How to avoid an illicit marriage: Marriage banns..

By the 17th Century there was more than one way to enter into marriage, now well defined. In Ireland, long engagements were not traditionally encouraged. Couples were usually married within a year of being ‘espoused’ – the formal exchange of vows, at the start of their engagement.

Before they could marry the couple had to prove there was no impediment to the marriage. Potential impediments to a marriage included consanguinity (too closely related), affinity (kinship created by another marriage or as a result of sexual relations), an existing marriage or an earlier promise to marry.

To this end, a couple would publicly proclaim the marriage was to take place. Most researchers are familiar with Marriage License Bonds: solemn oaths there was no impediment to marriage, sworn by a couple and their bondsmen (people of property, who acted as surety) before the courts of the Diocese.

However over the last 400 years, the greater number of the Irish population, of all faiths, announced their impending marriage by Banns.

The Banns were publicly proclaimed or ‘read’ in church on three successive Sundays in the couple’s home parish. The congregation then spread the news about the marriage within their own community. Like Marriage License bonds, the Banns were to prevent illicit marriages. Unlike the ‘bonds’ there was no privacy with ‘Banns’. The system worked precisely because it counted on ‘nosey’ neighbours taking an interest in each other’s business.

Banns were a practical measure, and what evidence survives, indicates they were used by all Christian churches in Ireland. Unfortunately, few churches maintained or kept separate records of banns, distinct 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 the documentary record.  Consequently, what survives tends to be scattered among parish records collections.

In the National Library, among the Catholic parish registers there is a register of Banns for St. Finbarr’s South parish (Cork) 1753-74; and a register of dispensations in Banns for Newry parish, (Dromore) 1825-26.

There is a better survival rate of banns records among Church of Ireland parish-records, although where they survive most banns replicate coverage of the Marriage registers. Clever researchers should always compare the time-frame of banns and marriage registers, to trace unique survivals. So for example, records of banns for Killaghtee (Church of Ireland) start in 1809, predating the start of the marriage registers for this parish by 5 years.

Among the Quakers, the couple announced their intention to marry, to their respective men’s and women’s meeting, recorded in the minutes more than once – so it was banns in all but name.

 The one source we consistently find evidence of the use of banns is in the church marriage registers.

Here are some marriage notices from the Catholic parish of Nobber (Meath), they originally caught my eye, not because of the use of banns, but because the marriages were not celebrated in a church:

And in the Church of Ireland parish registers, the Minister will usually record whether the marriage was proclaimed by ‘banns’ or ‘license.’

Here are some marriage notices from the Union of the parishes of Newtownbarry, Barragh, Clonegal & Kilrush (Ferns, co. Wexford)

Of course, if the records in Marriage registers and Banns are almost identical, we have to ask if records of banns are really of use or interest to researchers, other than as a historical curiosity? Or is using Banns like looking at a Will Escher drawing, where perspective appears to shrink to infinity even as we look. Evidence of Banns does not always equate to evidence that the marriage took place, so these records can really ‘shine a light’ on the intimate details of past lives. The best advice this genealogist can give, is to always look for what is unique and doesn’t survive elsewhere.

By Fiona Fitzsimons,

Expert researcher,