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Rings hidden in the desert may provoke a chuckle nowadays. But Ireland’s many marriage customs recall a time when a walk down the aisle was tough to come by.
By Regina Sexton
Ireland seems to have an endless supply of odd traditions where food is used to predict one’s chances of getting married. But while hiding a ring in the barm brack is about as serious in Irish today as leaving a note for Santa is in America, so-called “games of marriage divination” were once deadly serious. In Ireland’s collective memory, they recall a time when finding a marriage partner in the rural countryside could be a desperate enterprise.
The Romance Season Traditionally, the period between Halloween and Shrovetide (the Tuesday before Lent) was dominated by thoughts of romance, matchmaking and marriage. During this slack time for farm work, energies could be diverted to affairs of the heart. Church laws exerted a bit of extra pressure for quick success. Even into the 20th century, the Church in Ireland forbade marriages during Lent, creating a rush to tie the knot before this period of restraint and abstinence started.
On Halloween night, games of marriage divination were played from hiding of wedding rings in bowls of colcannon to watching whether a pair of nuts on a hot griddle – each named for a prospective lover – would jump together or apart over the fire. Almost ever common food was called into service on this night to forecast the romantic fortunes of the unmarried. Apples were expertly and carefully peeled to give one long ribbon of peel,
which was flung over the shoulder. The resulting shape of the peel was taken to be the initial of the potential suitor’s first name. Other customs were a bit less pleasant. In some
places, young girls would eat a salty herring without anything to drink, just before going to bed. Their hope was that, in their dreams, their future lover would appear carrying a drink of water. Nowadays, games of marriage divination are recalled by hiding various charms in the Halloween barm brack (a currant yeast loaf. Finding a ring signals
marriage within the year, while a thimble denotes spinsterhood and a button, bachelorhood).
After the frolics of Halloween, a more serious approach was taken to the business of marriage, with the services of a matchmaker being routinely sought. For a fee, the matchmaker would organize a meeting between a likely couple, always in the presence of the eager parents. Girls were chosen with the concerns of their dowry and their childbearing abilities (often determined by a pair of wide and sturdy hips!) in mind. If the meeting went well, a legally binding contract was drawn up and the marriage date set.
Traditionally the new bride moved into the groom¹s house with his parents. The couple’s marriage contract often specified certain benefits for the groom’s parents, like a seat beside the fire, a seat on the trap going to Sunday mass and enough grass to graze a cow.
Shrove Tuesday was seen as a girl’s last chance of the season to create a good portent for her marriage fortunes, by showing her skill at tossing pancakes. Pity the poor girl, especially the eldest unmarried daughter, who arrived at Shrovetide without a prospect of marriage. Although the marriage games in general were played in a spirit of levity, a young woman’s failure to assume martial status was traumatic, since there was a distinct stigma attached to being unmarried in the Ireland well into the early 20th century.
The Marriage Economy Behind these folk customs lay some grim economic aspects of marriage. After the Famine of the mid 19th century, Irish marriage patterns changed. This was brought on by a change in land inheritance customs. While land holdings had been divided among all family sons before the famine, afterwards most farms were passed on entirely to the eldest son. His sisters and brothers had no stake in the land, and were forced to seek economic security elsewhere. Many joined religious orders or the British military, took service jobs in urban areas, or emigrated from Ireland. Those who stayed put were forced to live at home as bachelors or spinsters. To complicate matters, the inheriting son often was not granted the farm until his father was far into old age. The son was obliged to delay marriage until his father saw fit, and it was generally approved not when the man needed a wife, but when the farm needed a woman. Sons who stayed on the farm were often well into their forties by the time they took their wedding vows. The atmosphere of the time was economically depressed and psychologically repressed. The fact that so many people either delayed marriage or lived in permanent celibacy is why the folk customs of the day show a constant, poignant desire for marriage.