Patrick J. Mahoney studied cultural history at NUI Galway’s Centre for Irish Studies, and now teaches in the department of history at Sacred Heart University, Connecticut. He is interested in the study of emigrant narratives, and the Irish historical experience as it relates to those in the United States and Britain. This column highlights the stories of significant people and places with West Cork connections, throughout the world.
Valentine’s season is upon us yet again, and as such, florists rejoice and couples the world over take a moment or two to show a bit of appreciation for their partners. Undoubtedly, the day serves as a time for such couples, whether they’ve been together for ten months or ten years, to think back on their respective histories together (for better or worse!) Yet, far from the flowers, heart shaped boxes of sweets and romantic gestures of the current climate, one can’t help but think back to a time in the not-too-distant past when matches weren’t based solely on love or attraction. Rather, couples came together through the skilled negotiating of professional matchmakers, the likes of which were known in every locality across West Cork.
Shrove Tuesday, the eve of Lent, was traditionally the day for matchmaking, during which romantic intermediaries would discreetly call upon homes with females of marriageable age, attempting to strike up a lasting connection with a potential local suitor. It mattered little if the potential couple had ever met previously, or whether there was a spark when they eventually did, for from its inception, the union was based more on convenience and status rather than love. If, upon learning more about their potential son-in-law, namely the extent of his landholdings and suitability to provide for their daughter, the girl’s parents were agreeable, a meeting would be arranged. The venue for such further negotiations was typically the parlour of the local pub, where drink flowed freely to aid in the process. The skill of the matchmaker was often pivotal at this stage in the game to make suggestions and curtail the many difficult questions that might make or break a potential deal. Despite the progress that might be made during the session, matches were rare on the first go around.
Further confirmation of the various claims that had been made during the previous session were often needed, and sought, by having a ‘walking of the land’. As such, male members of the potential bride’s family would visit the gentleman farmer’s property and take inventory of all that was contained there within. However, much like the online dater in today’s day in age that seeks to bend the truth in order to attract a potential mate, it wasn’t unheard of for a cooperative neighbour to lend a cow or two to the suitor in question on the day of the visit to boost his stock! Assuming all was in order during the walk about, further negotiations began.
At this advanced stage, a bottle of whiskey was brought to the house where the match was now all but guaranteed. With an agreeable dowry set, typically paid by the bride’s family in two installments, the first upon the marriage and another upon the occasion of the birth of the first child, the match could be finalised. As such, the hob was struck and the matchmaker would say, “Would you let this girl be buried with this man’s family?” With an “I would” from the girl’s father, the matchmaker’s job was done, and preparations for the impending wedding could be made!