Dowry (generally called ‘fortune’ in Ireland; spré in Irish) is money or property brought by a bride to her husband at marriage. It was an important matter in nineteenth-century Ireland. There were new trends in marriage rates after the Famine. In 1845, the average male age at marriage was 25, the average female age 21. However, by 1914 the typical male married at 33, and the female at 28. In 1851 only 12% of women between the ages 25 and 54 did not marry but in 1911 this had increased to 26%. Parents now left their farms to one son, and the others had the choice of marrying a female who inherited a farm (and this meant a financial settlement), moving to the city or town, taking up a profession, emigrating, or joining a religious order. Heirs tended to postpone marriage until parents died and were generally unwilling to make dowryless marriages that would worsen their financial position or lower their status. It became increasingly difficult to marry outside one’s own social class. Before the Famine it was quite usual for well-off farmers to bring in matchmakers to ensure that their children married well; but after the Famine most families did this. The dowry became a chief consideration when choosing a partner and farmers’ children preferred not to marry rather than marry beneath them.
The dowry was often paid directly to the groom or to his father, sometimes to the groom’s siblings. It did not guarantee the material welfare of the bride (as in many societies) and it might be disposed of by her husband’s family as it pleased, for example, to provide a dowry for her sister-in law.
Though some brides married without dowries, payment could be substantial for others. If a girl married into a large farm, a large dowry to match it was expected. At one time the average dowry payment was £3 an acre. The need for such large sums helped parents to control their children’s choice of marriage partner. Not surprisingly, dowries were often the cause of disputes, particularly because they were sometimes paid by instalments or full payment was delayed. The law limited women’s property rights. Until the Married Women’s Property Acts (1882–93) a married woman had no rights to property independent of her husband, whether acquired by gift, inheritance, or by her own earnings, and this included her dowry. The Court of Chancery enabled divorced women to apply for an unreturned dowry but this had no practical application for most people.
Emigration often provided an escape from the dowry system. Most Irish female emigrants to Australia tended to marry: only 10% of women who died in 1891 were unmarried; and they married at an earlier age than in Ireland, 24 or 25. The improved marriage opportunities for Irish women, whose choices were restricted at home by the dowry system, and who had a chance to better their social position through paid employment, was a strong ‘pull factor’ in female migration.
No land and no dowry usually meant no marriage and no prospects. Most families dealt with this pragmatically, if harshly. One son inherited the farm; and a daughter or two might get a dowry. The rest had to fend for themselves: remain at home unmarried or emigrate. Even those entering a convent needed a dowry. In a land where industrialisation was very limited outside North-East, there were few opportunities at home. The better-off farmers and others with some funds could and did send children into the religious life and this fitted well with Archbishop Cullen’s plans for the Catholic Church.
Bibliography. K. H. Connell, Irish peasant society: four historical essays (Oxford 1968). J. M. Goldstrom & L. A. Clarkson (ed), Irish population economy and society: essays in honour of the late K. H. Connell (Oxford 1981). Conrad M. Arensberg & Solon T. Kimball, Family and community in Ireland, intro. by Anne Burne, Ricca Edmondson & Tony Varley (3rd ed. Ennis 2001) [first published 1939]. Richard Breen, ‘Dowry payments and the Irish case’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 26 (1984) 280–96.