What’s a ‘traditional marriage’ then? Thoughts on the Marriage Referendum.

Ireland is about to vote on whether or not gay citizens should have the same marriage rights as heterosexual ones. I am an historian of Irish marriage and it makes me both cringe and laugh when opponents of this change to marriage law defend their ‘no’ stance by referring to ‘traditional marriage’ because a phrase like that means something very different to me.


I have studied the history of Irish families and marriage for my adult life and, to be honest, if equal marriage rights opponents do want to go down the ‘traditional route’ then it may not work out too well for their argument. I mean, let’s take a very brief look at what I have gleaned from all my study over the past many years and what ‘traditional’ means to me.

  1. In the period I study (from about the eleventh century until about the seventeenth century) people very seldom married in church at all. Yes, that’s right. In Gaelic society traditionally a marriage was a private event and was basically a massive party. Imagine a modern wedding with all the drink, joy and music but without the churchy bit in the morning. We had that for most of our history. In the Gaelic world, marriage was overwhelmingly secular and people could divorce each other on many grounds. A wife could divorce her husband if he
  2. was too fat to have sex
  3. was impotent
  4. gossiped about their sex life
  5. neglected or beat his wife

fat man

A husband could divorce his wife if she

  1. was adulterous
  2. neglected her household chores
  3. killed her children.


In fact, you could argue that divorce was fairly traditional back then – it was certainly easy to obtain and many people did just that.

See what I mean about those ‘traditional marriage’ claims…

Let’s look at some other marital practices engaged in throughout Irish history.

  1. The Catholic Church also allowed what were called ‘clandestine marriages’ during the Middle Ages. Essentially it meant people could marry each other, using words of consent, without a priest being present. So marriage could be entered into without a sacrament being performed and this was, I stress once again, fully approved of by the religious authorities. This was an accepted and became quite a traditional form of marriage in Ireland. Of course, the Church changed its mind about all that a bit later though. Not that I’m saying they could ever be wrong of course but certainly their view of ‘traditional’ may be open to interpretation too.
  1. Traditionalists may also be somewhat surprised to learn that ‘traditionally’ Ireland had at least nine types of marriage or sexual union. Yes, Irish society recognised many different types of relationship that adults might wish to be involved in.   They ranged from marriage to an individual who was of equal status to you and included marital type sexual unions with concubines. These liaisons could occur all at the same time. Unsurprisingly, many men took full advantage of the fact that polygyny was allowed. Turlough an fhiona O’ Donnell lord of Tirconnel, who died in 1423, had eighteen sons by ten different women and fifty-nine grandsons in the male line. Mulmora O’ Reilly the lord of East Breifne who died in 1566 had at least fifty-eight grandsons. Philip Maguire the lord of Fermanagh (died 1395) had twenty sons by eight mothers and there were at least fifty grandsons. When you think of it, you can’t really get any more traditional type of Irishman than a Gaelic chieftain can you?
  1. Within Gaelic Ireland many people appear to have embarked on trial marriages (*ahem* those ‘living in sin’ situations) before obtaining dispensations to marry, which only started to become popular after 1400. Such trial marriages may have been used to establish compatibility as well as the woman’s ability to bear and raise children. In Irish history then multiple marriages, casual sexual encounters and divorce at will were common. So, according to the traditions of Irish society which existed for hundreds of years, we could engage in all sort of sexual escapades with whoever we wanted and we could marry and divorce at will. Those are our oldest traditions, not the monogamous, married in white, given-away by one’s Daddy stereotype that’s used to back up the anti-same sex marriage campaign.  The ‘no’ campaigners also stress the needs of children in their opposition to same-sex marriage. poster

Well, In Ireland’s past not only could kids have a Mammy and a Daddy to bring them up* they could have several of them, at different times or maybe all at once. The ‘traditions’ of marriage and family in Ireland argue for an inclusive and grown up view of human relationships and not a singular vision that cuts many Irish people out.

When you think about it ‘traditional’ forms of Irish marriage make the proposed granting of equal rights to same-sex marriages look a bit tame and more than a bit necessary and just if you ask me.

gay marriage

* Should also be noted that many children were fostered out to relatives and friends to be brought up and also the concept of ‘illegitimacy’ as many understand it didn’t hold much sway in Irish history. In fairness though, people were probably too busy trying to keep up with a revolving door of husbands, wives and sexual partners than to really bother about who was ‘legitimate’ and who wasn’t.

1 Comment

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One response to “What’s a ‘traditional marriage’ then? Thoughts on the Marriage Referendum.

  1. Fascinating article – and useful material for any arguments with ‘traditional’ marriage proponents. Aside from the fact that time simply just moves on and our values can change and become more progressive about what we want from love, rather than what is dictated to us.

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