[Arranged marriages, the dowry system and matchmaking were widespread among farming families in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This extract from an article written for an English women's magazine may be partly true but the passive role of the suitors is hardly representative.]
... Of all a man's affairs, his marriage is supposed to concern other people the least. In rural Ireland, it is the one personal matter that is most meddled with by other people. Indeed, the match is often an affair of bargaining between the parents of the 'boy' and the 'girl'.
... Wedlock being an indissoluble partnership, with the most serious responsibilities, material considerations, more than sentimental, decide the issue. The pecuniary circumstances of both bride and bridegroom are minutely gone into by the respective parents, and in the end they agree that the boy shall receive so much land, if not the entire farm, on condition that so much money shall be forthcoming on the girl's side. But money is not everything. It is recognised that matrimony, to be successful requires some more sterling and enduring factors. In the final result, character is the deciding quality ... Both sides think highly of 'pedigree'. The family of the boy (or the girl) must be 'dacent, respectable people', there must be no 'wake point' in their history. But in this respect, also, the judges are not the young people themselves, but the parents.
The great marrying season in Ireland is Shrovetide, the week preceding Lent ... As Shrovetide approaches, the parents of marriageable sons and daughters know that their children are possessed of a craving for connubial joys and consequently set about getting suitable mates for them ... When a farmer holding, say, thirty acres of land ... has a daughter of marriageable age, he conveys the intelligence in an indirect, off-hand manner to a neighbour possessed of a farm almost about the same size as his own and a son likely to make a good husband for his girl. Meeting his friend at a fair or market, he will say, with a laugh, 'Whisper here, Jim; I'm bringing up my little Maggie for your Johnnie.'
'Ah, now, Tom', the other replies, 'you do me a great honour entirely. But mind you, my Johnnie is very particular, and has high notions altogether, wherever in the world he got them ... What a big fortune he will be wanting with his wife, no less. Did you ever hear the like?'
'Fortune, is it?' the father of the girl exclaims, 'Why, my Maggie is a fortune in herself. Still, for all that, I wouldn't mind giving a few pound or maybe a milking cow, or a couple of heifers and pigs, with a good stock of clothes ... and it's many a one that would be glad to take her without a farthing's worth of value.'
The subject ... is discussed by the parents whenever they meet, and often a long time elapses before the terms of this business arrangement are finally settled, and the young people get to know that they are to be partners for life.
If the farmer who is looking out for a husband for his daughter finds that there is no boy in his own neighbourhood who possesses the necessary qualifications - moral and physical, of course, but financially especially - he makes enquiries elsewhere ... and having ... heard of the 'makings of a match' ... he starts off [and, on meeting the other farmer, debates the matter] in the tap-room of a public-house.
... 'Tell me now', says the visiting farmer, 'how much land are you willing to give over to your boy, if he got a good match of a girl for a wife?'
The other farmer, to avoid committing himself at once to a definite reply, will ask in return, 'How much fortune will you give your daughter?'
Though it is the intention of the first farmer to give one hundred pounds - which is usually the dowry of the daughter of a small farmer - he will begin by offering only fifty pounds, until he finds out how far the other is disposed to go in providing for his son.
... In may cases, the whole farm or the succession of it, goes with the husband, when he is the eldest son. This may simply mean that the daughter-in-law joins the household as a help to the old mother - 'the crathur'... The bride's money is usually retained by the parents of the bridegroom for their own use and benefit. Probably it will be expended in providing a husband for a daughter of their own. More than that, the same sum of money may do a similar service in a surprising number of cases. Indeed, as many as a dozen nuptial knots have been known to be tied by means of one and the same £100 ... So this identical £100 passes on, marrying all the eligible girls in the townland, leaving joy, happiness, and contentment in its wake, just as if it were a beneficent fair with a wand of enchantment.
... The delicate service of bringing young people together ... is mostly undertaken by the match-maker for no other reason than to satisfy a friendly well-meaning desire to see united in wedlock a boy and girl who are enamoured of each other, but are not personally acquainted, or else too bashful to settle matters themselves. In some instances, however, a fee is charged. There is not the uncommon case of a man who is eager for a wife, and has failed to find her. He consults the match-maker, tells him the kind of girl he would like, and gives him a few sovereigns as an inducement to keep a look-out for her.
Michael MacDonagh, 'Marriage customs in rural Ireland', The Englishwoman, 22 (April-June 1914).
Reprinted in Maria Luddy, Women in Ireland, 1800-1918, Cork, 1995.
'Pecuniary circumstances'' means financial circumstances and 'connubial joys' means marriage joys.
'Dacent', 'wake' and 'crathur' were Hiberno-English pronunciations of the words 'decent', 'weak' and 'creature'.
A farthing was a small copper coin worth a quarter of a penny and a sovereign was a gold coin worth one pound sterling.