So I am sitting in a musical right now (The Pirate Queen, by an amateur theatre group) and it is about Ireland in the 16th century. They showed a marriage where they got something like a probation time. They were allowed to divorce in the first three years. Was this really a thing?

  • Not sure if it is even worth citing. It is a small amateur theatre group.
    – doc
    Commented Aug 6, 2017 at 9:34

2 Answers 2


Citing the work is really critical. Knowing the title permits me to access the Wikipedia page which gives me the legal statue under which the marriage occurred.

According to Irish “Brehon Laws,” a marriage becomes permanent only after three years. Until then, either party may dismiss the other. Grace invokes this law and banishes Donal from her life (“I Dismiss You”). Once again, Grace and Tiernan are free to be together (“If I Said I Loved You”).

Knowing that the marriage was conducted according to Brehon Law opens up a wide variety of sources, that lead to facts like:

Under Brehon Law, there were ten forms of marriage, each diminishing in importance, legal rights and desirability and sorted by degrees. Marriage and Brehon Law in Ancient Ireland

or perhaps more pertinent,

Handfasting is an ancient Celtic tradition that involved tying the hands of the betrothed together well in advance of their actual wedding day. It is similar to an engagement, a time when both parties decide if they genuinely wish to commit. In modern times the tradition occurs on the actual wedding day although in centuries past the ceremony acted as a kind of temporary marriage. Ibid


Until 1603, Irish couples could divorce for several reasons (sterility/infertility, impotency, homosexuality, abortion, infanticide, flagrant infidelity, insanity, abandonment...).

Marriage was a private contract and up to the council of Trent (1563) clandestine marriages that could be dissolved easily were common.

For instance, Irish couples were not commonly united by the sacrament of marriage as Gaelic law regulated their relationship. Gaelic law allowed divorce at will followed by remarriage and took no account of canonical prohibitions against consanguinity or affinity...

The practice of trial marriages also seems to have been popular in Gaelic areas, especially amongst the upper classes, so cohabitation before marriage must have enjoyed a recognised standing in the community to be so acceptable at the highest levels of society. Amongst the Gaelic Irish illegitimacy was not necessarily regarded as an obstacle towards succession. Due to this it was not uncommon for a man to have more than one concubine, as well as his legitimate wife, which could lead to dozens of offspring

Gillian Kenny, Anglo-Irish and Gaelic marriage laws and traditions in late medieval Ireland


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