Marriage in Ancient Ireland

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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Ornament on cover of the Misach

Ornament, with Inscription, on cover of the Misach, and ancient reliquary belonging to Inishowen. (From Miss Stokes’s Christian Inscriptions)



SECTION 1. Marriage.

Word IN
ANCIENT Ireland it was a very general custom, as it was in Wales, and in Greece in the time of Homer, that when a couple got married the man was bound to bring the marriage portion or dowry, not the woman. Instances of custom are mentioned everywhere in our literature. The dowry consisted of gold, silver, or brass; or of cattle, clothes, horses, horse bridles, land, &c.

In Ireland, as among all the Aryan nations, the original conception was that the man purchased his affianced wife from the father or other guardian, and the dowry he brought in was the bride-price. It was usually paid over by the bridegroom to the father of the bride. The bride-price often consisted of a yearly payment from the husband after marriage: and we find it laid down in the Brehon Law that the woman's father was entitled to the whole of the first year's payment, to two-thirds of the second year's, to one-half of the third: and so on, diminishing to the twenty-first, when the claim ceased. In each case, what was left belonged to the wife. Any goods or valuables brought in by the bride on her wedding-day, continued to belong to her as her own special property after the marriage. Sometimes the friends of the young couple made a collection for them, which was called Tinol (i.e. 'collection': pron. tinnole), of which two-thirds belonged by law to the man, and one-third to the woman. Our present custom of making a young married couple presents is not unlike the old Irish tinnole. A tribute had to be paid—at least in some cases—to the king, on the marriage of every maiden of his people.

The general custom was to have only one wife: but there were exceptions, for in very early times we sometimes find a king or chief with two. That chastity and modesty were prized we know from many passages, such as that in the Life of St. Finnchua, in which he leaves blessings to the Leinstermen, among others "chastity in their queens and in their wives, and modesty in their maidens."

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