The Irish for dowry is "spré," literally meaning "fortune."

My husband maintains he is still waiting for his dowry -- 26 years on, it has been a standard joke in our family all that time!  He doesn't mention it quite so much now but when my sister returned to Ireland c12 years ago, after living in America for c22 years, her truly American daughter, when the class was asked, was the only student in her transition year to know what a dowry was!

So what is a dowry? Does it still have a value in today's Ireland?

The definition of a dowry is the transfer of money, goods or property from parents to their daughter when she marries. A dowry is a way the bride's family can try to ensure their daughter has financial security in case of a neglectful or irresponsible husband or should she be widowed, so she can remain in the manner which she has become accustomed.  But more usually the dowry went into the household, deeming therefore to go to the groom, and really seen as the bride bringing it to her new husband.  Often a dowry would be agreed between the bride's family and the groom's family with the first half being paid on the day of the wedding and the second installment being paid on the birth of their first child.

Could this be seen as a sell-off or just a little something to help set up the couple?  Well, world-wide it appears to be the latter. But in 19th century Ireland the dowry was particularly important in choosing a bride so not to marry beneath your status -- to the extent of not marrying at all if your love had no dowry or a dowry that wasn't acceptable.

Taking farming families as an example, usually the eldest son married first and his bride came into the family home, often the groom's parents lived in the house plus his younger siblings.  The dowry would be given to the groom's family, who might keep that dowry for the event of a daughter's marriage when the dowry would be used as her dowry to her new husband, often a dowry was never actually used but was kept for the next dowry and then the next dowry after that and the same dowry could go around family to family.  As a result, in Ireland, often the bride never saw anything of her dowry. Also to bear in mind that up until the late 19th century, women had limited property rights by law, meaning a married woman had no rights to property independent of her husband -- this included any land by dowry.

Parents used the dowry system to prevent their sons marrying women beneath their social standing. It was possible for some brides to have married without dowries, although usually not above their station.  Many women, particularly the younger girls of a household whose family could gather a dowry for the first/second daughter but not for the younger girls, either remained unmarried or emigrated as they had no prospect of marrying in Ireland without a dowry -- in a foreign land they could start new lives where their social standing wasn't so important and various employment allowed them to better themselves. Many of these girls saved the price of their dowry and returned to Ireland to marry. Some families sent their younger girls to enter a convent, they still actually needed to give a dowry, but a smaller dowry was acceptable making this possible for many families.

So it seems that, in the past, many marriages in Ireland were set by financial standing, and it would be nice to think love and compatibility came into the equation also -- maybe not, but hoping that love could grow with companionship and endearment. The dowry is certainly an ancient tradition and is typical of values across the world, but whether the dowry has any meaning in modern Ireland is very much determined by how traditional the family is, not now seen as important in choosing your soulmate for life but a way the bride's family can financially help the couple.

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Tags: Customs, Emigration, Marriage, Traditions, Wedding

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Comment by Totally Irish Gifts on May 22, 2015 at 8:20pm

A little more about the dowry to enter a convent... it is my understanding that the various convents/orders differed on this and the amount they required.  If a convent was poor then they wouldn't have been able to sustain another nun, therefore needed financial assistance to accept a new person in, the financial contribution was referred to as a dowry as nuns were viewed as a 'Bride of Christ'. Going further on this apparently the order could only use the interest accrued from the dowry, as the principal sum had to be kept for that nun in case she ever left the convent and on her death then the sum could be fully used by the order, however, some nums who left the order would have been given just enough money to help them set up in civilian life but not the full amount of the dowry and I doubt if they had any comeback on this.  I suppose the dowry also prevented very poor girls from entering the convents just as a way out of extreme poverty, the convents wouldn't have been been able to cope with the possible influx.  Of course there also were abandoned babies or orphaned children taken in by the nuns, these babies and children brought up by the nuns sometimes stayed in that convent and became nuns as adults, obviously they didn't bring a dowry.  I would like to think that women who were truly holy, spiritual and wishing to do good for the betterment of others weren't prevented in joining a convent if they didn't have enough money for a dowry. I'm not sure if each convent had it's own rules on how much a dowry should be or if they considered each individual's circumstance. In modern day, worldwide, I think the practice of bringing a dowry to a convent still exists, but not for the use of the convent only soley for the purpose of having money to give the nun should she decide to leave the convent.

If anyone has any more information on all this I'd love to hear it, it's a very interesting topic!

Comment by Kelly O'Rourke on May 26, 2015 at 8:36am

I know that in some Eastern cultures, the dowry system has tragic consequences for women and girls.  A female child can be seen as a financial detriment to the family because she will cost them money when she marries. This can lead to abortion and even infanticide of girls.  It seems that this was not the outcome of dowry in Ireland; I'd be interested to hear a sociologist's explanation.


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