Review of Maria Luddy and Mary O’Dowd’s Marriage in Ireland, 1660–1925 by Michelle Dunne

Maria Luddy and Mary O’Dowd, Marriage in Ireland, 1660–1925 (Cambridge University Press, 2020). ISBN 978-1-108-73190-4. Price: £24.99. 

Marriage in Ireland, 1660-1925 provides an insightful history of marriage in Ireland among the middle and lower classes of society. This is the first study of its type and it contributes greatly to our understanding of the institution of marriage in Ireland, and in particular, how those who entered into marriage within the period of study fared. 

Maria Luddy and Mary O’Dowd, two of Ireland’s foremost historians of gender, have achieved a wonderful feat in the publication of this book and it builds on their impressive work in the realm of Irish women’s history to date. Maria Luddy is Emeritus Professor of History at Warwick University. She penned the first book to address the history of prostitution in Ireland in the 1800s and 1900s. Luddy’s interest in deviant and outcast women in Irish history is clearly evident in Marriage in Ireland. Mary O’Dowd, Emeritus Professor of Gender History at Queen’s University, Belfast, has focused on Irish women’s and gender history in early modern Ireland and she is also a founding member of the Women’s History Association of Ireland. Some of Mary’s published work includes the co-edited and pioneering Field Day Anthology IV & V: Irish Women’s Writing and Traditions (2002) and A History of Women in Ireland, 1500-1800 (2016), which was the first general survey of women’s lives and experiences in this period. 

The authors discuss marriage in relation to four major themes and have divided the book into four corresponding sections. Laws surrounding marriage are examined first and the writers seek to determine what constituted a valid marriage. In sharing the story of a young widow named Elizabeth Leeson, the authors show that the recital of vows was central to the legitimacy of marriage when the courts ruled that her lover must marry her, having made a vow. Most people were married in private houses rather than in a Church setting until the mid-19th century in Ireland. Marriage could be a costly business. Couple-beggars (ex-clerics who performed irregular marriages) were thus extremely popular marriage celebrants in pre-Famine Ireland for poorer citizens. Their popularity demonstrated the importance of a religious marriage ceremony to the poor. Couples could get married quickly and inexpensively without parental consent and with no regard to their previous marital status by employing the services of a couple-beggar. These men could also officiate marriages when the woman had been abducted. 

Part Two details how marriages were arranged, from courtship to negotiating a dowry, to the wedding day. Couples met in a myriad of ways and some traditions such as Valentine’s cards and engagement rings also featured in 19th century courtships. Luddy and O’Dowd’s investigation of dowries sheds light on the family, the importance of land and the status of women and men during the period. The greater access of girls to education by the end of the 19th century contributed to their views of an ideal partner. Increasing numbers of women chose to move to towns and cities, not wanting to spend their lives in a rural community similar to the one they grew up in. This contrasts sharply with the traditional custom of matchmaking where women had very little say in the matter. Of particular interest to this reviewer also were the mentions made of material from the National Folklore Collection in relation to the practice of abducting young women, known in Irish as fuadach na mban/mná. This was a much more extreme route to marriage. Men who abducted women from more affluent backgrounds often raped them, hoping that the young woman’s family would be compelled to agree to a marriage when their daughter’s reputation had been damaged. It must be noted that some abductions occurred when the young couple wished to marry against their parents’ wishes. 

The third section, appropriately titled ‘Happy Ever After?’, explores the experience of marriage for both husbands and wives with particular emphasis on the relationship between them and the influence of the patriarchy on their relations. The husband was recognised as head of the household and wives were expected to obey their husbands and submissively carry out their duties. While there is evidence to support collaboration and partnership between married couples, evidence also exists to show that men were aware of their rights. Another interesting dynamic to marital relations was the relationship between the newly-married woman and her in-laws in rural districts. Wives cared for the hens in the farmyard and selling eggs laid by these hens were a source of independent income for them. In-laws and husbands could resent the wife’s ability to generate her own income, particularly when the younger woman’s enterprise was proving very successful. Irish folklore references this displeasure at a wife’s independence in stereotypical proverbs which belittled women for being talkative. 

Marriage failure is the central theme of the fourth chapter. Desertion, divorce and domestic violence are some of the issues discussed. Marital violence also includes murders committed by husbands and wives of their spouses. As the authors illustrate, marital violence and domestic violence were not hidden crimes in Ireland. They were publicly reported on in the newspapers and other media. Husbands and wives who left their spouses due to being unable to secure a divorce had different experiences, but both had to ensure their own survival in the aftermath. Women often took domestic goods with them when they deserted to set up their new households. The courts did look quite sympathetically and favourably on deserted wives, however, and by the end of the 19th century, they provided additional much-needed support to women whose husbands had deserted them. 

The select bibliography at the end of the book highlights the detailed research undertaken by the authors and their research assistants. A useful index is also provided. The interior illustrations, tables and charts add appeal and interest.  It is a pity, however, that the writers did not make more use of the folklore material available to them in the form of the Marriage Customs questionnaire to compare and contrast with the historical sources. Perhaps the authors or other researchers will engage with this material in the future. 

Marriage in Ireland is the perfect partnership between Luddy and O’Dowd’s individual research interests. It presents a balanced and nuanced account of the history of marriage from gender, religion and class perspectives, sheds light on the 19th century construction of Ireland’s image as a chaste society and provides a solid foundation for further study. Both authors are to be highly commended for this very important contribution to marriage and sexuality studies in Ireland. 

Michelle Dunne (@MichNiDhuinn) is a PhD Candidate at Fiontar & Scoil na Gaeilge, Dublin City University. She holds a B.A. Double Honours degree in Nua-Ghaeilge and English and an M.A. in Nua-Ghaeilge from Maynooth University. She was awarded the Ríocht na Midhe Postgraduate Prize for Research in 2018 for her research on commemorative minor placenames in the Meath-Westmeath region of Ireland. Her work has featured in many online and print publications, including peer-reviewed journals, and she has presented at various seminars and conferences. Her PhD research examines women’s folklore and folklore about women from north west Co. Clare to analyse its functions, genres and traits. Michelle is passionate about the preservation and promotion of Ireland’s local heritage. Michelle’s research interests include women’s folklore, women’s history, Irish folklore and the Irish-language dialects, literature and (minor) placenames of Ireland.