The Role of Romance in Family History

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Births and marriages are the stock in trade of genealogists. We spend our days in dusty archives, extracting information from these documents, seeking to learn more about our ancestors. On this Valentines weekend, it seems like a good time to press the pause button, and reflect on the human stories behind the documents.

In times past marriage was the cornerstone of family life. We can only imagine how much hope was invested in these marriages. With our historian’s hat, we know that pairings didn’t always begin in romance. Marriages of the wealthier in Irish society were often strategic alliances. For a strong farmer, his daughter’s choice of husband was a matter of careful vetting. A family’s land based wealth could not pass to an incapable, unreliable son-in-law.

By contrast, the poor had greater opportunity to marry for love. The more cynical amongst us might say these couples spent a lifetime repenting at their leisure.

For the team here at Eneclann, family and its history is our daily work. In some instances we certainly see the absence of romantic love. We uncover difficult stories of couples creating an unhappy family life. For some of the clients we work with, excavating family history is a sad affair, and certainly not the narrative of wine and roses.

Can we ever tell if our ancestor’s marriages were a love match? How can we get beyond the documents and ‘read ‘the story as correctly as we can. On this Valentine’s weekend, I like to remember what is known about my grandparent’s short marriage. My father’s mother – Margaret – was an ‘absent’ presence in our family history. Within weeks of giving birth to my father, Margaret died. Little concrete was known about her, and in fact for many years my family research project was labelled “Margaret Lost.” It seemed important to document anything I could find about her.

The search for my grandparent’s marriage certificate was one of my first forays to the General Register Office. I was surprised to learn from the marriage certificate that, although from the same village, they had not married in their parish church. It seems Margaret was in service and married in the church near her workplace. Wanting to make sure I had the correct record, I showed my father his parents’ marriage-certificate. To my surprise, he was overcome with emotion.

The church where my grandparents married, was, it seems, the same church that my grandfather brought his own son to, each and every Sunday of my father‘s childhood. As a young child, my father could not understand why his father chose to worship in this church some miles distant from their village home. Learning that his father had married in this church made a great deal of sense to my father. We realized that each Sunday, my grandfather was, in fact, making a pilgrimage back to church where he had married Margaret. Together with the fact that he never remarried makes me think that grandfather and Margaret’s union was indeed a love match. Oh, and the fact that Margaret did not bring a big farm to the family!

From our vantage point today, we hope that our ancestors were love matches. However, we know that in the past many marriages were based on the need for security and companionship. It’s probably true to say that many of our ancestors entered into marriage, hoping to build love on these foundations.

By Eneclann Research Expert,

Carmel Gilbride.carmel-gilbride


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