take their grievances to court.

Where brehon law and Church law differed, the Irish clerics consulted the Holy Scriptures rather than the Pope. When they could find no Biblical reference forbidding multiple marriages plus many examples of the multiple wives among the Patriarchs, they would not condemn it for the laity. However, they did make a rule that the public servant class and all quasi-clerical classes (deacons, tenants on church lands, advisors, teachers, and poets) could have only one spouse and could not re-marry if they were widowed. These classes were also discouraged from marrying widows, divorced women, and prostitutes.

There were three types of marriage described in the Early Irish marital law: The marriage of common-contribution; the marriage on man's-contribution; and, the marriage on woman's-contribution. The preferred form of marriage, and probably the most common, was a marriage of common contribution. This referred to an equal contribution of assets to the marital assets. The law said that the groom's donation, or bride price, must match the number of cattle that the bride had in her dowry. It was understood that the assets could be livestock, land, houses, clothing, slaves, or other treasure; but, in the law, it was all described as "cattle." The bride price was given to the bride and the bride's dowry was given to the groom. This has come down to us as the exchange of rings and the words, "with all my worldly goods I thee endow," in the modern wedding ceremony.

After the wedding, the Irish wife owned and controlled the cattle she received and the husband owned and controlled the dowry cattle. They also continued to own and control separately all other assets they owned individually before marriage. The size of the dowry was usually half the honor-price of the father of the bride. The honor-price was determined by a formula based on a person's rank and wealth. Everyone in Irish society had an honor-price and, if they lost a lawsuit, they would have to pay their honor-price plus their opponent's price to restore their honor.

Celtic Lovers by by Jen Delyth

During the ceremony the bride's father represented her in the negotiations and transfer of assets and the groom represented himself. The father, or other male representative, acted as her champion if the groom acted dishonestly. However, if she misrepresented or dealt falsely, the father had to make good on the deal, similar to being a co-signer today. You can imagine how stressful these wedding transfers were with all the lawyers, livestock, surveyors, and record keepers around, not to mention nervous brides and grooms. Some young people might might have wanted to forgo the whole thing and elope. However, if they did so against her family's wishes, she was not as legally bound to her husband, nor entitled to as much of the marital assets as a wife in a marriage of common-contribution. The family could keep all of her assets, and the husband was saddled with all her debts and liabilities. This meant that single women were able to own property and borrow money in their own names. Many seem to have done so and acquired substantial wealth of their own before marriage.

Since no contract was legal without a provision for the dissolution of the contract, all Irish marriage contracts had built-in pre-nups. In the event of a divorce in a marriage of common-contribution, the marital assets were divided in three parts. The husband and wife each received one part. The third part was the contested amount and represented the labor they had both put into the maintenance of their joint assets. If the divorce was by mutual consent, this was divided equally. But, if one or the other was found in court to be at fault, all of the third part went to the aggrieved spouse.

A wife could sue her husband for divorce for insanity, wife-beating, chronic illness, sterility, impotency, abandonment, homosexuality, entering the priesthood, or if he blabbed about the marriage bed! According to Ó Corráin, "A man could divorce his wife for abortion, infanticide, flagrant infidelity, infertility, and bad management. Insanity, chronic illness, a wound that was incurable in the opinion of a judge, leech or lord, retirement into a monastery or going abroad on pilgrimage were [also] adequate grounds for terminating a marriage."

In a marriage on man's-contribution, the groom gave a greater share to marital assets than the wife, who might not give anything. In a divorce, the wife in this kind of marriage only received 1/9th of the assets and a sack of grain each month until the following June, by which time she was expected to have found another husband. This was common for secondary wives where the first wife had equal status with her husband.

The position of first wife was not determined chronologically—it depended on the amount of capital invested in the marriage. So a husband, if he was rich enough, could have two wives, where each was a marriage of common-contribution. If the last marriage was to the wealthiest woman, she would have the highest claim on the husband and therefore be the "first wife." But he should beware that if he entered into a major contract, like a marriage contract, without the consent of his earlier wife, she had the right to have his second marriage annulled, and she would be awarded the dowry he received from the latter wife, plus he would have to deal with the anger of the dishonored bride's father! This discouraged most men from polygamy without the consent of all parties.

greeting card

LoveBirds by Rob McGregor

In some cases, where a woman with no brothers inherited the family estate or where she would eventually inherit the estate, she could take a husband without requiring him to pay a brideprice. Otherwise, it became virtually impossible for some women to marry. The husband in a marriage on woman's-contribution would then only be entitled to 1/9th of the marital assets after a divorce unless he was the only husband and found not at fault, in which case he could be awarded up to 1/3 of the assets. If they stayed together until her death, the law said he couldn't inherit her wealth, nor could it go to their children! By patrilineal law it would revert to her eldest uncle or her eldest uncle's first son. So, among the very wealthy, it was not uncommon for a woman with no brothers to marry her first or second cousin to avoid possibly leaving her husband and children destitute if she had married outside the family!

In ancient Roman law, the difference between marriage and concubinage was whether or not the bride's family had paid a dowry to the husband. This was further established in the Roman Catholic Church by Pope Leo the Great (¿461) and the canonists who followed him, who said that a legal marriage involved a public wedding where the spouses were free-born equals and a dowry was involved with a like amount donated to the bride's family by the groom. This is a big contrast with Irish law, where the groom and bride exchange equal numbers of "cattle." Among the Romans the bride recieved nothing, zippo, nada. Between the 9th and 12th centuries, the Roman Church had further defined it's role as the sole arbiter of marital law—the legal conditions of the contract, the duties of the spouses, and its exculsive, indissoluble nature. Until the Church intervened, marriage in Ireland was viewed as a business partnership among equals, where the allocation of assets and the rights of all parties involved were all that needed to be addressed by the legal system. Love and sex were strictly private matters. Isn't it odd how, after all this time, something so old-fashioned sounds enlightened and advanced?

Two Irish Wedding Recipes

Since we are celebrating love and marriage in Ireland, I would like to share a couple favorite wedding recipes that use good Irish Whiskey as an ingredient. And as long as we have a wee dram of whiskey before us, let us lift our glasses to the happy couple.

Irish Wedding Toast

May you be poor in misfortune, rich in blessings,
Slow to make enemies and quick to make friends.
And may you know nothing but happiness from this day forward.

Irish Whiskey Cake

Photo by Robin Rombach
Post-Gazette, Pittsburgh, PA
Irish Whiskey Cake

Click for larger image

For the Irish wedding make the top tier of your wedding cake an Irish Whiskey Cake to be saved for the christening of your first baby. This cake is a tradition for many displaced Irishmen on St. Patrick's Day. It makes a very rich, moist cake that is fragrant with "the breath of life." Adapted from a recipe by Arlene Burnett, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

  • 2 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 tablespoon baking cocoa
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3/4 cup butter, softened
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup strong black coffee
  • 1/2 cup Irish whiskey
  • Cinnamon, optional
  • Whipped cream, optional

Begin two days before you plan to serve the cake. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Stir together flour, baking powder, cocoa, salt and baking soda, then set aside. In a large bowl cream butter and sugars; beat until light and fluffy. Add eggs and beat at high speed 3 minutes.

Combine coffee and whiskey in a cup. Blend a cup of the flour mixture alternately with a portion of the coffee and whiskey mixture into the creamed mixture, beginning and ending with flour. Beat well with wire whisk after each addition.

Pour into a well-greased and floured 9-by-13-by-2-inch cake pan or a Bundt pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 35 to 45 minutes or until cake springs back. Cool on a rack.

In a hurry? You can serve the cake as soon as it cools with whipped cream and a dusting of cinnamon. Or, to make a more sinful cake, poke holes in the cooled cake with a skewer and drizzle 1 to 2 ounces of good Irish whiskey over the entire cake. Wrap the cake with foil. Allow the cake to absorb the whiskey overnight. The next day repeat the whiskey drizzle. Allow cake to set wrapped in the foil for another 24 hours before serving. For a final drizzle, combined 1/2 stick of melted butter with two ounces of whiskey, drizzle over the cake, and serve.

Whiskey Glazed Carrots

We served these at my daughter's wedding. Since then, they have become a family favorite.

  • 1 tbsp butter or margarine
  • 1 tbsp dark brown sugar
  • 1 tbsp water
  • pinch salt
  • pinch of powdered coriander
  • 1 lbs. carrots (about 6) cut into chunks on the diagonal
  • 1 Tbsp of Irish whiskey
  • 1 tsp chopped fresh parsley

In skillet or saucepan over medium-high heat bring butter, sugar, water, salt and coriander to a boil. Add carrots. Cover and cook until tender (about 15 minutes). Stir in Irish whiskey. Cook uncovered, stirring occasionally, until liquid evaporates and carrots are glazed (about 5 minutes). Stir in chopped parsley. Serves 8 (1/4 cup servings)

Cool Website of the Month

All Saint's Parish, Brookline, MA

The history of St. Valentine's Day with an emphasis on Celtic tradition and Celtic spirituality

Irish Wedding Customs and Traditions

Interesting customs like, "Irish brides used to carry a real horseshoe for good luck. (With the points turned up so the luck won't run out). Today, most Irish brides carry a horseshoe made out of porcelain or fabric."

The Claddagh Ring Story

gold claddagh ringThe hands are for friendship
The heart is for love
And the crown is for loyalty
Held high above.

Click the picture to learn more about claddagh rings.


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