In 1839 Catherine Cohalan, from Aughrim Co Galway, was abducted from her home by a man named James Cohalan probably a cousin. Here her seizure had been agreed by the couple beforehand because Catherine did not want to marry Michael Campbell, a man whom her father had arranged for her to marry the following week.
A substantial number of abductions in Galway, and the west in general, were a noted phenomenon of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Essentially the man, often with helpers and extra horses, snatched a girl from her home, sometimes from her bedroom at night, and rode away to a safe place where she was held til she agreed to marry her abductor. Unfortunately if the girl refused to accept her situation, she was raped and sometimes beaten into submission. It was often accepted, but not always, that for a girl to spend a night with her man/lover/or abductor she was obliged to marry him, and he would benefit from her dowry or status.
Abductions were often carried out with violence, people or family were injured, and the law viewed the crime seriously. Severe punishments were often given. But one of the conditions for release of the victim would be a letter from her saying she did not want to bring charges. If she agreed to marry her abductor (finding a husband having been ‘ruined’ by him, may prove to be difficult later ), such a letter was usually enough for all charges to be dropped.
Sometimes, as in the case of Catherine Cohalan above, the law intervened and her cousin was put on trail. Catherine stated in evidence that she had sent a note to Cohalan ‘to come to me and I would go away with him as I did not like the man my father wanted me to marry’. She avoided marrying Campbell but in the process lost her dowry.
Arthur Young, writing of his visit to Ireland in the late eighteenth century, commented ‘it is scarcely credible how many young women have been of late years carried off and ravished, in order (and they generally have fortunes ) to gain the appearance of a voluntary marriage’. * Abductions at this time were often carried out by members of the gentry in reduced circumstances attempting to improve their status through a forced marriage.
Certainly an acute awareness of class was evident in the case of Mary Kenny, abducted in Co Mayo. She was raped and kept by her abductors for three days and nights until she was rescued. She prosecuted her abductor, a servant, noting: ‘ I have thirty pounds fortune, he has nothing. I could not think of marrying such a barbarian’ (Galway Weekly Advertiser August 4 1838 ).
The Irish Jacobite Patrick Sarsfield, Earl of Lucan, whom I wrote about till readers were sick of him following the Battle of Aughrim during the summer, was involved in not one but two abductions when he was a young soldier based in London. In 1682 he was among a group go men who assisted in the abduction of a wealthy widow. Most of the group were sentenced to prison or fined, but Sarsfield managed to escape punishment.
Within months however, he had seized Lady Elizabeth Herbert, another widow to whom he had already proposed. She had refused him, and his abduction of her did not change her mind. Francis Gwynn, the clerk of the privy council, reported that the abduction was viewed with amusement by the town of London. People were laying bets on whether or not the couple would marry. They did not, and Lady Herbert’s attempt to prosecute Sarsfield was hindered by the note she had signed during her captivity agreeing not to prosecute her abductors.**
Surprisingly it was not difficult to get a legal marriage in these circumstances, providing the couple had the money for the fees involved. There were several unattached clergymen, known as ‘Couple Beggars’ ,*** including Catholic priests, as well as Church of Ireland and Presbyterian ministers, living in straightened circumstances, eager for money. They still had the authority to legalise unions and no questions asked.
In 1739 the Catholic warden of Galway conducted an inquiry into a marriage performed in a private house by Mathew Concannon, an unattached priest. Because Concannon had been an ordained a priest the marriage was valid. The warden issued instructions that his flock were ‘not to entertain him.’ The wardenship continued to struggle against the activities of unattached priests throughout the eighteenth century.
The Reverend Joseph Wood, a graduate of Trinity College, was ordained a minister of the Church of Ireland in 1798, and served as a curate in Ballinasloe, Co Galway. He was cited as an adulterer, and when he was unable to pay the award made against him, he was sentenced to imprisonment in Dublin. He fled to the Isle of Man where he was re-arrested and brought to Newgate Prison. When his prison sentence was complete he returned to Dublin where, unable to find another clerical appointment, he ‘began to marry such persons as were anxious to avail themselves of his services’. He himself married Jane King in 1826, although at the time of his death, another woman also claimed to be his wife. Jane King’s father was also a ‘Couple Beggar’, and when he died Wood took over his father-in-law’s business, and made a substantial living performing marriages at his home in Smithfield, near the city centre.
The authors of Marriage in Ireland 1660 - 1925,*** tell us that Wood lived his life in a semi-legal world in which the state laws on marriage were interpreted in a flexible manner. ‘Wood was an adulterer and a bigamist and, according to some accounts, frequently drunk when solemnising marriages.’
Despite his messy private life he was ordained a minister of his church by the Archbishop of Tuam in 1799. Wood’s ordination qualified him to perform legally valid marriages. Such rights were preciously challenged in the consistorial court, but judge John Radcliff ruled that such ordination confirmed a ‘priest in orders.’
Next week: Courtship behaviour - not much different from today.
NOTES: * Arthur Young, A Tour in Ireland in 2 volumes published in London 1780.
** Sarsfield married Lady Honora Burke, the youngest daughter of the Earl of Clanricarde in the winter of 1689. She accompanied him to France during the so called ‘Flight of the Wild Geese’ after the Treaty of Limerick 1691. Their only child, James Francis Edward, was born at the court in exile of James II in Saint-Germain-en-Laye. Sarsfield was killed in battle in 1693, and his son died without issue in St Omer 1719.
***The Marriage Act of 1844 attempted to put Church of Ireland and Presbyterian ‘Couple Beggars’ out of business insisting that marriages must be performed within a church or a registered premises. Roman Catholics were forbidden to avail of their services, but despite legal proceedings taken against Couple Beggars, such marriages did continue.
**** Maria Luddy and Mary O’Dowd, and recently published by Cambridge University Press.