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Two little words 'I do' still manage to get us tied in knots

By Mary Kenny

Published 14/04/2015

I cannot honestly say there was any pro-marriage propaganda poured into my ear when I was growing up
I cannot honestly say there was any pro-marriage propaganda poured into my ear when I was growing up

A lot of popular ideas about marriage patterns come to us from America. I often hear it asserted that 40 or 50 years ago women were pushed and bamboozled into becoming wives, and that quite often they had "no other choice". This is a generalisation which could be made about American culture, which was always strongly pro-marriage, and favoured early marriage, too. It was also much less opposed to divorce than any European society.

"Marry early and marry often," could even sum up America's attitude to wedlock.

The playwright Arthur Miller - whose second wife was Marilyn Monroe (and she had first been married at the age of 16, not thought at all unusual) - was surprised to find, on visiting Europe, that not everyone was married. "In Brooklyn," he wrote in a memoir, "everyone was married."

Had he compared Brooklyn with Ireland he would have been more astonished still. The Irish have had the habit of marrying late, being cautious about approaching marriage, and for quite large swathes of the population, not marrying at all.

In the 1950s, a quarter of Irish people remained single - in contrast to only 10% of people in Britain. This trend wasn't new, either. The social historian Joanna Bourke, in a study of Irish women from 1890 to 1914, found that in this period, an astonishing number of Irishwomen chose not to marry. They preferred to be free - free to emigrate for work, which they couldn't have done if tied to home and hearth.

The legend of the older son waiting to inherit the farm is a classic - and true - and this pattern held back decisions to wed. There are countless jokes about the old engaged couple still "walking out" after 20 or 30 years, although this strikes me as sad rather than funny. (Mary to Johnny, both in their 50s: "Isn't it time we were thinking of marrying?" "Ah, Mary, sure who'd have us now?")

In 1953, American sociologist Paul Blanshard wrote a standard study of the notorious Irish reluctance to marry, blaming the Catholic Church for its over-emphasis on chastity. What struck Blanshard were the newspaper wedding photographs of absurdly mature brides and grooms - people in their 30s and even 40s - and he made great mockery of their years. To an American, accustomed to teenage brides and youthful bridegrooms, these Brigids and Seans in their sensible costumes tying the knot at the ripe old age of 35 seemed quite astonishing.

So it's not altogether surprising that the Irish marriage age has returned to what it was in the 1950s: the average groom currently being 35 and his bride 33, with regional variations. Yes, it means that couples today are much older than their parents were when committing to marriage back in the 1970s - when the average age was 26 for a man and 24 for a woman.

But to some extent the 1960s and 1970s were an aberration from previous Irish practice, which had favoured late marriage and even reluctant marriage.

The context and the circumstances are different today than in 1910 or 1950. It's very likely that brides and grooms nowadays have lived together - and slept together - before wedding bells. They're less likely to be waiting for the farm, although perhaps just as likely to be waiting on the means to acquire a property.

A woman today doesn't have to contemplate quitting her job on marriage, but she does have to consider what childcare options may be available when a baby appears. And maybe a problem the sociologists identified back in the 1950s - the unwillingness of some men to sacrifice their bachelor status - has not entirely gone away. It just has a new name: commitment-phobia.

Yet I also think there's an ingrained Irish sense of caution about marriage. Perhaps it's to do with the fact that divorce was not an option for so long, and remains difficult and expensive. Or perhaps it's an atavistic thing, passed down from our common peasant heritage: don't be losing the run of yourself, now. Marry in haste, repent at leisure!

I cannot honestly say there was any pro-marriage propaganda poured into my ear when I was growing up. Most Irish girls at that time were educated by nuns, who were consecrated virgins who had gone out of their way to reject marriage. Marriage seemed something quite unattainable to many of us. "Getting" a man was thought to involve a complex strategy, requiring straight teeth, curly hair, dancing ability and domestic skills. I was told I'd never get married as I hadn't mastered the ability to make curtains, or set a decent fire.

Irish custom set the bar high for wedlock. It still does. Even if in a different way.

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