Marriage in nineteenth century Cavan

In 19th century Cavan marriage was as much a social institution as anything associated with happiness or contentment. It was all about cementing the present into the future. This was as true for those at the apex of the pyramid as for those toiling at its feet.

For Cavan’s landed gentry, as well as for its growing middle class, marriage was about maintaining one’s position vis-à-vis other families. These marriages were frequently arranged and the parties concerned had no input whatsoever. These were, however, the causes for celebration by the landlord’s tenantry.

In March 1864 the Cavan Observer reported rejoicing in the Shercock area. A correspondent reported that on the evening of February 27th
… the tenantcy of the different townlands of Mr. Singleton's extensive estate, lighted bonfires in honour of the worthy gentleman's nuptial with a noble English lady, which were celebrated on that day. From an elevated hill, in the townland of Kilmackran, on the farm of Mr. Rose, which was beautifully illuminated for the occasion as far as the eye could reach, might be seen similar displays of a happy and prosperous people, spontaneous affection for their beneficent landlord....Mr. Rose, who assisted by Edward M'Cabe, as a musician, contributed largely to the amusement and hilarity of those present.
It is highly likely that the celebrations were attended by fairly copious amounts of alcohol, and the joy was quite spontaneous. The young man whose marriage was the object of these events, subsequently chose not to reside in Shercock. Perhaps he was shocked at how the locals had a good time.

However, this was not always the case. William Humphreys was a very prosperous Dublin merchant. He bought out the estate of Ballyhaise early in the nineteenth century. He was an upstart, a parvenu without pedigree, so he was determined to outdo his neighbours in acting out the role of the feudal tyrant towards his tenantry. Those tenants who had the vote were told who to vote for at elections; If they disagreed they were evicted. In January 1827 his son, also called William, married Anna Maria Pratt-Winter from a landed family in Co. Meath. Humphreys senior was determined that his tenants should make a special effort during their return, not to mention a good impression on his in-laws. This was recorded by The Freeman’s Journal.

At a considerable distance from Ballyhaise the happy couple were met by the tenantry of the Humphrey’s estates who, anxious to testify their attachment and gratitude to the benevolent and liberal landlord… insisted on drawing the carriage the remainder of the way…”

For meerer mortals matrimony was attended by just as much seriousness, if less ostentation. It was, after all, for life. It is not surprising that marriage reflected a changed attitude towards life in general in Cavan during the century. At its beginning there was much optimism. A relatively comfortable life free of want could be anticipated. Hunger was no longer a bogeyman, thanks to the arrival of the miracle tuber the potato. What was more, income could be earned processing flax into linen on the farm. There was not the same need for land as before. Holdings, already perilously small, were subdivided to make farms for sons and daughters who no longer waited until older and more financially independent before getting married and setting up home.

The collapse of the domestic linen industry in Cavan, followed by the calamity of the Great Famine, exploded this optimism. For many, emigration was the only viable option. Those who remained were inculcated with a profound conservatism which sprang from a survival instinct. Marriages were contracted later and were often proceeded by a fair amount of unromantic haggling between the families, both of whom were determined to maximize their outputs. The prospective bride’s family was anxious that she would preserve some financial independence, especially with regard to sources of income such as eggs and domestic poultry. Love was an unwanted party pooper.

The actual marriage ceremony, attended by some merry-making, might be the only bright spot in the bride and bride-groom’s long relationship. There was much dancing and singing, and it was not uncommon for musicians disguised in straw masks to attempt to gate-crash the festivities. Slightly richer couples might be entitled to a short honeymoon, but nothing longer than a few days. This might be spent in the bride’s residence. Afterwards she and her husband would take up residence in his house which was to be her kingdom, (and maybe her prison) for the rest of her life. This was frequently referred to as “the dragging home” and might be accompanied by some revelry.

In the eyes of the law, marriage was a legal contract, and the promise to marry was as important as the ceremony itself. In late June 1849 William Dunlop from Killatee near Bailieborough, sued one Elizabeth Wallace nee Evans at the Bailieborough quarter sessions. He said Elizabeth had agreed to marry him but had gone back on her promise. This was a civil proceeding and he was pursuing damages of £9 for the expenses which he claimed he had expended. These included getting a marriage licence, as well as procuring “wedding apparel and many other expensive and necessary things to celebrate … {the] intended wedding.” William had apparently been something of a catch. In her counter-suit Elizabeth Evans claimed she had also suffered losses of £9. He had promised to marry her, but in the fortnight leading up to the engagement, when “wooing and paying his addresses to her” she had supplied him with dinners including wines, ale, and spirits together with deserts of sweetmeats and fruit. It seems that poor William was afraid of being injured in some post-wedding fracas. Elizabeth produced a letter he sent her, where he wrote:

….my Deer I will be ready to get married on choosday the 20 instant. I mane to have no wedding and then the Boxing fellows will not cut my head. I can assure my deer I never boxed at a wedd, therefore I hope that there will be pase when the parties will not assimble, … my love you may hold yourself in readiness on choosday morning, about the hour of eight of the clock.

When this was read out, the court descended into hysterical laughter.
Unfortunately we don’t know whatever happened to poor Willy Dunlop. We can only hope he learned how to spell before he again went a-wooing!

Yet Cavan contained men and women who had staunchly resisted the temptation to marry. One of them was Patrick Donohoe who lived not far from Belturbet. He was thought to be eighty years old, but because of his solitary mode of life in which he spared little money on his appearance or his domicile, he was believed to be fantastically wealthy, and was called old Money-bags locally. In an attempt to convert his riches to more productive use a family of the neighbourhood persuaded him to marry their sixteen-year-old daughter. They probably hoped that she would kill him with kindness, and that he would leave his bounteous lucre to her – and her family. The marriage was duly solemnised on June 23rd – a week before poor Willy Dunlop’s day in court – but was attended by much hilarity. On emerging from the chapel Patrick Donohoe stumbled and fell, calling out to his bride: “Your devoted husband is undone!”. But then, on rising to his feet he stuttered through a waterfall of tears: “"No, your husband is not undone; thanks to kind Providence, he has been spared to be a happy bliss to you and your offspring hereafter." This caused more than a chuckle amongst the spectators. The happy couple then made their exit in a most fitting bridal carriage – an ass and cart, followed by loud and lustful cheers from the onlookers. The newspaper correspondent reported that they were to spend their honeymoon at the father of the bride’s. This was probably wise, as this man was most anxious to monitor poor Patrick Donohoe’s health. According to local folklore he died soon afterwards, though whether of natural causes remains to this day unclear. However, local memory also relates that his in-laws did not benefit from his death.

The vast majority of marriages entered into in Cavan in the nineteenth century were unaccompanied by drama. Although the Famine led to delays in marriage, it did not cause marriage to become less popular. While hunger was no longer a presence in Ireland, diseases continued to carry off the young, so while families were large, few of them remained unaffected by premature deaths.

By Ciaran Parker