Marriage Customs of the Ancient Irish | Most Fun History Facts of Ireland
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Marriage Customs of the Ancient Irish

08:54 25 August in Irish History

Before Christianity was prevalent in Ireland, the country was very liberal in her view of sex and marriage with everything being governed by Brehon Law: the ancient laws of Ireland.

In medieval times, polygamy was an accepted practice though it is not clear from the texts how common that seemed to be. It may have been more common with the upper classes, for a husband would need to have considerable wealth to take care of all of his wives or at the very least the children from those unions.

Early on, women had considerable rights too; rights that would be stripped from them later by the Catholic Church. If the couple divorced, both parties kept whatever possessions they brought into the marriage, and either party could initiate that divorce. A fashionable marriage of the time was the hand-fast marriage that lasted for one year and a day, a sort of trial marriage. If either party did not want to stay together, the day after their first anniversary they could be released from their vow. This would all change by the late sixteenth century, with the death of Queen Elizabeth I, the completed Reformation and surrender of the last Gaelic chieftains. Replacing Brehon law with Canon law was one of the first things the English did to gain control over the Irish.


In my novel ‘The Sun Palace’ which takes place in 6th Century Ireland, a woman discovers that her husband fathered another woman’s child. She is angry of course, but not for reasons one might expect. Her misplaced anger with her husband is because he did not ask her permission to take another wife. Having sex with a woman constituted a type of marriage, specifically a marriage of the fifth degree. Though taking another wife was acceptable, the husband was required to get his first wife’s permission. In one of the oldest surviving law texts, Crith Gablach states, “To his wife belongs the right to be consulted on all every subject.”

Here’s a list of Marriage Contracts

A 1st degree marriage is a union between a man and woman of equal rank and property.

A 2nd degree marriage is when the woman has less property than the man.

A 3rd degree marriage is when the man has less property than the woman.

A 4th degree marriage is when there is no property involved, though the children’s rights are safeguarded.

A 5th degree marriage is when two people share their bodies but live under separate roofs.

A 6th degree marriage is when an enemies’ wife is abducted. The marriage is only valid as long as the man can keep the woman with him.

A 7th degree marriage is called a soldier’s marriage and is temporary.

An 8th degree marriage is when a man seduces a woman through lying or deception. In this case she is entitled to a divorce.

A 9th degree union is one by rape.

A 10th degree union is between insane people.

Marriage was a contract and each degree of marriage had specific guidelines which predetermined everything in the case of divorce.

At first thought one might think polygamy a terrible arrangement. To be considered married in the case of rape or abduction seems outrageous, but consider this. Marriage in medieval Ireland was a business contract and thus children of those parties were protected. Brehon law stated that children were cared and provided for and considered legal heirs to their parent’s property whether their parents stayed together or not. How many illegitimate children in today’s society are without any legal, economic, or social support? Perhaps the Celts of Ireland had the right idea.