‘Elopement Extraordinary’: Prearranged spouse kidnapping in rural Ireland

All rural communities have idiosyncrasies when it comes to cultural practices.  Perhaps the customs surrounding a rural marriage are some of the most intriguing.  Rural Ireland of the 19th and 20th centuries had a wide variety of cultural practices surrounding the event of marriage.  In some regions it was customary for the newly-married couple to throw money at the gathered tramps, beggars and local children.  In other parts it was the norm for local boys to hold a rope across the road, preventing the bridal party from getting to their destination until they were paid a small sum of money.[1]

Perhaps one of the more unusual practices surrounding matrimony was the seemingly extreme practice of bride abduction.  Granted, this wasn’t exactly associated with the rituals of a wedding, and on the surface the practice seems like quite a serious crime.  However, in many cases the couple jointly engaged in this unusual pantomime when a proposed union was met with disapproval from the bride-to-be’s parents, or when there was a third party waiting in the wings.  Indeed, this was the case with my great-uncle and his choice of bride in rural Tipperary at the turn of the 20th century. The parents of his betrothed refused to accept her choice of partner, even though they were acquainted with my great-uncle on a professional basis. Their objection was common in this time, on the grounds that it would have been an inter-faith marriage.   And family lore has it that my great-uncle, my grandfather and his other brothers enacted a much-imitated ruse to spirit the lady to a ‘safe-house’ until such time as her father reneged on his decision.

It was somewhat of an open secret that the bride-to-be was in on the act, therefore in many instances the kidnap of a young woman was treated as a lighthearted tale in the local area and in the papers.  When it was reported in the press it was given the light relief treatment, not unlike the end story of a news bulletin such as Trevor McDonald’s ‘and finally’ segment at the end of the ITV Ten O’clock News in Britain in times gone by.

In 1844 The Freemans Journal newspaper relayed a story from the Galway Assizes on Murthy Ford, a man ‘as ugly a specimen of humanity as ever stood arraigned for the abduction of a country lass’, for the purpose of inducing the young lady to consent to marriage.  In the end the judge dismissed the charge of kidnapping against Ford in such a fashion that it indicated the episode was not taken all that seriously.[2]  Another paper reported an ‘abduction’ of a young lady in Co Kildare under the headline ‘Elopement Extraordinary’ due to the planning which had evidently went into the plot, of which the girl in question was portrayed as chief architect.[3]

As late as 1903 the tradition was still alive, a local Tipperary newspaper The Nenagh Guardian, reported there was ‘a considerable amount of amusement’ in the Tipperary town of Borrisoleigh by the abduction of a young lady in the locality.  The lady in question was to be betrothed to a match of her parent’s choosing, with the dowry and land entitlements already agreed.  The ink was all but dry with the only outstanding matter to be resolved being the fixing of the wedding date (and no doubt eternal marital bliss) when the young lady’s secret lover spirited her away ‘willingly, no doubt’ to a friend’s house in nearby Toomevara.  Here she choose to remain until such time as her friends could pay the marriage dowry for her release, a dowry the now rejected man was to get as part of the marriage arrangements.  The article then summed up the palpable sense of outrage in the local community over the incident, informing the readers that ‘much sympathy is felt for the discarded one’.[4]

While no doubt these stories were treated as light relief, and indeed now one can look at them with a wry smile, they do mask another side to rural life at the time.  They say quite a lot about the patriarchal nature of Irish society, and a woman’s place within it.  As indicated above, this practice continued into the twentieth century, and shows that that in many cases women were used in rural society as a makeweight for deals between local families, or even a glorified maid.  Nevertheless, the fact that many of the women in question were as much a part of the scam as their male counterparts indicate that they were prepared to take steps to control their own destiny.


[1] C.  O Danachair, ‘Some Marriage Customs and Their Regional Distribution’ in Béaloideas Iml. 42/44 (1974 – 1976), pp. 136-175

[2] The Freemans Journal, August 03, 1844, p.3

[3] Nenagh Guardian, April 29, 1857, p.4

[4] Nenagh Guardian, February 17, 1903, p.1

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