FEATURE: White Weddings in War-time Ireland
By Alyson Gray
Weddings today are big business. As of 2016 the global wedding industry was worth an estimated €275 billion, while it is believed that on average Irish couples spend €25,000 on their big day. Having recently gotten engaged, I was quick to learn how much both costs and expectations build up, and it’s easy to see how couples suddenly end up spending a small fortune on their wedding day. A century ago, this was not quite the case, especially as Ireland, along with the rest of Europe, was caught up in the Great War. But despite the unending sacrifices that were needed for the sake of the conflict, weddings still endured.
The traditional format for weddings in early 20th century Ireland consisted of a morning ceremony, followed by a wedding breakfast. The vast majority of weddings lacked the pomp and circumstance we associate with them today. Three-day binges and lavish honeymoons were not par for the course, nor did the majority of weddings involve what we now consider as ‘afters’.
If excess was not the norm, the onset of war helped to curb the impulses of anyone with a predilection towards extravagance. In January 1917, the Leitrim Observer published a notice appealing for quieter weddings in view of the war-time food shortages. It was remarked upon that ‘while wedding breakfasts have been almost entirely abandoned as the result of the scarcity of eggs, many ancient and costly customs such as pelting the bride with toast racks and bathing the bridegroom in champagne still continue unabated’.
References to pelting brides and bathing grooms is worthy of analysis in its own right, yet here it is sufficient to point out the emphasis that was placed on a modesty that all wedding planners were expected to observe - including the daughter of the British Prime Minister. Violet Asquith, daughter of Herbert, was married to Maurice Bonham Carter in 1915 in what, in ordinary times, might have been expected to have been an important society wedding. But these were not ordinary times. In December 1915, the Freeman’s Journal reported that owing to the war, the plan was for the wedding to ‘be as unceremonious as possible’. It didn’t quite turn out that way. The couple had neither a reception nor a ‘wedding breakfast’, but their high social profile – and that of their parents – attracted large crowds of on-lookers to the church on the day of the wedding.
The majority of the wedding ceremonies that were reported in newspapers involved a church ceremony in the company of the bride and groom’s friends and family. Following the ceremony, it was commonplace for either the bride’s parents – sometimes even the priest – to host a reception or wedding breakfast, after which the couple would leave either by motorcar or train to their honeymoon destination, usually one within Ireland.
Of course, those weddings that warranted newspaper coverage tended to involve those from wealthier, more upper middle-class, backgrounds and it was not unusual for weddings to be used as a platform for the display of social status that found expression in everything from the attire of the bride to the wedding presents given and received.
Central to the whole occasion was the bride’s wedding dress. Then, as now, the dress invited comment and came at a cost. Just how much was revealed in a London court case involving a jilted bride who claimed that she had already spent £100 (nearly €6,000 today) on a trousseau – or bridal wear – when her prospective groom broke his promise of marriage. References to white dresses abound in the reporting of weddings, nowhere more than in the pages of Ireland’s society magazine, Irish Life, where, on one occasion, the bride provided a sketch of a dress to accompany the announcement of her forthcoming wedding.
The white wedding dress had come to prominence after Queen Victoria wore it to her wedding in 1840; up until then, it was common for brides to wear any variety of colours. White, while usually considered a symbol of purity, was also a symbol of wealth, mainly due to the limitations of laundering techniques when it came to white garments. These practices caught on among more affluent brides after 1840, but middle to lower class brides were slower to take up on these traditions. By 1917, however, white was everywhere. When Mollie Daly married Major Simmonds, in May 1917, Irish Life reported that she wore a ‘picturesque gown of ivory charmeuse relieved by touches of jade green, and her tulle veil was bordered by exquisite antique Irish lace’. For Ira Josephine Hetreed, who wed Lieut. Alan Skinner in Tramore, Co. Waterford on 10 May 1917, her fashion of choice was a ‘pretty gown of white crepe de Chine trimmed with silver lace, and her tulle veil from a chaplet of orange blossoms’. And for Dorothea Morse, who married Captain A. Aylmer Cummins in April 1917, her dress was, as Irish Life put it, a ‘lovely bridal robe of Georgette and satin with silver embroidery, and a long veil of Limerick lace’.
Then there was the marriage of Katie Fitzpatrick and James Gilheany in September 1917, an event reported in the Anglo-Celt which gushed over the bride’s dove-coloured gabardine costume, with a white felt hat and gloves to match. She also, for what it’s worth, carried a bouquet of ‘choice’ flowers.
Then there were the gifts. The Fitzpatrick-Gilheany wedding took place in Belturbet, Co. Cavan and the couple were lavished with gifts that were ‘numerous and costly’ and which included a substantial selection of silver cutlery and kitchen appliances, a gold brooch, a gold signet ring, a cheque, a set of furs and a silver tea set. And that’s just some of what the Anglo-Celt reported. The length of the list and their expense spoke volumes for the material wealth of the guests in attendance. Moreover, given the inclusion of such detail in the press the assumption can also be made that the couple were keen to publicise their good fortune to others. According to the 1911 census report Miss Fitzpatrick’s father was a ‘Victualler’, which indicates he owned a business in the town and the groom Mr Gilheany was employed as a national school teacher in the area, the wedding was considered relatively important in the locality.
Not all weddings ran smoothly, of course. There could often be occasions of minor controversy and farce. In September 1917, for example, the wedding of a young couple in Tyrone was scuppered by the objections of the bride’s relatives. When the bride failed to appear in the church, the concerned groom sent her a telegram wondering what had happened. The telegram was intercepted by the relatives, who refused to let the bride leave to marry. The bride then set out on a bicycle to reach her groom but was captured by another cyclist. She was then taken to Rossnowlagh in Co. Donegal, but from here managed to send a secret message to her prospective husband. In an act of romantic high drama, he travelled to her during the night and the bride escaped through the window. They were married the next morning.
Other scenarios such as weddings being interrupted because the groom had deserted from the front were also reported. In October 1917, Private Alfred Reid was prevented from celebrating his wedding after he was taken into custody to be handed over to his regiment as a deserter. A similar incident took place in Birmingham, and was reported in the Leitrim Observer. On being apprehended, the soldier exclaimed: “Can’t you let me spend one day with my wife?” His request was denied.
In London, meanwhile, would-be groom Lieut. Frederick Melville Kennedy was sued in March 1917 by his would-be bride, Miss Marion Hallett for damages for an alleged breach of promise of marriage. The wedding had been due to take place in June 1915, and according to the evidence provided to the court, presents had already began to be delivered to the couple when the groom changed his mind. He claimed later in writing that his financial position did not warrant him marrying as previously arranged. Miss Hallett claimed she had already spent £100 on a trousseau, but the question of marriage was ultimately left open until the war was over.
Writing on the effects of the war on Britain, the poet Philip Larkin observed in his poem, MCMXIV:
‘The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer;
Never such innocence again’.
There is a poignant truth in those lines. For many a war-time marriage was short-lived and many a bride became a widow much sooner than they ever expected to, or were supposed to. Such tragedy struck Lt James Stronge and Winifred Alexander, whose engagement was announced in the Irish Independent in November 1916. They were both in their mid-20s and the former was already away at the war, having enlisted in the Royal Irish Fusiliers in October 1914. The wedding eventually took place on 10 July 1917, but the marriage was short-lived. Just a month later, on 16 August 1917, Stronge was killed at Ypres, France.
Alyson Gray is a researcher at Century Ireland.