Marry? Me?

Imagine if you will, you’re a young man, nudged along by your kin to initiate a marriage contract.  You have your eye on a lass, and happily, she’s the same lass your kin has deemed a suitable mate for you.  Except for roving thoughts about the marriage bed, you have no idea where to start.  Should you begin by courting her?  Talk to her father?  Talk to her mother?  Then there’s the matter of some payment to her kin.  When does that happen?  Can you afford her?  What if she rejects you in a fit of giggles?  It’s enough to make any poor sot sweat buckets.  As luck would have it, you’re not the only poor sot.  Your chieftain’s pulled you all together for a powwow.  There are some things you need to know.  According to the brehon laws, there are seven cases which prohibit a man from contracting a valid marriage:

  1. a barren man – that is, if you already have a cétmuinter (chief wife) and have not gotten her with child, you may not contract for another wife.  You may, however, annul the marriage to your first wife (and, presumably start over with a different woman as your chief wife.  Or, maybe you’re considered a dud and no woman should waste her time with you.  The laws aren’t clear on this).
  2. an unarmed man – one who is impotent.  This situation differs slightly from the previous one.  In the first situation, you’re capable of performing the sex act but might be shooting blanks.  In this situation, you are definitely a dud.
  3. a man in Holy Orders.  This situation and the next one cover a slightly later time period.  Originally, monks and priests of the Celtic Church were permitted to marry and have children.  Then Rome put its foot down.
  4. a churchman – that is, a bishop.  This, of course, could have been included in the third case, but the breithemain (judges), being ever mystical, wanted the number of cases to equal the magic number of seven, so they inserted this redundant case.
  5. a rockman – a landless man.
  6. a very fat man – because he would be too obese to perform the sex act.
  7. a claenán – a “perverted little wretch” who discloses his woman’s bed-secrets (Power, 1976, p. 25-26).

After speaking with you and determining that you’re all fit to marry, your chieftain might have the Chief Breithim (Judge) recite the four things you need to get in order if you’re seeking a cétmuinter:

  1. coibche – this is paid to the girl’s father, who shall divide it with the áige fine (the head of the kindred).  This payment lasts for twenty-one years.  That’s the price of women, lads!
  2. tinól – the wedding gift, consisting of cattle, made to the bride and her father by her friends. Her father will receive one-third and she’ll take the rest.
  3. tinchor – household goods you’ll be needing.
  4. tinnscra – a gift, traditionally consisting of gold, silver, copper, and brass, to be presented to the father of the bride if she’s from outside the tuath (the local community; a sub-tribal unit).

Got it?  Go for it, lad!


Power, P.C. (1976).  Sex and marriage in ancient Ireland.  Dublin:  Mercier Press.

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2 Responses to Marry? Me?

  1. Leslie says:

    Do you think things would be much different today if we adopted these laws? How much would Dad have had to give/pay Rodger to take me??

    • kerryross says:

      I’ll let you imagine how different things would be today if ancient Irish marriage laws were adopted. Should conjure up some interesting images!
      As for how much your prospective husband would have had to pay for you, that depends on both his and your social rank. The ancient Gaels preferred marriage between equals because it tended to strengthen leading families, but a man or woman was not prevented from marrying up the social ladder. It was, however, expensive for him/her to do. “The financial burden of a socially-mixed marriage falls more heavily on the family of the lower class partner. If the son of a boaire (a successful farmer) marries a daughter of a lord, his family supplies two thirds of the cattle. On the other hand, if the son of a lord marries the daughter of a boaire, her family supplies two thirds of the cattle. In the light of such regulations it is not surprising that Triad 71 regards it as a misfortune for the son of a commoner (aithech) if he marries the daughter of even the lowest grade of lord (octhigern).” (Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law, p. 73).

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