In sixteenth century Ireland early Irish or brehon laws still authorised a form of family life which differed from that in England and most of Europe at the time. The English distrusted and despised many aspects of Irish family life such as divorce, partible inheritance, concubinage, succession by sons born outside marriage and women keeping their own names after marriage. Fynes Moryson was a hostile commentator on Irish family customs in the early seventeenth century:

The maryed wemen of Ireland still retayne theire owne sirnames ... The men hold it disgracefull to walke with theire owne wives abroade, or to ryde with theire wives behinde them. The meere Irish divorced wives and with theire consent took them agayne frequently, and for small yea ridiculous causes, allwayes paying a bribe of Cowes to the Brehowne judges, and sending the wife away with some few Cowes more then shee brought.
Extract from Graham Kew, The Irish sections of Fynes Moryson's unpublished itinerary, Dublin, 1998, p.67.

Gaelic chieftains, like most aristocrats of the time, used marriage to extend their influence and form alliances with rivals or enemies. Many sought to marry into influential English families. Shane O'Neill wished to marry the sister of the Earl of Sussex and one of Hugh O'Neill's wives was Mabel Bagenal, sister of the Queen's Marshal. Their daughters, sisters and even mothers might also be married off in order to form alliances with other Gaelic or English leaders.

Fosterage was common in Gaelic Ireland and regulated by brehon laws. Most wealthy families fostered their sons and daughters to their relatives or to other families of equal or lower status. The English disapproved because it was one more method of forging close links between Gaelic and Old English families. The practice had declined by the end of the seventeenth century.

They love tenderly their foster-children and bequeath to them a child's portion, whereby they nourish true friendship, so beneficial every way, that commonly 500 kine (cows) and better are given in reward to win a nobleman's child to foster.
Edmund Campion, History of Ireland, 1633, quoted in Constantia Maxwell, Irish history from contemporary sources (1509-1610), London, 1923, p. 315.

The dowries of Gaelic women usually consisted of cows and household goods but by this time some women from powerful families brought land, ships or even troops of their own. Sureties were given for their dowries so that if the marriage failed they could depart with whatever property they brought to the marriage.

Husbands through their great expenses especially chieftains at the time of their deaths have no goods to leave behind them but are commonly indebted; at other times they are divorced upon proof of precontracts; and the husband now and then without any lawful or due proceeding do put his wife from him and so bringeth in another; so as the wife is to have sureties for her dowry for fear of the worse. Gráinne Ní Mháille quoted by Anne Chambers, Granuaile, Dublin, 1998, p.202.

How brehon law operated in the early modern period is not completely clear since several aspects must have changed since it was written down in the eighth century. It continued to be used side by side with English law in some areas for many years but was legally abolished by the English in the early seventeenth century and then declined steadily. The transition was a painful experience and had major implications, some good, some bad, for women living in Gaelic areas.

  Women under early Irish brehon law Women under English common law

A married woman could bring her own moveable property to the marriage. She could acquire more, often spend it without permission of her husband and reclaim it on widowhood.

A husband had control by common law over the property and earnings of his wife during marriage.
The main implications were for poorer women in difficult family circumstances.
Wealthy families set up trusts to protect their daughters from possible hardship. Women who could afford to apply to courts of equity often got a sympathetic hearing.


Women do not seem to have inherited land at this period.


There was no legal provision for widows but they retained the property they brought to the marriage.

Women inherited land outright when there were no male heirs. Such heiresses, together with wealthy widows were greatly in demand as wives.

Widows might retain their dowries and wealthy women had 'jointures' arranged on marriage to provide them with an income on widowhood.


Married women, rich and poor kept their own names but emphasis was placed on continuing the male line through the children.

Married women took their husbands' names. Continuity of family names in the male line assumed great importance.


Children born outside marriage could succeed their fathers.

Fathers were responsible only for children born in marriage. Children born outside marriage did not inherit their father's property and might suffer discrimination.


Divorce was possible, though forbidden by the church. It was more popular with men. Some wives petitioned the church courts or the English courts to reverse their divorces.

Divorce was unusual and difficult to obtain.


  1. Why, according to Gráinne Ní Mháille, did Gaelic women need sureties for their dowries?
  2. What, in your opinion, were the two greatest advantages for women, of the brehon laws?
  3. What, in your opinion, were the two greatest disadvantages for women, of the brehon laws?
  4. Study the extract 'Sir John Davies' in Documents at the end of this section.
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