This article was written about West Cork, but, we can take it that ‘Matchmaking’ was similar the country over.
The tradition of matchmaking reaches back a long way into the history of West Cork and its people. At a time when love matches were not the fashion and compulsory marriages – locally referred to with a fine turn of accuracy as ‘must marriages’ – unknown, the made match was generally in vogue. It was the belief of the people that matches were made in heaven even if some of them later produced a semblance of hell on earth.
There was in every locality a professional matchmaker or go-between who brought news of a match from a farmer’s daughter, marriageable by the standards Of the generation, half on the shelf by the standards of today. The news was brought with great tact and secrecy to some farmer’s son, who, usually at forty or more, was looking for.a wife. It made no difference that the two ‘young’ people might never have seen each other in their lives, and it made even less difference whether they liked or disliked each other when they eventually met.
What mattered was that the parents of both should agree about those weighty things on which the match must be based, the fortune to be paid to the prospective bride and the number of cows which the prospective bridegroom’s farm could feed. Negotiations were set afoot, and the matchmaking wrangle was normally carried out in a special room in one of the pubs in town with only the go-between in attendance to put forward split-the-difference suggestions at the right times and in the correct places.
Full agreement was never reached in the first session, but if, between generous applications of whiskey, some progress was made, then the next step was to fix a day ‘to walk the land’. That is, of course, that certain male relatives of the lady in question should visit the gentleman’s farm, taking stock of everything it contained, sometimes of things it did not contain, for it was not unknown that an obliging neighbour might lend a cow or two, even a field or two, for the occasion, to add an air of extra well-being to the place.
The farm duly walked, further negotiations began, and if the fortune was finally fixed and the transfer of the place from the father to the son, agreed, then the match was made. Many a match was not made, however, because twenty pounds, sometimes less than that, was between the bargainers and neither side would give way in an era when matchmaking differed only in species from a purchase or sale at the local fair. Both were based on bargaining and both depended on whether or not the bargain -makers reached a final agreement.
The match made and duly wet in the local pub, a date was set for the wedding, which by tradition took place in the bride’s local parish church and was carried out by her parish priest. The marriage ceremony was, in the eyes of the neighbours, the least important part of the occasion. Of much greater importance was the night that was to follow in the bridegroom’s home, an all-night affair at which nua gacha bidh abounded and seana gacha dighe overflowed. If everything was lavish it was a dacent wedding. If anything was less than lavish, it was a mane wedding, and a couple whose wedding was mane took years to live down the disgrace of it, as the couple at the Wedding Feast at Cana would have done if they lived in West Cork in our fathers’ time and their wine ran short.
A honeymoon-was unknown in the country at that time. The wedding night was spent at home, and so, late in the night when ‘joy was unconfined’ and good-will became uproarious, what wonder if the newly-weds stole quietly away, but not unobserved, in pursuit of their lawful occasions.
Gone is the matchmaking, gone the matchmaker. Gone, too,is the country wedding as we used to know it. Whatever reservations one might have about the matchmaking only fond memories can remain of the country wedding. With its full and plenty, its dancing and songs and general merriment, a dacent country wedding was an event to remember for the rest of your life. Perhaps it was not refined by more modern standards of refinement. Perhaps it was a little vulgar in its excess of eating and drinking; Perhaps it was rough and noisy and boisterous, frequently crude when men, and women, too, were ‘well·drunk’ as the Bible puts it. But it was’ always a happy occasion for people whose ideas of happiness did not exclude elements of over-eating or over-drinking, noise and a little touch of horse-playing now and then. Such people had few opportunities in their drab lives to eat, drink and make merry. When an opportunity like a dacent wedding presented itself, at least they were able to avail of it to the full, part of their enjoyment being that they could talk about it for months to come.
Weddings brought out in men and women a side that was normally hidden deeply away. Inarticulate by nature, that day, they became great conversationalists. Shy to sing, to recite or to dance, at the wedding each man sang or recited his party piece, and every man took the floor with more vigour, perhaps, than rhythm. At a wedding it in made no difference, for everybody was a singer, a reciter, a dancer on that great occasion.
Extracted from “In West Cork long ago” written by Flor Crowley, reprinted 1980.
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