In the fifth century, Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland and with it Roman law whose patriarchal orientation was in conflict with the matriarchal orientation of Irish aboriginal society. The change to Roman law and to patriarchy was not immediate.
Gradually but insidiously the role of women was confined to childbearing, engaging in charitable deeds, for which they were occasionally lauded in the Irish annals, and being subservient to their husbands.
As Ireland began to embrace Christianity some 1,600 years ago, the Irish retained many of their aboriginal pagan customs, many of which dealt with marriage. In the early Christian era, the Irish recognized ten different kinds of marriage. In Gaelic-Irish law (Brehon law) all of these forms of marriage were formal contracts which varied with regard to the status of the persons involved and in the contribution both parties brought into the marriage. Irish women continued to be full partners with their men, both at home and at war. Under Brehon law, women were equal to men when it came to matters of property.
The early Irish Catholicism was very different from that of the Roman Catholic Church at this time. Irish Catholics continued many of their pagan ways, including the fact that a chieftain’s coronation was not done in a church, but at the traditional pagan rath. With regard to marriage, many of the clergy, including bishops and abbots, were married.
A form of Celtic trial marriage prevailed. Trial marriages were commonplace and divorce was long established as a legal right.
Polygyny—the marriage of a man to more than one woman at the same time—was recognised in pre-Norman Ireland. The strongest marital ties under brehon law were with the first wife (cétmuinter). While pressures from the church reduced polygyny this did not result in the monogamous lifelong marital pattern advocated by the church. Divorce was readily available and thus consecutive marriage was a prominent feature of Irish society. Divorce could be initiated by either partner.
Within the family, women were considered to be subordinate to the male head of household (father, uncle, or brother). This diminished the woman’s personal choice in deciding who to marry. Among the nobility, marriage was often accompanied by a political settlement (an alliance, submission, pacification of an enemy) and the woman had little say in the matter.
Irish women were able to gain influence through the acquisition of wealth. In a divorce, the woman would withdraw what she had brought into the marriage as well as a percentage of the profits which had been generated during the marriage. In forming a marriage, economic factors were important. The bride would bring with her goods in the form of land or moveable wealth, such as cattle. The bride in Gaelic-Irish custom would receive a gift in return for the marriage.
One example of an upper class marriage can be seen in the marriage of Gráinne Ní Mháille to Dónal O’Flaherty, which joined two strong clans. She brought with her a substantial dowry in the form of cattle, horses, sheep, and household goods. Upon the death of her husband or upon divorce, the dowry would be returned to her.
Since divorce was prevalent among the Gaelic aristocracy, marriage contracts made provisions for the eventuality.
Gráinne Ní Mháille’s second marriage was a trial marriage in which either partner could leave the marriage during the first year. According to some of the legends, at the end of the first year, she locked her husband out of the castle, and then shouted the words of divorce from the ramparts: “Richard Bourke, I dismiss you.” With this she acquired a castle and got rid of a husband.
Within the household, a husband had the legal right to strike his wife as a means of correcting her, but if the blow were to leave a mark, then she would be entitled to the equivalent of her dowry in compensation and she could, if she wished, divorce him.
In Gaelic-Irish customary law, the bride had certain rights to contract making and responsibilities within the marriage. She retained the ties to her family which meant that she had a certain degree of independence.
In the situation where a woman would be the sole heir of the family, she was usually encouraged to marry within the kin group in order to preserve the estate. This practice was, of course, opposed by the church as it was often in violation to their teachings regarding marriage within certain degrees of affinity and consanguinity.
In summary, even after Christianity had become dominant in Ireland, marriage tended to follow the pagan customs of Brehon law rather than conforming to Roman Catholic law. While under Christianity women were destined to lose status and power, during the first few centuries of Christianity in Ireland, Irish women retained much of their power over property.