Split Definitive – Frank McNally on quickie divorce in ancient Ireland

An Irishman’s Diary

When seeking to revive the ancient Tailteann Games in 1922,as mentioned here yesterday, the new Free State had less interest in reviving a phenomenon that used to accompany them: pagan marriage, followed where necessary by pagan divorce.

But the remarkable ceremonies involved were described in a short book of that same year, by one T.H. Nally. This claimed that near the site of the original games at Teltown, Co Meath, you could still see traces of two parallel mounds that, in pre-Christian times, constituted the “Vale of Marriage” and the “Hills of Separation”.

The marriages that took place there during the Aonach Tailteann were a chaste affair. Young men and women who had never met before would first stand on either side of a wall. The females would then pass demure hands through holes in the wall and, based on this part of their anatomy alone, the males would choose partners.

What followed, fortunately, were trial marriages, which the couple could dissolve again a year and a day later, before the warranty expired. Then the unhappy couple ascended one of the 30-foot high, 100-yard-long mounds from opposite ends, met in the middle, and formerly questioned each other’s desire to separate.


“Having mutually agreed to part,” Nally wrote, “they both turned to the east, facing the rising sun, saluted it, and the husband, announcing to the assembled multitude the reasons for their estrangement, proclaimed his intention to live with his wife no longer.”

From there they descended in opposite directions, then climbed the other mound in the same fashion and repeated the procedure, except that on this occasion, “the wife and husband turned to the west, saluted the Couch of the Sun, and the lady made the announcement renouncing [her] partner.”

After that, they turned their backs on each other again, but now permanently, and descended to freedom.

If this sounded like a quick and easy divorce, however, the author assured his 1922 readership otherwise. No doubt conscious of the dangers for the new State of invoking its ancient heroes in every respect, Nally added a disclaimer that Tailteann marriages were not dismissed lightly.

“Circumstances were such, and the moral code so high at that time ... that a public renunciation of the obligations of one of their sacred ceremonies required a determination almost heroic, particularly since the probability was that neither party would ever succeed in securing another partner.”

It was all of 74 years later before independent Ireland revived the old Meath tradition of divorce, after the 1996 referendum. And by a deeply unfortunate coincidence, a year later, the site at Teltown was bulldozed. It had been designated a national monument at some point. But there were no signs to that effect, apparently, and nobody had told the new owner.


I wonder if grounds for dissolving a Tailteann marriage included discovery that your partner was bockety in some respect?

Either way, on foot of that adjective's inclusion in the latest Oxford English Dictionary update (Diary, March 23rd), I was fascinated to read Adrian Conway's letter here yesterday about how the "Bockety Man" used to be an unofficial feature of 1980s Dublin Corporation sites, his odd-job duties limited by occupational injury.

My thanks also to Leitrim reader Joe Geoghegan, who in light of similar promotion for the Irish-English verb to "shift" points me to a funny story in the Dúchas folklore collection, compiled in Irish primary schools during the 1930s.

From Co Clare, it concerns a local man who had fought in the Boer War, and so does not feature either the modern Irish definition of shift (kissing and cuddling) or the older English one (full sex). It plays instead on two of the word’s other meanings, including the one that started the Abbey Playboy riots.

Here's the story: "Some years ago a young fellow from Labasheeda who was in the British army in South Africa wrote to his mother. Finishing up his letter he told her not to reply to the address he wrote from, as he would be making a shift for Ladysmith in the morning. 'Glory be to God,' [his mother] exclaimed, imagine my Paddy making a shift for Lady Smith, and when he was here at home he couldn't sew a button on his own trousers."

No doubt the tale is apocryphal, or indeed bockety. The latter word is assumed to derive from the Irish bacach, meaning “lame”. But according to Terry Dolan’s Hiberno-English dictionary, in Kerry and other places, bacach can also mean “unlikely”.

If you don’t believe a Kerryman’s story (about, say, why he used the phrase “airy fairies”), therefore, the local expression of scepticism is: “Scéal bacach.”