With all this talk of marriage- Here’s how our ancestors did it.
Medieval Irish society permitted and probably even encouraged polygamy , but this did not fit in with the Christian culture through which all the data available on ancient Ireland were filtered. Almost all texts highlight the presence of a cétmuinter (literally “chief spouse”, it applied to either husband or wife, but generally referred only to the latter and was therefore usually translated as “chief wife”), and only en passant do they mention the presence of a second wife called adaltrach, adulteress. The texts frequently stress that the function of this secondary wife was to bear sons when the first one was not able to, and that her position became therefore lawful exclusively in this specific case. Bretha Crólige, on the other hand, suggests that reality was very different, for unlike most texts it acknowledges a “wife per contract” (ben hi coir lánamnusa), a second wife and a generic “any other wife” . It can therefore be inferred that having a first and a second wife was common practice, and also that in certain cases the number of “wives” could even be above two. It is quite obvious that the main duty of a wife other than doing the housework was to bear children, but there was no discrimination between first, second and eventually other wives. Indeed, the sons of the various wives were to have the same rights of inheritance. What really distinguished a wife from the other was her social status and her position within their husband’s family. The chief wife obviously held a position of prestige, and of course a second wife, who was to hold a position subordinated to that of the chief wife, could neither have the same rank nor a higher one. If the chief wife was sterile and the second could bear children, however, or if the chief wife bore only daughters and the second a son, thus ensuring the survival of the man’s lineage segment, then the balance between the two women could be greatly altered. The chief wife still enjoyed the prestige of her position, but the second wife’s importance (and maybe also her financial value) increased because of the importance the Irish culture attached to sons and family in general.