The tradition of marriage in Ireland has evolved significantly over the years. By the 17th century, there was more than one process for entering into marriage, including the reading of marriage banns.
Reading wedding banns is an ancient legal step involving the public announcement of an upcoming marriage. This is still legally required by the Church of England and in most Irish marriages. Without it, a marriage may be considered valid but illicit. Read on for everything you need to know about this important step in planning an Irish wedding.
Traditionally in Ireland, long engagements were not encouraged. Couples were usually married within a year of becoming espoused—the formal exchange of vows at the start of their engagement.
Before they could marry, the couple had to prove there were no impediments to the marriage. Potential impediments included consanguinity— being too closely related, affinity—kinship created by another wedding or due to sexual relations, an existing marriage, or an earlier promise to marry.
To this end, a couple would publicly proclaim their intentions to marry. Most researchers are familiar with marriage license bonds: a solemn oath that there was no impediment to the marriage. These are sworn by a couple and bondsmen, people of property who acted as surety, before courts of the Diocese.
However, over the last 400 years, most of the Irish population of all faiths has announced an impending marriage by banns.
Traditionally, the banns were publicly read on three consecutive Sundays in a couple’s home parish. The congregation then spread the news about the marriage within their community. Today, marriage banns are valid for three months after their reading.
Like marriage license bonds, the point of the banns was to prevent illicit marriages. Unlike the bonds, there was no privacy with banns. Essentially, the system counted on nosey neighbours spreading word of the impending nuptials.
Banns were a practical measure, and what evidence survives indicates that all Christian churches in Ireland used them. Unfortunately, few churches kept records of banns separate from the marriage registers.
Reading the banns was a preparatory step to celebrating the church marriage. But once the wedding was celebrated, the marriage registers became documentary records. Consequently, surviving documents tend to be scattered among parish records collections.
For example, among Catholic Church registers in the National Library, there is a register of banns for St. Finbarr’s South parish in Cork from 1753 to 1774. The collection also contains a register of dispensations in banns for Newry parish in Dromore from 1825 to 1826.
There is a better survival rate of banns records among Church of Ireland parish records. Although, where they survive, most banns contain the same information as marriage registers.
Researchers should always compare the timeframe of banns and marriage registers to trace unique details. For example, records of the publication of banns for Killaghtee parish (Church of Ireland) started in 1809. This predates the first marriage registers for this parish by five years.
Among the Quakers, couples announced their intentions to marry at their respective men’s and women’s meetings on several occasions. So, the Quaker process was banns in all but name.
The one source where we consistently find evidence of banns is church marriage registers.
Here are some marriage notices from the Catholic parish of Nobber in Meath. They originally caught my eye, not because of the banns, but because these marriages did not occur in a church.
After publishing the banns and finding no impediment joined in holy matrimony at Father Cruise’s house, James Trenar of the parish of Cruisetown & Elenor MacCabe of the parish of Nobber in the presence of Edmund McCabe, Patrick Moyles, John Gogerty &c.
After publishing the banns and finding no impediment joined in holy matrimony at the Mill of Nobber Micheal Magrane of the parish of Kelery & Mary Mooney of the parish of Nobber in the presence of Thomas Fleming Pat. Kelly & Anthony Kelly.
In the Church of Ireland parish registers, ministers usually record whether a couple proclaimed their marriage by banns or license.
Here are some marriage notices from the Union of the parishes of Newtownbarry, Barragh, Clonegal and Kilrush (Ferns, co. Wexford).
Henry Stockwell of the 60th Rifles to Ellen Farrell of this parish, by Banns.
John Webster of Clonegal to Jane Kays of this parish, by Banns.
Simon Cooper of the parish of Aghold & Mary Jenkinson of this parish, by Banns.
Sometimes the records in marriage registers are almost identical to banns. So, we have to ask if banns records are useful to researchers other than as a historical curiosity.
Since evidence of banns doesn’t always mean a marriage took place, these records can shine a light on the intimate details of past lives. The best advice this genealogist can give is to always look for unique information that doesn’t survive elsewhere.
Many historical records can offer a glimpse into your family history. While wedding banns are a less common source, they can still provide interesting information on your Irish ancestry.
If you’re eager to start researching your Irish genealogy, the team at Irish Family History Centre can help. Our experts are here to pore over records, support your research, and make sure every piece you uncover is as accurate as possible. Contact us today to discover how we can help unlock your family’s story in Ireland.