The lot of a country girl growing up in rural Ireland in the 1930s and 40s was a lottery. If her family had a decent farm, and were relatively well off, she could go to university or train as a nurse, and could marry a prosperous farmer.
Other girls had limited choices. Some could enter apprenticeships to draper, grocer, or publican to whom they paid a fee, until they had served their time. Many single women emigrated mainly to England where in the big cities it was easier to get a jb, and life could be easier. Some went into service having left school at fourteen, to earn little more than their ‘keep’ in return, and little respect either.
Marriage was an important goal in the lives of country people. Living in an era of no divorce, or any possibility of a ‘trial marriage’ their choice of a partner was crucial.
Brigid Kavanagh’s father, John Shiel, was a small farmer by birth, and a carpenter by trade, in the townland of Bunnamuca, near Strokestown, Co Roscommon. As he called to the farms in the parish to fix a cart, or a farm implement, or have furniture made, his knowledge of local families was respected to the extent that he became a matchmaker for his farming male clients. The younger sons might have gone off to try their luck in the world, but the oldest son, usually middle-aged, ends up with the farm, could not marry until his sisters had a dowry, and left the home; or a mother to die, before he could make a home of his own.
It was a tricky business. Whatever about having an elderly mother living in the house, it was not considered advisable to still have a sister present. A good matchmaker would try and make a deal whereby the dowry that the young wife would bring (£100 was a minimum required ), could be passed to the sister as her dowry, thus putting her in a position to find a husband.
Remember these were farming people (average farm size 30 - 100 acres ), practical by nature, dealing with men who had no courting skills whatsoever, and little knowledge of the female psyche. Their concern was to find a housekeeper who would produce male heirs to carry on the farm, and the family name. It was a bonus if romance entered the deal.
His honoured name
When Brigid’s father was asked to find a farmer a wife, he would usually be reminded that the farmer was not prepared to trust his honoured name, and the mothering of his sons to ‘an unknown quantity’. It did not matter that the man was no Adonis himself, he had in mind that the girl must be ‘nice’ and ‘attractive’.
Instead of just taking a bottle of whiskey and heading to the girl’s home for a chat, and where he would get a good look, or a glance, at his ‘possibility’, Brigid’s father devised a plan to save the woman the embarrassment of being turned down if a customer didn’t like the look of her.
The weekly market at Strokestown was well attended by people from the surrounding area, coming, as Brigid’s parents did, to sell farm produce, and to buy necessities for home. Brigid’s mother would engage the girl in question within sight of the window of Forde’s public house where the wily bachelor could get a good look at her. If he was satisfied a meeting could be arranged, and the deal was quickly done.
Behind the door
Brigid tells us that in those days a well-rounded figure was highly desirable, a ‘broad back to bear the burdens of child and farm’. A skinny girl was called a ‘dianna’, and would at best be counted delicate or at worst tubercular. If the poor unfortunate woman was of mature years, who was, as Brigid delicately puts it, ‘behind the door when God distributed good looks and graces’, a substantial dowry of £500 may be required to close the deal.
Once the deal was done there was no delay with the wedding compared with the long, drawn-out preliminaries of the matchmaking. The bride usually wore a navy costume, the groom in navy blue. The wedding breakfast was held in the bride’s home and it consisted of boiled mutton, beef or ham with custard and jelly for desert. There was a half-barrel of porter and whiskey for the male guests, and sherry and port wine for the ladies, and seed cake and a wedding-current cake for all. Dancing went on all night.
Young girls made sure to have a fragment of wedding cake put through the bride’s ring, and then to be placed under their pillow and slept on, hopefully to dream of their future husband, and for the cycle to start all over again.
More from Brigid’s book next week.: How could you hear that World War II was declared when you had no radio.
NOTES: I am taking all this from Brigid’s matter-of-fact recollections: In My Mind’s Eye - Walking with Ghosts, growing up at a time when money was scarce, and farming life, at a subsistence level, was hard. But of course there were happy memories working in the fields and bogs, welcoming callers with news and music, card playing, and where the only crime in the locality was a summons for not having a dog licence, or a light on your bicycle.
Brigid herself left home for England and trained as a nurse at St Albans, London. She met her husband there, Michael Kavanagh from Galway, and enjoyed 56 years of marriage until Michael’s death in 2003. Now retired and living in Dublin, and in her nineties, Brigid hopes her story will give her six children and grandchildren an insight to where they came from.
Bridgit’s book available [email protected]
Listen to Tom Kenny and Ronnie O'Gorman elaborating on topics they have covered in this week's paper and much more in this week's Galway Diary Podcast.