Marriage and Brehon Law in Ancient Ireland

Irish history is immersed in centuries of oppression that was particularly harsh in respect to the Catholic religion. The late 17th and 18th century Penal Laws prevented priests from celebrating mass never mind conducting the sacrament of marriage. If a priest was caught, sanctions were quite severe, in fact, punishable by death. The last of the Penal Laws were not repealed in Ireland until 1920 by the Government of Ireland Act.

Given this background and the unique identity of the native Irish people who were forced to practice their faith underground, it is not surprising that an Irish wedding had a particular identity all its own and had a number of specific traditions associated with it.

Handfasting is an ancient Celtic tradition that involved tying the hands of the betrothed together well in advance of their actual wedding day. It is similar to an engagement, a time when both parties decide if they genuinely wish to commit. In modern times the tradition occurs on the actual wedding day although in centuries past the ceremony acted as a kind of temporary marriage.

A Pagan Wedding Ceremony, Handfasting was actually a legitimate way for people to be married and only declined when laws were enforced making the act of marriage much more formal. When Brehon Law was the law of the land, Handfasting was duly recognised as a proper form of marriage.

This tradition is well recorded in Ireland and especially at Teltown in Co Meath. The Irish historian John O’Donovan (1806-1861) wrote of the ‘Teltown Marriages’:

A number of young men went into the hollow to the north side of the wall, and an equal number of marriageable young women to the south side of the wall which was so high as to prevent them from seeing the men; one of the women put her hand thro’ the hole in the gate and a man took hold of it from the other side, being guided in his choice only by the appearance of the hand. The two were thus joined hands by blind chance were obliged to live together for a year and a day, at the expiration of which time they appeared at the Rath of Telton and if they were not satisfied with each other they obtained a deed of separation, and were entitled to go to Laganeeny again to try their good fortune for the ensuing year.

Under Brehon Law, there were ten forms of marriage, each diminishing in importance, legal rights and desirability and sorted by degrees.

A first degree union takes place between partners of equal rank and property.

A second degree union in which a woman has less property than the man and is supported by him.

A third degree union in which a man has less property than the woman and has to agree to management of the woman’s cattle and fields by someone from her family.

A fourth degree union is the marriage of the loved one in which no property rights changed hands, though children’s rights are safeguarded.

A fifth degree union is the mutual consent of the man and woman to share their bodies, but live under separate roofs.

A sixth degree union in which a defeated enemy’s wife is abducted. This marriage was valid only as long as the man could keep the woman with him.

A seventh degree union is called a soldier’s marriage and is a temporary, primarily sexual union.

An eighth degree union occurs when a man seduces a woman through lying, deception or taking advantage of her intoxication.

A ninth degree union is a union by rape.

A tenth degree union occurs between feeble-minded or insane people.

Medieval Ireland (New Gill History of Ireland 1)
The Brehon Laws: A Legal Handbook

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