Family: Marriage Patterns and Family Life from 1690 to 1921

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Marriage Patterns and Family Life from 1690 to 1921

By the early twentieth century about one-quarter of adult men and women in Ireland had never married. While not unique to Ireland at the time, these patterns were unusual and have long been taken as evidence of an exceptional pattern of marriage and family life. As early as the 1840s the proportion of adults in Ireland who had never married was much lower, at about 10 percent, and was completely unremarkable by European standards. The huge increase over the second half of the nineteenth century raises the question of the role of the Great Famine in these family patterns. The reasons behind this dramatic change are not well understood, unfortunately, but the broad outlines are known and scholarship since the 1980s has at least succeeded in dispelling some old thinking.

From 1690 to the Great Famine of 1846 to 1850

Most western European couples between 1690 and 1850 lived in small households consisting of a married couple and their children. This couple did not marry until they were able to move out of their own parents' household and provide for themselves and their offspring. This western European marriage pattern produced what was by world standards a relatively late age at marriage. Women did not marry until their early or mid-twenties, and men married a few years later. Many adults never married at all. Depending on the time and place, some 10 percent to 20 percent of adults remained single (or celibate, to use the demographer's term) all their lives. There is strong evidence that in bad economic times adults married later, and more of them never married, reflecting the difficulty of setting up their own households.

This picture is clear for England, France, Sweden, and some other western European societies for which there are excellent historical records on marriage and households. For Ireland, with its very poor demographic records prior to the 1841 population census, the picture is much less clear. Most of what is known about marriage patterns in Ireland until the early nineteenth century comes from sources that are either inadequate to the questions at hand or that pertain to small minority groups such as Quakers.

The striking account of prefamine marriage patterns offered by Kenneth H. Connell in his classic work The Population of Ireland, 1750 to 1845 implies that Ireland was some sort of demographic oddity. The prefamine Irish, he claimed, married at much younger ages than did their European counterparts, and virtually all of them married. Connell argued that agricultural prosperity brought about by the Anglo-French wars of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries had made it easier for poor Irish people to obtain land and so to marry and raise a family. He stresses the miserable living standards to which the Irish were accustomed, which made them willing to marry an income that other Europeans would have considered insufficient to support a family. He also noted the spread of a system of land tenure that let very small strips of land in conacre, an in-kind form of rent, to the poorest families.

Research since the 1980s suggests that Connell's account was flawed in important features. A number of reliable sources, including the 1841 census (which is considered very reliable), show no trace of his teenage brides, and the proportions who never married in Ireland at that time were nearly identical to those in England and other western European societies. On the other hand, some studies (such as O'Neill's account of the parish of Killashandra, Co. Cavan), have found lower female ages at marriage, reflecting economic opportunities presented by household linen production in some regions of Ireland.

The Famine and After

During the decades following the famine the proportions of Irish people who never married climbed dramatically, although not constantly. The basic patterns of this change are better documented than are household patterns before the famine. Increases in permanent celibacy were at first largely restricted to eastern and northern Ireland in the 1860s and 1870s, but then spread rapidly to western and southern Ireland. Many accounts claim that age at marriage rose dramatically, and indeed there were numerous bridegrooms in their late thirties and even older. But the increase in the age at marriage was slight when compared to the increases in the proportion of those who did not marry at all.

Some scholars have argued that this change in marriage patterns was a simple result of the famine. Early and universal marriage was restricted to the poor, the argument goes, and the famine swept away these poor, leaving only the social classes whose marriage patterns had been more "European" all along. This view contains a kernel of truth. But it cannot explain the time patterns of change; there was no dramatic rupture at the time of the famine, and marriage patterns continued to change well into the twentieth century, long after any direct impact from the famine would be expected. Kevin O'Rourke has noted that the famine made Ireland's poor more willing to emigrate and less likely to tolerate poverty in Ireland, which would imply a more drawn-out influence of the famine on marriage patterns. Connell stressed the postfamine spread of a form of marriage that he called the "match." In his account Irish farming families, who dominated the countryside after the death of many of the poor during the famine, became less and less willing to marry without larger and more prosperous farms. As these farms became more difficult to acquire, young Irish adults became more willing to postpone marriage or even avoid it altogether.

Guinnane's 1997 study of postfamine demographic patterns stresses some correctives to earlier accounts. Most accounts of marriage in postfamine Ireland claim that Irish marriage patterns were unique, but this is simply not true. Similar marriage patterns can be observed in several other regions of western Europe, all of which shared a common history of rural poverty, lack of industrialization, and heavy emigration. An explanation unique to Ireland cannot account for similar patterns in Portugal. Much of the discussion of postfamine marriage patterns also ignores the impact of emigration on every facet of Irish life. Some Irish birth-cohorts lost half of their members to emigration; those who remained were those who had in a real sense chosen Irish life and all that it meant. For many, remaining in Ireland meant giving up a chance to marry and to have a family, and this must have played a large role in many emigrants' decisions.

Less is known about the other famous feature of Irish family life—large numbers of children. During the second half of the nineteenth century most European couples began to have much smaller families, in a development historical demographers call the fertility transition. The Irish were only half-hearted participants in this development. As late as 1911 the average Irish couple had a family about 50 percent larger than the average English couple. The reasons for this high Irish fertility are not yet understood. It is true that the Roman Catholic Church, of which a large majority of Irish people were adherents, forbade contraception. But this was also true of many Protestant groups in Ireland, and the evidence on Catholic/Protestant fertility differences in Ireland is very mixed. Historians have proposed other reasons for high fertility in Ireland. One is that Irish parents did not have to bear much expense to establish their children as adults, because an inexpensive ship ticket purchased life in the United States. Another reason often noted is that there was little employment opportunity for Irish women outside the home, which made it relatively easy for Irish women to care for large broods.

SEE ALSO Agriculture: 1690 to 1845; Agriculture: 1845 to 1921; Great Famine; Indian Corn or Maize; Migration: Emigration from the Seventeenth Century to 1845; Migration: Emigration from 1850 to 1960; Population, Economy, and Society from 1750 to 1950; Population Explosion; Potato and Potato Blight (Phytophthora infestans); Rural Life: 1690 to 1845; Rural Life: 1850 to 1921; Subdivision and Subletting of Holdings; Town Life from 1690 to the Early Twentieth Century; Primary Documents: On Irish Rural Society and Poverty (1780); On Rural Society on the Eve of the Great Famine (1844–1845); From the Report of the Commission on Emigration and Other Population Problems, 1948–1954 (1955)


Connell, Kenneth H. The Population of Ireland, 1750–1845. 1950.

Fitzpatrick, David. "Irish Farming Families before the First World War." Comparative Studies in Society and History 25 (summer 1984): 338–374.

Guinnane, Timothy W. The Vanishing Irish: Households, Migration, and the Rural Economy in Ireland, 1850–1914. 1997.

Ó Gráda, Cormac. Ireland: A New Economic History, 1750–1939. 1994.

O'Neill, Kevin. Family and Farm in Pre-Famine Ireland: The Parish of Killashandra. 1984.

O'Rourke, Kevin H. "Did the Great Irish Famine Matter?" Journal of Economic History 51 (spring 1991): 1–22.

Walsh, Brendan M. "Marriage in Ireland in the Twentieth Century." In Marriage in Ireland, edited by Art Cosgrove. 1985.

Timothy W. Guinnane