In Cahir Castle, which I visited recently, there was a display showing the history of Irish women through the ages, and as in many other societies, the lower class women did not have a very easy time of it. For one thing, marriages in earlier centuries were not made in heaven, or happened when two people fell in love, but were usually brought about by the parents and maybe a matchmaker, whose job it would be to put two families together, and try and ‘match’ up perhaps a fine strong country girl with some old bachelor who was looking for a woman to cook and clean for him, and help in the running of the farm…and maybe in the fullness of time, to bear him some children to help in the farm as well! In one of the photos above, you will see that the girl did not wish to go through with the arranged marriage, but her parents were the main people forcing her to go ahead with the ceremony, as they were more than likely being paid a ‘dowry’ by the man who was taking the girl off their hands. The practice of matchmaking only died out in Ireland in the past 50 or 60 years, and perhaps it still goes on in places. Nowadays though, I think Irish women are far too independent and strong minded to be forced into a marriage that they do not agree with.
In the 14th century, women were the main brewers of porter or ale, for the menfolk. If the ale was inferior, they were fined up to fifteen pence for a first offence, which was a great deal of money then, and for a second offence the fine was higher, while suspension from her occupation (and possible starvation) was the offence if the drink still wasn’t up to the standard required.
The women who sold fish on the streets in Dublin were also ordered to contribute some of their money towards the cleaning of the streets.
At the other end of the scale, the ladies in the big houses seemed to be fairly comfortable, and lived an easy life with lots of servants to do their bidding. In the inventory of a Castleisland (County Kerry) house in 1590, there were such luxuries as three Turkish Carpets, a Spanish taffeta coverlet, a featherbed and bolsters, covered with rich tapestry, luxury indeed!
I am sure we are all very glad that we were not born in previous centuries when hardship was the norm for most women.