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We struggle to push back further than the beginning of the 19th century when tracing our Irish ancestors.

One of the reasons for this is the Penal Laws which prevented Roman Catholic religious practice and associated records. Other reasons may be some of the customs and culture of the 1700’s  such as the ‘Teltown Marriages

Clandestine marriages in the England caused laws to be enacted there and as Ireland was ruled by England for 700 years until 1922 – laws passed in London applied to Ireland – the marriage act

Most are probably  familiar with the 1753 Marriage Act and the concomitant issue of what were known as “Fleet marriages”, but in case there are less experienced newcomers to family history I thought it might be useful to post a few facts about this subject.

The Act, commonly known as Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act, passed into law on 25 March 1754 (25 March then being the beginning of the year under the Julian Calendar) and its full title was “An Act for the Better Preventing of Clandestine Marriage”. Lord Hardwicke was the Lord Chancellor at the time. Clandestine marriages had become an increasing problem in the 1740s, especially in London, a clandestine marriage being one usually held in secret in which a couple simply exchanged promises before a clergyman and witnesses and they were assumed to be married. The full details are more complex than this but they can be read at Wikipedia: Marriage Act 1753

In London clandestine marriages were taking place in taverns and coffee houses and there were rogue priests – sometimes referred to as “hedge priests” because they would literally marry people in a field by a hedge – working in the capital. The major place where these illicit marriages were taking place was the Fleet debtors’ prison. Hardwicke’s Act made these marriages illegal and void because it said that all marriages had to take place in the Church of England after banns or a licence. It also outlawed marriages in Catholic churches, though you will often find when looking for Catholic ancestors that there was another ceremony in the nearest Catholic church, often on the same day as the official marriage in an Anglican church.

The only exceptions allowed were Jews and Quakers because they were thought to keep good records and be honest. The Act lasted for almost a century until civil legislation came in 1837.

Also look at Wikipedia for the Fleet prison. During the 1740s, up to 6,000 marriages a year were taking place in the Fleet area, compared with 47,000 in England as a whole. One estimate suggests that there were between 70 and 100 clergymen working in the Fleet area between 1700 and 1753. It was not merely a marriage centre for criminals and the poor, however: both rich and poor availed themselves of the opportunity to marry quickly or in secret. See  Fleet Prison Marriages  for more information

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