Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Irregular Marriages

In 1842, if the Primate of Armagh had succeeded in outlawing certain kinds of Presbyterian marriages in Ireland, then the future Sir Thomas Jackson would have been legally declared a bastard. After all, his father was an Episcopalian, aka an Anglican, or a member of the Church of Ireland , while his mother was a fervent Presbyterian. They had been married at 1st Ballybay Presbyterian church by a Presbyterian minister.  Unfortunately for them, High Church Episcopalians, such as the Primate of Armagh, a hereditary landlord named Lord George John de Poer Beresford, definitely did not approve. Along with many of the members of the so-called Ascendancy, he regarded these liaisons as: irregular marriages.

It is often strange how changes in law regularly get triggered by something that seems on the face of it to be so utterly tangential. This legal shift started in the 1840s when Dr. Miller, the surrogate of the Primate of Armagh, as part of a ruling on a bigamy case was able to declare irregular marriages to be null and void when they were performed by a Presbyterian Minister. His ruling rested on the precedence of a Saxon law passed in the Tenth Century that required that a priest be present to solemnize a marriage. Of course, a priest back in the Tenth Century could not have been Anglican, since Henry VIII had yet to be born. Details, details. That kind of irrelevancy didn’t daunt the Primate. He used his own money to help to fund this case, and he also used his not inconsequential influence to tilt the laws against the needs of Presbyterian families.

Not unsurprisingly, this ruling opened a whole new can of worms. There was now uncertainty over existing marital property agreements as well as inheritances linked to marriage portions. It meant that dead-beat dads could and did legally cut loose from financial responsibilities to their wives and children. It also would result in a whole new cohort of children who were now legally termed: bastard. Had the ruling gone unchallenged, the future Sir Thomas would have been one of them.

It took a second legal case to totally put the cat amongst the pigeons. Fast on the heels of this first judgement, a similar case in Antrim was referred to the Court of Queen’s Bench in Ireland for decision. Since the judges in this case were divided, the issue got punted on to the House of Lords for a ruling. After much debate, the Lords were split when it came to a vote, so the custom of presumitur pro negate prevailed . This meant that the ruling tilted in favour of the one who denied – aka the defendant. The result was that the bigamous defendant wiggled out of his sticky wicket, but it was now the entire Presbyterian community that was stuck between a rock and a hard place.

It is hard to believe that the Primate’s itch to make these irregular marriages declared illegal wasn’t provoked by other issues, including the usual provocation: money. After all, Presbyterian activism in the Tenant Rights movements felt threatening to those holding the reins of Anglican landlord power. Just a few years earlier, in 1850, Rev. David Bell of Derryvalley, Co. Monaghan had ended a speech at the Belfast Music Hall with the rousing In the name of Justice, in the name of humanity, in the name of mercy, in the awful name of God, I call upon Lord John Russell.... to render the poor man’s property as sacred as that of the rich.

It is therefore no surprise that Thomas Jackson’s uncle and future mentor, Rev. Daniel Gunn Brown, was a key mover of one of the resolutions to be forwarded to Parliament.

MOVED by the REV DANIEL GUNN BROWN: That by this unexpected decision, not only are the feelings deeply wounded of more than one half of the Protestants of Ireland, but the rights of property, in innumerable cases, may be unsettled and overthrown: a consequence hurtful to the best interests of society, and affording many opportunities for base and heartless miscreants to violate, with impunity, solemn vows, and desert those whom, by the laws of God and man, they are bound to protect and cherish.

Now this is the kind of story that I could never have found all by myself. Luckily for me, the news clipping was included in a scrapbook assembled by Kieran McConville. On my most recent trip to Armagh, we were unable to meet, but he kindly drove up to Armagh to leave it for me at TheIrish & Local Studies Library so I could photograph the parts I had missed when I first saw the collection at the Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich Memorial Librarya few years earlier.

I didn’t measure it, I am guessing that it is a good eight inches thick,, eighteen inches wide, and two feet tall.
  That day in Armagh, I took 322 photos of the pages of this book, and each page includes anywhere up to six news clippings. I have already entered the ones that describe births, death or marriages of people pertinent to the story of Thomas Jackson in my website or in my family tree. News items that connect to the experiences of the families that I am following will also be transcribed, and annotated, in much the same way as the article that I posted relating to this issue of Presbyterian Marriages.

It is through the actions of transcribing these articles, then checking out the back story, and then annotating the news clippings accordingly accordingly that I am able to get a much more complete picture of many of the events in Creggan Parish  from 1748 to the early 1900s. By sharing it, we all learn – and I am happy to be corrected if I have misunderstood anything in this tale.

As the narrator in an early 60s TV show, used to say: There are eight million stories in The Naked City. This has been one of them.

Background to the court cases: The Cornhill Magazine, Vol. XVI. London 1867. p. 437.
See also: History of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland Vol III. James Seaton Reid. Belfast. 1867. 
News clippings for members of the extended Jackson family (exceedingly extended - given that there are more than 10,00 names so far) can be found on my Silver Bowl web site at: Newsclippings


  1. Sharon any of the Burns, Coleman or Bartholomew families mentioned in your Creggan clippings? I know that the Burns family belonged to Creggan C of I and the bartholomews to Creggan Presbyterian!

  2. I can't be sure - there are too many to hold in my hear. But I will keep an eye out for them.