Irish Folklore - Weddings, Mayo Abbey in Co. Mayo

Introduction

The purpose of folklore collection is not merely the collection of stories from the past but is the treasure of wealth found in the retention of how ways of life and customs have changed; it is through the comparison of contemporary and traditional that we learn about our roots and how our modern customs have been moulded.

The marriage of a man and a woman in a church, followed by a hotel reception with live music and dancing, is contemporarily believed to be the traditional wedding. Although the basic framework of the religious importance of the union and the post-ceremony gathering to celebrate is in essence similar, the details and facts of the social status, expectations, superstitions, preparations, dress, food and true motive and style of celebrations on a community level associated with marriage, are a lifestyle away from what we now take as standard.

What may be found most striking is the practice of matchmaking which proceeded marriage, a custom most of us associate with cultures other to our own.

Matchmaking and the Dowry

In times past the market or fairs was a common venue for arranging marriages. However matches would also be made in the pub, usually in the parlour of the pub. These matches were made through the medium of the local matchmaker who usually received a bottle of whiskey for his trouble. Each locality had a match maker who was always male.

The match-maker would go the house where there was a girl of marriageable age. If the parents of the girl were agreeable, a meeting would be arranged with the man in question. Often the girl had little say in this matter as it was an issue that was settled between the girl's parents and the groom's family.

It was quite a common occurrence for a girl to marry a man considerably older than herself, sometimes by twenty or thirty years. Often the couple would not meet again until their wedding day. Then at this meeting if both parties were satisfied with the match, negotiations would began.

A dowry would be agreed upon with the first half of the dowry being given by the girl's parents to the man's parents upon the marriage and the second half would be given upon the birth of the first child. This money would then be used as a dowry for any daughters in the man's parents' family. The dowry was an important issue when arranging a match and a man would often remain single then marry without a dowry.

Thus in the last century many young girls whose parents could not afford a dowry would emigrate to America to earn the price of their dowries Then when they had the sufficient money earned they would come home marry, as they were now considered a great catch, and settle down.

Thus it is clear that matchmaking and marriages were strongly determined by financial and economic considerations. Love and compatibility were only secondary considerations when it came to finding a suitable spouse.

Times of the year

The period between New Year and Lent was called the "Serif". Marriages normally took place then or during Shrovetide. Nearly every church in the country had at least one wedding on Shrove Tuesday. Those who did not marry at this time were felt to be neglecting their social duty.

Sundays and Wednesdays were popular days to get married . Marriages were never held in Lent or Advent. (4 weeks leading up to Christmas Day)

Preparation for the wedding

In the days preceding the wedding the women in the village would gather together to help prepare the food for the reception.

"They'd always do up the house. Oh that was important. The two times they might do up the house, the stations might be only every fourteen years, they'd always have the stations and the house had to be done up…and of course the weddin'd be in the house'd have to do it up as well. Whitewash was the first before the distemper came in. It had a grand fresh smell and all the little wall and stones outside were whitewashed." (Joe Casserly, Barneycarroll)

Transport

The most common means of transport was on foot although the wealthier would have used a coach or side-trap drawn by two horses.

In those days the groom collected the bride from her home and they travelled together to the church. This situation was still very apparent in many parts of Ulster up until and during the mid twentieth century.

However, nowadays it is considered unlucky for the groom to see the bride. In some parts of the country the wedding procession walked to the church and the bride and best man walked in front and were followed by the groom and chief bridesmaids.

The Ceremony

By the late nineteenth century the church wedding had become the customary ceremony. Some weddings still took place in the home if you had a special licence. Depending on circumstances, if a family member passed away the wedding might take place at home.

The ceremony took place generally very early in the morning. It was short and consisted of the blessing of the rings and taking of the marriage vows. A mass was not celebrated. An open invitation to celebrate at a reception was issued to the people of the locality. People who attended both the church and the reception were known as "the drag". In some areas, a way of expressing community involvement in a wedding was to fire gunshots after the bride and groom.

The Dress

Bridal couples wore their best Sunday clothes. Early on in the 15th century a bride wore a red tunic under a blue tunic on her wedding day. In the 17th century a bride in Kildare wore a red petticoat with green tape on the skirt and waistcoat and a handkerchief on her head.

Wedding dresses of the late 19th century were often two-pieces. White was the traditional colour but not all brides wore white; other colours were worn with significance:

"Married in white, she has chosen all right, Married in blue she's sure to be true, Married in yellow, she'll be ashamed of her fellow Married in grey she will go far away."

Many women wore hats and bonnets trimmed with flowers or feathers. A wedding was a perfect occasion to get one of these precious garments. She would treasure it and wear it on many special occasions during her life. For those with money to spend the dress and the other garments were very lavish.

Robinson and Clever in Belfast were specialist suppliers. Trousseaus were important in the first half of the 20th century.

Reception and Food

On the evening of the reception the meal was served and there was plenty for everyone. Most of the food was prepared in advance. Cabbage and turnips were boiled in separate pots and dressed with bacon. Cooking-pans, pots and delph would be borrowed from neighbours. The women would boil large skillets of potatoes on a hook over the fire. When boiled the potatoes were emptied into a creel and kept beside the fire to keep them warm. The bride and groom returned to the bride's house with the "drag" the wedding party and sat down to the feast of bacon, cabbage, potatoes and plenty of porter.

When the main meal was finished, tea and sweetcake was served. This was known as the wedding breakfast as people got married early in the morning. To wash down the pot of bacon there would be a barrel of porter.

Barrels came in two sizes: a nine-gallon barrel and an eighteen-gallon barrel. Only the more prosperous could afford an eighteen gallon barrel. Poitin and whiskey were also on the agenda. The wedding went on for as long as the porter and bacon lasted.

In some places a substantial fry was prepared but evidently this seems to have been quite and extravagance.

Whatever the fare, no one went hungry or thirsty; everyone was well fed.

"All the neighbours, well they'd be, some drinkin' outside, they'd have to have their meals in their turns. 'Cause they'd be a fair size, they'd have all the neighbours. And they'd come sometimes during the day, they mightn't be at the wedding in the morning, they'd come in for maybe to eat and drink in the day. There was so many though then, to fit round the table together. But they'd be chattin' and playin' music, there was great musicians that time.......They wouldn't have a big expensive weddin' cake, maybe an ordinary currant cake. Mind you then the currant cake some of the women could make, they were, I'd sooner them than a lot of the weddin' cakes, as they say, there's biteens and everything in this wedding cake. It was awful hard to beat the currant cake and the women that time, most of them could make a good cake." (Joe Casserly, Barneycarroll)

Entertainment - Dancers, Musicians and Strawboys

Music was supplied by local musicians. The musicians consisted mainly flute-players and a fiddler The Strawboys or Falpin came at night-time and danced, sang and played music until dawn.

The Strawboys wore tall pointed caps made of straw. They wore masks and straw capes round their shoulders. They also had straw tied onto the front of their legs, hence the name Strawboys. They came in the evening at around 8 o'clock and stayed half an hour. They firstly danced with the bride and she was loath to refuse; hey danced with everyone but never uttered a word. It was customary to "grease the palms of the strawboys" otherwise they might damage the house. "They'd play flutes and they'd like to dance with the bride of course. They'll all have a dance with the bride, she wouldn't refuse them that time." (Joe Casserly, Barneycarroll)

Customs and Superstitions

The Irish have a seemingly innumerable supply of superstitions and "pisreogs" for all occasions marriage being nor exceptions, here is just a taste of how your future could be foretold or determined:

  • It was customary for newly weds to enter the door of their house side by side. It was believed that if they went in one after the other the one behind would die first.

  • It was also said that if it rained on your wedding day it was unlucky.

  • It was unlucky to get married on Monday or Friday.

  • If a glass or cup got broken on the morning of the wedding it was unlucky.

  • If the wedding ring fell to the floor during the wedding ceremony it was a bad omen.

  • A man and a woman having the same first letters of a surname was unlucky.

  • A bride making her own dress was not recommended.

  • If you heard a cuckoo or saw three magpies it was very lucky

  • It was also unheard of for a couple to sing at their own wedding.

  • The wedding party should always take the longest route home from the church.

  • If a bride and groom washed their hands in the same sink at the same time its counted as a disaster.

  • If when leaving the church someone throws an old shoe over the brides head she will have good luck.

  • If the brides mother breaks a piece of wedding cake on the brides head as she enters the house after the ceremony they will always be friends.

  • If a couple married in harvest they would spend their lives gathering.

  • People often got married during a growing moon or a flowing tide.

  • To meet a funeral in the road meant bad luck.

The unmarried person

In rural Ireland the traditional time for marrying was Shrovetide . However, if a person did not marry during this time it was considered a neglect of social duty. To be single was a stigma.

An unmarried man of fifty was still a boy while his married nephew of twenty five was a man; the young wife of twenty was a matron while the spinster of forty five was barely recognised. They were targeted by tricksters and were condemned and humiliated publicly.

Shrove Tuesday night was the night for practical jokes on bachelors, for example, horns were blown about the house, the door was tied, chimneys blocked, cabbage heads pulled from their gardens and thrown at his door.

In parts of Co Waterford a frequent joke was an ugly grotesque picture of the owner drawn on his wall. In Waterford city an irate crowd dragged a large log through the streets with ropes with a musician in front and a poor spinster or bachelor had to sit on the log.

Sometimes they tied them to it on Ash Wednesday. In the latter part of the 19th century in Leinster or Munster, the unmarried were marked with chalk on their way to church on the first Sunday of Lent. Those who were still unmarried at shrove had their clothes painted with stripes and squiggles of chalk, a practice known as chalking.

The Ash Bag

The tradition in a few places is that ashes were sprinkled on bachelors and old maids on Ash Wednesday.

Small bags of ashes were pinned or tied to them and the saying "you'll have the ash bag thrown at you" was the equivalent of meaning that nobody will marry you.

Sprinkling of Salt

In parts of north Co Galway and south-east Mayo salt was sprinkled on bachelors and spinsters to preserve them until next shrove. At Dunmore this was done on the day after Ash Wednesday; this was market day. In Ballinrobe it was done on the first Monday in lent and this was known as Salt Monday.

Dominic na Suit or "Puss Sunday"

The first appearance in public of a bachelor or spinster after their time of grace had expired was on the first Sunday in lent. And the frustrated appearance on their faces gave rise to the name "Puss Sunday" because of the scowl or sour faces they had on them.

Sources:

  • Scoil Naisiunta, Naoimh Tola, Folklore project 2001

  • Forgetting Frolics

  • Traditional Irish weddings by Bridget Haggerty published by Wolf Hound 2000

  • Customs and superstitions, Scoil Naisiunta, Naoimh Tola, Folklore project 2001

  • Irish calendar customs by Kevin Danaher 1972 pages 43-46

  • Some other Customs also by Kevin Danaher

Thanks to Luke Flatley and Mary O’Boyle