An Island Divided

In both Gaelic Irish and Old English society, marriage law played the most prevalent role in the lives of women. How did the differences between English Common Law and Brehon Law affect the social expectations and limitations of women in each society?

Medieval Ireland was, according to historians, an island divided into two separate societies. The first of these societies was the native Gaelic Irish. The second was the Old English, descendants of the Anglo-Norman settlers of the late twelfth and early thirteenth century.[1] The Old English followed English Common Law, whereas the Gaelic Irish followed old Gaelic Law, or Brehon Law. Marriage was a key part of each legal system especially, in relation to the lives and roles of women. However, laws within each legal system were very different and so women’s experiences both before and after marriage varied greatly.[2] Both systems developed and prospered individually but did not successfully integrate; this of course posed a problem in instances of intermarriage between Gaelic and Old English.

In Old English society, the bride brought a dowry with her to the marriage. A dowry could be compiled of many different items depending on the social status of the woman and her family. English Common Law enforced coverture, which is, “the basic premise that legally married women were under the rule of their husbands.”[3] Upon marriage, all of a woman’s property, including her dowry, passed completely into her husband’s hands.[4] However, although a husband controlled all of his wife’s property under Common Law, it could not be sold without first asking her. As soon as a woman was married she had little to no rights in relation to acquiring or even managing her own land. A widowed woman was entitled to her dower, which was usually one-third of her late husbands estate; if he had no legitimate children, she received half. Only legitimate heirs born within marriage were able to inherit land or property under the common law and a man could only have one living wife at a time. Widows were also entitled to a jointure, which was an estate on which she would survive following her husband’s death. Until 1634, a married woman could claim for both a dower and jointure but after that date she could only choose one.[5] However, even within Old English society in Ireland there were differences in marriage. A woman who lived in a rural area could lead a very different role within her marriage and society to that of a woman who lived in a more urban area such as Dublin. For example, many women who lived in urban areas worked outside the home, especially the wives of craftsmen and artisans who often worked along side their husbands. It is possible that if a wife was also contributing economically to a marriage, she may have had greater influence within the marriage than perhaps a woman who depended solely on her husband. Another notable difference in the power balance was that women living in Dublin, the heart of the Pale and center of English administration in Ireland, were eligible to become citizens. Therefore, marriage to a woman living in Dublin was the means by which a man could advance socially as he could gain his citizenship through her once married.[6]

There were many differences between Old English marriages and those of the Gaelic Irish. Throughout the late Middle Ages, the Gaelic Irish were successful in retaining their civil laws and traditions regarding marriage separate from any influences or teachings of the Catholic Church.[7] Most notably, Gaelic society accepted divorce, so much so that trial marriages were common practice. Such “trial marriages” usually lasted a year and a day, if after this time period the couple decided to part, they could do so with no repercussions and with any property they brought to the marriage. However, under Brehon Law, there were ten forms of marriage, each of declining authority, desirability, and legal rights given within the marriage. They are as follows:

1. A marriage between partners of equal rank and property
2. A marriage in which the man brings more property and therefore supports his wife
3. A marriage in which the woman brings more property and the man has to agree to manage his wife’s cattle and fields
4. A marriage of a loved one in which no property rights are exchanged but the rights of any children in the marriage are protected
5. A union in which both parties consent to share their bodies, but live separately
6. A marriage resulting in the abduction of a defeated enemy’s wife. This marriage is only valid as long as the man can keep the woman with him
7. A union, also known as a soldier’s marriage, is temporary and primarily sexual
8. A union resulting from a man deceptively seducing a woman, through lying or taking advantage of her intoxication
9. A union resulting from forcible rape
10. A union between people with mental health issues[8]

Women in Gaelic society were given far more rights both within marriage and outside it then their Old English counterparts. For example, illegitimacy was not a factor in Gaelic Ireland, a mother’s word was enough for a child to claim to be an heir, even to a clan chief, and as long as the proposed father accepted, the child would be given the same rights as any born within marriage. In Gaelic society it was customary for a husband to pay a bride price, or coibche, to both the bride’s family and the bride herself. Women, under Gaelic law, were given extensive powers of independent contract, so much so that it was almost equal to that of the men in their society[9]; and so women retained full control over any property they brought to a marriage. A wife was to be consulted in any decision regarding joint property and reserved the right to revoke any decision her husband made without her permission. As polygamy was common in Gaelic Ireland, a wife’s rights within a marriage greatly depended on where she came on the social ladder. This was also socially significant as the first wife of a chief, or the cétmuinter, by virtue of marriage had some share in her husbands authority over his territories and would take his place were he absent due to war.[10]

From these select examples it is evident that the differences in English Common Law and Gaelic Brehon Law had a direct affect on the lives and roles of women, not only in marriage but also in society as a whole.

-Rachel Dwyer


[1] Cosgrove, Art. 1994. “Marriage In Medieval Ireland By Art Cosgrove.” History Ireland.

[2] Cordelia Beattie, and Matthew Frank Stevens, Married Women And The Law In Premodern Northwest Europe (Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Boydell Press, 2013), 53.

[3] Beattie and Stevens, Married Women And The Law In Premodern Northwest Europe, 53.

[4] Katharine Simms, “Women in Gaelic society during the Age of Transition,” in Women in early modern Ireland, ed. Margaret MacCurtain and Mary O’Dowd (Edinburgh,1991),14-15.

[5] Gillian Kenny, “Anglo-Irish And Gaelic Marriage Laws And Traditions In Late Medieval Ireland” Journal Of Medieval History 32, no. 1 (2006): 29.

[6] Kenny “Anglo-Irish And Gaelic Marriage Laws And Traditions In Late Medieval Ireland,” 29.

[7] Ibid., 32.

[8] Ó Corráin, Donnchadh. 2015. “Marriage In Early Ireland.” Ucc.Ie.

[9] Beattie and Stevens, Married Women And The Law In Premodern Northwest Europe, 60.

[10] Kenny, “Anglo-Irish And Gaelic Marriage Laws And Traditions In Late Medieval Ireland,” 34.

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