The month of June once marked the start of the traditional Irish wedding season, these were far simpler occasions than the lavish Irish weddings we see today. Until the early twentieth century, weddings were treated as occasions of celebration marked by feasting, but were low-key and often held in the home of the bride. Read on for more fascinating facts about traditional Irish weddings...
Amongst the Catholic rural peasantry, marriage was seen as a serious business rather than a romantic one. Marriage was tightly regulated by parents who used it to maintain or advance their family’s societal position, no matter how humble their means. The marriage of the eldest son was critical in maintaining the farm, and the marriage of the eldest daughter was also important. Arranged marriages were common well into the twentieth century – your great-grandparents’ marriages were likely arranged. Elopement was rare: if say, a marriage took place between a farmer’s eldest daughter and a landless labourer it would have been frowned upon and the couple would have had few financial resources to help them. By adhering to the traditional rules of marriage society was managed and structured.
Often, a hired matchmaker took care of the settlement and in doing so, had to consider the birth order of the bride or groom to be, rather than looks or personality. The Catholic rural Irish had families of a large size and had to carefully divide inheritance. In order to protect the most important asset - the family home and farm - and to provide parents’ care into their old-age, the convention was that the eldest son inherited. The farm was inherited in one piece, it was not broken up, with the implicit understanding that the eldest son would only inherit when he married and would manage the farm until his eldest child in turn would inherit. The eldest daughter got a dowry which allowed her to bring some means to a future marriage. The rest of the siblings in the family had to make their own way: many migrated to towns for work or became farm labourers or emigrated.
Below: A Wedding Dance (1848) by Daniel MacDonald (1821—1853) at Crawford Gallery, Cork.
Weddings could not take place during Lent or Advent and this led to the popularity of the June wedding. Many people believed that to leave a Child of Prague statue outside on the eve of the wedding would ensure good weather for the day, a tradition continued by many to this day.
A wedding ‘breakfast’ would be held after the church service (similar to receptions today), to literally break the fast that had been required before taking Holy Communion and this would take place at the bride’s parents’ house. The house had to be spring-cleaned, and all furniture freshly painted, and the interior and exterior whitewashed.
More prosperous brides bought a wedding dress but more usually, a new outfit was purchased which could be worn again on special occasions as ‘good’ clothes. The wedding ceremony would take place at the church used by the bride’s family.
Below: 'An Irish Bride is brought to the Church' London Illustrated, 1849.
The priest who conducted the church service was invited to the wedding breakfast at the bride’s house as were family and friends. It was believed that, for good luck, the wedding party should always take the longest route from the church. After the church service, a custom known as ‘The Drag’ took place in some areas: locals and guests would form a procession with donkeys, carts and horses, and would circuit the area making as much noise as possible. This is similar to how in Ireland today cars are decorated and the procession follows the wedding car from the church to the reception venue, sounding car horns. On entering the house, the newly married couple had to walk through the door side by side, as it was thought that if they went in one after the other, the one behind would die first. Another custom in some parts of Ireland is that bread is broken over the bride’s head by her new mother in law in a gesture of friendship (there were a wealth of wedding day superstitions).
Below: A bride dances with a Mummer (pic from the National Folklore Collection).
At the wedding breakfast neighbours helped with the food, and barns or sheds were used for extra seating and tables. Lavishness and generosity was and remains a feature of Irish weddings with lots of food and drink provided to guests.
Geese and bacon were popular meats accompanied by potatoes served mashed, followed by sweet cake and tea. Alcohol, such as porter, poitín and whiskey were served after the meal. Musicians were paid to play music and dancing was encouraged.
A highlight of the wedding was the appearance of the Mummers or Strawboys, ‘uninvited’ but expected guests to the wedding. They were a group of young men from the local community disguised with tall straw hats and costumes and their presence at the wedding was believed to bring good luck and health to the newlyweds. They would ‘demand’ to dance with the bride and amuse the other guests by their singing, dancing and feats.
Below: Print by Erskine Nicol from 'Tales of Irish Life and Character' (First Ed.) Book collection of Maggie Land Blanck
After the wedding the bride would go to her new husband’s house accompanied by her dowry. One tradition is that she was ceremonially given the tongs of the hearth to symbolise her new job of running her husband’s household, now that new couple were officially taking over the house and running of the farm from his parents.
If you enjoyed this article you may be interested to read more about our Irish ancestors in my book The Irish Cottage: History, Culture and Design (2017) available in all good book shops or at this link
In May 2018, as part of the National Famine Commemoration at University College Cork, a mud cabin - an Bothán - was constructed by the buildings and estates staff at the College (see below). Standing beside a building that dates from the same period, it serves as a blunt reminder of how the poorest people lived and died during the Great Irish Famine of 1845 to 1852. It prompted me to write this piece on Irish cabins.
Irish cabins: rural slums
My writings on vernacular Irish architecture have focused on the traditional three roomed cottage of the post-Famine period and in understanding this it is important to acknowledge the cottage’s predecessor, what will be referred to here as the ‘cabin’. The two types of dwelling coexisted for some time in the nineteenth century before the cabin as a building type died out, largely due to the Famine.
The plight of those housed in the notorious ‘tenement’ slums of Irish cities in the nineteenth century and beyond has been well documented. In the same era there were also slums in rural Ireland. A census of 1841 showed that 40 per cent of rural houses were single-room mud cabins Like the urban tenements, the cabin was characterised by terrible poverty, overcrowding and filth.
Even though we associate ‘cottage’ dwellers as impoverished by our standards of living today, those houses were better built, usually well thatched and contained furniture. Cabins were associated with a much grimmer type of poverty and were ramshackle, muddy and primeval in comparison. Some were known as a bothán scóir, used seasonally by travelling farm labourers, but many large, poor families lived in cabins on a permanent basis. They were dotted across Ireland and would have been a common sight. Below: "Cottage, Achill Island", Alexander Williams (1846-1930) part of the Museum of Great Irish Hunger collection (Quinnipiac).
Unfit for human habitation:
The cabin of the early nineteenth century represented the reality of the terrible poverty of most of rural Ireland. Due to the tumbledown nature of their construction with earth piled around them, some cabins resembled smoking dung heaps, and these dotted the countryside across Ireland.
Cabins were basic, one-roomed and had few if no windows, a single lean-to door. There was a basic central hearth surrounded by stones, which was ventilated by a hole in the roof and used to cook food. Cabins were usually made of mud, sod, turf or scrap timber. Many were merely makeshift shelters, lean-tos with sods of earth for walls. Roofs were crudely thatched using heather or grass. They were draughty and damp and barely kept the weather out. There was obviously no electricity, running water or toilet in these dwellings. There was little or no furniture. Sleeping arrangements were pragmatic: the whole family, parents and children, slept together on the floor beside the fire. Cabin occupants had faces that were blackened by the fire smoke. Livestock, if any, shared these dwellings with humans.
Below: An Irish cabin by Arthur Young (Draughtsman) c.1790 From: ‘Ireland Illustrated 1680-1860’ archives at Moore Institute, NUIG.
Directly outside the entrance to most cabins was a compost heap, known as a ‘midden’, containing household waste. Entry was through a low door to a dimly lit, smoky single room, commonly ‘full of flies and with the odour of a stable’. The floor was of clay, uneven and littered with rushes or heather – a style unchanged since pre-medieval times. One English traveller commented on a cabin that the occupant shared with two cows: ‘It was more like a floorless stable that had not been cleaned for a week, than a human habitation.’
Owing to such living conditions and successive famines meant that the poorer population were more substile to illness at a time when fevers such as cholera and typhus were rampant throughout the country. In the early nineteenth century there was lack of medical understanding of these, compounded by lack of hygiene and medicine. Imagine giving birth in a cabin – little wonder rates of infant and maternal mortality were high. Or imagine trying to battle a disease such as cholera, and continuing to share the communal family bed, on the clay floor. Cabin dwellers did not stand a chance in such situations and suffered greatly during the Great Famine.
Cabins were the dwelling places of a wealthy landowner’s tenants. Tenants paid rent partly by working in the fields and raising livestock for landowners, a precarious existence. Tenants sometimes depended on the benevolence (if any) of the landlord if the weather was poor or their crops failed. The spectre of eviction always loomed.
After the Great Famine the cabin was ultimately overtaken by the cottage as the most common type of rural dwelling. As cabins commanded little rent, and the land was more profitable when used for grazing livestock over a bigger area. Many cabins, were cleared from the land in the post-Famine period their dwellers themselves swept off the face of the earth during these traumatic years. Hardly any trace of them remain.
Below: Owen Gray’s House by Artist(s): Jonathan Binns (Draughtsman), Louis Haghe (Lithographer), William Day (Lithographer). From: ‘Ireland Illustrated 1680-1860’ archives at Moore Institute, NUIG.
My thanks to Ross O’Donovan, Buildings Maintenance Manager, University College Cork.
Also to the newly digitised ‘Ireland Illustrated 1680-1860’ archives at Moore Institute, NUIG.
Clifton Johnston, ‘The Peasants’ Ireland’, The Outlook (1897).
D. George Boyce, Nineteenth Century Ireland: the Search for Stability (Dublin, 1990).