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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: October 2013

17 - Marriage by Purchase in Early Irish Law


In a short tract on the Milesian Invasion there is a curious passage in which the Sons of Míl arrive in Ireland only to find the island inhabited by a group of Hebrew maidens. The maidens will not give up their land without receiving a payment (tindscra) for their ‘friendship’ (cairdes): ‘Is de at fir crendai mnai i n-Eri co brath ar im chrenad lanamnai isin doman oilcheanai.’ Rudolf Thurneysen has discussed this passage in relation to the notion of marriage by bride-purchase and states that this passage represents the older procedure whereby a man simply buys a wife without expecting a dowry in return. In this essay the extant sources for this practice are re-examined and it is argued that the concept of the husband purchasing his wife may be more a linguistic and terminological artefact than a reflection of reality.

A second instance of this usage occurs in the mythological text Tochmarc Étaíne ‘the wooing of Étaín’. In his analysis of this text Thomas Charles-Edwards discusses, among other matters, the possible significance of the use of the verbs renaid ‘sells’ and crenaid ‘buys’ in relation to the marriage of Étaín and Midir.

Specifically, he discusses the type of marriage Óengus arranges for his fosterfather, Midir, and Midir's later acquisition of Étaín from her husband, Eochaid Airem. In the former marriage arrangement Óengus effectively purchases Étaín from her father, Ailill, who, according to Charles-Edwards's interpretation, might thereby forfeit all of his rights to compensation should any injury be done to his daughter.