By Jane Hill

Arranged marriages in rural Ireland were a common practice, a mere generation before my time. I was a teenager when I first heard about them, and to be honest I found it all a bit too much to believe.

Growing up as I did in the swinging 1960s when the vernacular back then was “make love not war” made it all the more unbelievable.

It follows that in the modern world of the 21st century such a life changing practice, like an arranged marriage, would prove fairly difficult for the youth of today to comprehend.
As time went on I wondered what it must have been like for the women and men, those that actually went through the whole process.

Curiosity compelled me to find out more about it. Asking around I was pleased to hear there were couples living nearby whose marriages had been arranged by their parents. I was to hear their version of how things worked out for them, and to hear first-hand on how it came about. What amazed me was how amenable, and respectful, they all were about the process.

To secure the match there was the ‘fortune’ (aka dowry) to be discussed. A sum of money gathered over years, for a farmer/small business family to have, when a daughter reached marriageable age. It had to be an enormous commitment, especially if one had several daughters.

What I found interesting about the fortune was how it was used by the groom’s family. For the younger son it went towards his education/career. Or as it sometimes happened it was passed on as a “fortune” for their daughter’s marriage. The significance of course meant that the parents had an added advantage in who to choose. Their daughter would know that she could enter a marriage with the knowledge that she herself came from a home that thought enough of her to make available such monies.

She would then be accepted as a suitable daughter-in-law by the groom’s family. When the fortune was agreed on, a marriage would soon follow.

In my search for information I was to hear some amusing tales. One man told me the following story about a man who willed to his son the family property.

It was based on the premise that if he was unmarried within one year of the father’s death the property would then go to his sister. But the sister did not want it, so she set about getting a wife for him. She sent word to a friend, asking her to contact a particular woman, with information that her brother was looking for a wife. The friend was heard to say, “Now why would I be daft enough to send word to a woman I don’t know, when I’ve a sister at home who badly needs a husband for herself?” In no time the crafty lady had it all organised. A fortune of £300 was agreed on, and the marriage duly went ahead.

The system was not without its romantic themes. I heard the story of one young farmer who had ‘fallen deeply in love’ with a young woman. Unfortunately her family did not have the resources to pay the necessary fortune. Undaunted he took it upon himself to borrow the amount needed to complete the deal. They I believe went on to live a full and extremely happy life together.

Yes, there were rejections on the part of some women/men to go along with the plan, but for the most part many of them eventually did agree to the match.

One woman told me her story. Her father took on a young thirteen year old boy, he would work and live on the farm without a wage.

The deal was that when he reached marriageable age he would marry their eldest daughter. Years later the father conveniently overlooked the deal. A better offer arrived for the daughter from another possible match. He actually agreed to talk with the man’s parents about a match.

But in rural living not much goes unnoticed, word filtered down to boy’s parents. They were not prepared to quietly allow their son’s place to be taken from him. The Parish Priest was drawn into the controversy.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own Valentine’s Special (issue 5589)