Marriage pre-civil registration: some thoughts part one.


Having transcribed hundreds of marriages from several parish registers in the Roe Valley and the wider north Derry area it seems clear that marriages were not recorded systematically before 1845. The pattern is haphazard and even sporadic in many registers. Those that were recorded were entered at the discretion of the minister and tended to be from the higher social order. Marriage details are the raw material of genealogical research providing as they do the names of spouses that reveal a wider network and pattern of kinship. Compulsory civil registration of Protestant marriages in Ireland began in 1845 and Catholic marriages in 1864. Thus, in the period before civil registration the primary source for marriage records lie with church registers where they are extant. 

Under the Public Records Act 1867, an amendment of 1875 and the Parochial Records Act 1876, Church of Ireland parish registers of marriages prior to 1845 and of baptisms and burials prior to 1871 were declared to be public records and the originals were deposited in the Public Record Office in Dublin. The great majority of these registers of the former Established church were destroyed in an explosion in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, although copies of some had been made before they were deposited. Presbyterian and Roman Catholic registers were kept at the behest of the local incumbent but were rarely kept before the nineteenth century. The geographical distribution for surviving ecclesiastical registers, furthermore, is very uneven.

Marriages noted in the registers were recorded in a number of forms: ‘marriage by licence’, ‘marriage by asking’, and ‘marriage by proclamation regularly made’. However, there appears to have been selective registration occurring in parish registers as marriages appear much less frequently in the registers than baptisms. Marriages seem to have been recorded systematically only when the parties were of a high social standing or if the groom was a soldier, that is, in cases where documentary evidence might be needed to prove a lawful marriage.  The scarcity of recorded marriages in early registers also reflects the vagaries to which the marriage rite was historically subjected. A number of factors may have contributed to the pattern of under-registration in the period before civil registration.

Not all marriages were church based. It was probable that many marriage contracts in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were made in houses. A recorded example appeared in the Londonderry Journal newspaper in July 1776 – ‘married in the house of Samuel Delap, Rathmelton, Robert Given, junior, of Coleraine to Miss Stevenson, daughter if the late James Stevenson of this city, merchant’ (Londonderry Journal, Friday 5 July 1776), and also recorded in the family notebook of James Holmes of Dublin, ‘Saturday 26 October 1799, Mary Orr was married to Rob Macnaghten of Coleraine, attorney at her father’s (Thomas Orr) at Richmond by the Rev’d Mr Cramer’ (Irish Ancestor Vol. VI, No.2, 1974 p.79). Whether church or home based, the essential requirement for a valid marriage was the presence of witnesses and the absence of compulsion. Many church rites were home-based and recorded in the family Bible, a strong Protestant tradition in Ulster; thus, they may not have been necessarily recorded by the minister who was present.

Other routes to marriage were also available. ‘Clandestine marriages’ were performed, and the ‘couple-beggar’ minister who toured the countryside offered couples a less expensive option to the cost of marrying publicly at a centrally located church. The couple-beggar ministers drew scorn from the civil authorities and traditional churches alike, though only occasionally was action taken against them. Eloping was frowned upon by all denominations and both the couple and those who assisted were left open to censure. Aghadowey session book records a case of elopement in 1715, ‘William Hodge appeared before this session acknowledging that he helped and accompanied Jane Cargill to run away with Hugh Montgomery in order to be clandestinely married’. The session judged the practice scandalous and offensive and ordered him to appear before the session to be rebuked. This was done accordingly.

Prior to civil registration only those marriages performed under the aegis of the Church of Ireland, the official and established state church, were legally valid – in theory at least. In practise, de facto recognition was given to marriages validated by other denominations. Nevertheless, the legal validity of Church of Ireland unions meant that some marriages, particularly those of members of other Protestant denominations, were recorded in the Church of Ireland registers, and this was perhaps more likely when land and property interests were involved. Having a marriage officially registered and validated through the auspices of the Church of Ireland ensured legitimacy and legality. Parish registers were kept and used to denote ties of kinship, and this was important not only in marriage but also in courts of law where there might be some dispute about the status of an individual.
The new marriage Act of 1844, which was introduced to regulate Protestant marriages, recognised the efficacy of Presbyterian ministers officiating at all marriages for the first time. In the pre-civil registration period the legislature did not regard the clerical faculties of Presbyterian clergy as equal to those of Anglican ministers or Roman Catholic priests because Presbyterian clergy had not been episcopally ordained (thus, in some eyes rendering the marriages at which they officiated invalid). The Presbytery of Laggan, County Donegal, as early as 1673, complained that marriages conducted by its ministers were regarded as ‘fornication’. The Presbytery decided that marriage should always be celebrated in the presence of the congregation (Laggan Presbytery Minutes, Nov-Jan, 1673-74). Even so, some did go to the bishop or rector to be married to avoid the obloquium that followed marriage in their own church.

The ‘Sacramental Test Act’ of 1704, added further insult to Presbyterians, and they faced discrimination, unable to enter parliament or hold any office under the crown. More galling, perhaps, than these restrictions, was the fact that Presbyterian ministers had no status in the eyes of the law. In 1712, the Reverend John McBride (Belfast) in his ‘Vindication of Marriages as solemnized by Presbyterians’ complained of episcopal attacks on Presbyterian marriages and condemned episcopal clergy for demanding and taking fees in respect of marriages they declared to be invalid (marriage dues appear to have been one important source of income for the clergy of the Church of Ireland in this period). Presbyterian ministers continued to conduct marriages for the majority of their flock in their own churches and they followed the form and practice of the Church of Scotland. A ‘Bill of Indemnity’ of 1737 gave indemnity from prosecution in ecclesiastical courts to Presbyterian marriage contracts. Marriages by Presbyterian ministers of their own members was legalised in 1782 but marriages between a Presbyterian and a member of another denomination only became legal in 1845 (John Barkley, ‘Marriage and the Presbyterian Tradition’, Ulster Folklife, Volume 39, 1993 ps. 29-40).

In the Catholic tradition marriage is an important sacrament. Banns were to be published and the contracting parties were required to participate in the sacrament of confession before the marriage. In Ulster Roman Catholic registers were not kept in more than the exceptional parish until the 1830s or later. During the penal period, registration was probably neglected due to fear of having incriminating documentary evidence at a time when the Catholic faith was being suppressed. The keeping of parish registers, an Irish priest complained in 1789, ‘is a point too much neglected’ (S.J Connolly, ‘Illegitimacy and Pre-Nuptial Pregnancy in Ireland before 1864’, Irish Economic and Social History, volume VI (1979), p.6). In the case of mixed marriages between Catholic and Protestants often an agreement was reached to raise the female offspring in the faith of the mother and the male offspring in the faith of the father. Apparently, this was a common occurrence in mixed marriages of the time under a benevolent convention known as the Palantine Pact (Francis X McCorry: ‘Parish registers – Historical Treasures in Manuscript’, Lurgan, 2004, p.17). Such marriages were looked on with disfavour by the Catholic Church but they were admitted to be canonically valid. If a mixed marriage had taken place in a Protestant church it was to be followed by a Roman Catholic ceremony (and where this had not occurred the Catholic party was to be excluded from the sacraments), and this remained the discipline until the middle of the nineteenth century.

The lower orders entered mixed marriages without much hesitation in the early modern period and they appear to have occurred more regularly in mixed areas with heavy Protestant settlement. Mixed marriages were only illegal if they involved property and as a result all sides trod carefully. In law a priest who conducted mixed marriages could incur the death penalty. This act remained in force till 1833, and was only repealed in 1870 (Marianne Elliott, ‘The Catholics of Ulster, A History’, 2000, England p.179). Occasionally, inter-faith marriages created controversy. One recorded case, that became newsworthy even in America occurred in November 1824, when Samuel Loudin, a Presbyterian of Linenhall Street, Newtownlimavady, (supported by his brother-in-law John Canning) lodged a complaint to the civil authorities in Derry that his two daughters had been married without his consent by a Popish priest [British Parliamentary Papers: Sessional Papers, 1825, Volume 22 (166).]. Martha Loudin married William Quigley around the 29th October 1824 in the chapel at the Roe Mill chapel in Limavady and Annie Loudin married John Kyle shortly afterwards. Quigley and Kyle, both tradesmen in relatively comfortable circumstances, not wishing to marry in a Protestant church, were about to have recourse to a couple-beggar when the Reverend Mr O’Hagan took liberty to intervene and united both couples in holy matrimony.

A petty sessions was hastily arranged and held in Newtownlimavady on the 22nd November 1824 before six magistrates and both couples were called to account together with Frederick O’Kane who was the witness to both marriages. All five defendants refused to give evidence against the clergyman, and as a result all were committed to the gaol in Derry for three years unless they recanted and submitted to be examined to appear before the next General Assizes. Their humiliation was further compounded as the five prisoners were escorted by foot to Derry, some sixteen miles, by a guard of dragoons. Whilst in prison both the Loudin sisters having lodged information against the Reverend O’Hagan were discharged. Under threat of capital offence, Mr O’Hagan was obliged to abandon the care of his flock and fled to France (‘The Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics’, 12 Feb 1825, volume 36, Issue 7 p.2, USA). The situation was at least partly resolved as William Quigey and Martha Loudin were married on Saturday 15 January 1825 in Drumachose Church of Ireland, Limavady by licence. The witnesses were Thomas Duffy, Robert Loudin and James Hunter. The Reverend O’Hagan had returned to Ireland by the end of the decade as he was curate in Donaghmore parish, Tyrone in 1829 and he was later installed as Parish Priest of Limavady in 1839, where he died in 1844 (Edward Daly and Kieran Devlin, editors, ‘The Clergy of the Diocese of Derry; an index’, Four Courts Press, 1997, Cornwall, p.140). 

To be continued --- 


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