Handfasting: An Ancient Irish Wedding Tradition

by Pat Friend

Handfasting is an ancient Celtic custom, especially common in Ireland and Scotland, in which a man and woman came together at the start of their marriage relationship. Their hands, or more accurately, their wrists, were literally tied together. This practice gave way to the expression "tying the knot" which has come to mean getting married or engaged.

The handfasting ritual recognized just one of many forms of marriages permitted under the ancient Irish (Brehon) law. The man and woman who came together for the handfasting agreed to stay together for a specific period of time, usually a year-and-a-day. At the end of the year the couple faced a choice. They could enter into a longer-term "permanent" marriage contract, renew their agreement for another year, or go their separate ways.

The custom hails from the pre-Christian era but continued after Christianity was well established because it was not ordinary for either the Church or government to play a role in witnessing marriages during this period. (Even though Marriage was one of the seven sacraments, it wasn't until the Council of Trent, which began in 1537, that the Church required that the Church witness marriages. Government registration of marriages in Ireland only began in the middle of the 19th century.)

It is important to understand the view of the Brehon Law on marriage to see the importance of handfasting. In an article entitled Marriage, Separation and Divorce in Ancient Gaelic Culture, Alix Morgan MacAnTsaior points out that marriage was seen as a contract intended to first protect the individual and property rights of the parties (and their families) and secondly to ensure that any children born of the union were properly recognized and cared for.

If the couple decided to separate at the end of the year (or at any other time) Brehon law specified how their property would be divided. More importantly, it established the recognition of the inheritance rights of any child conceived during the time of the handfasting union.

Lughnasadh, the August 1st Celtic festival, was one time of the year when handfastings often took place. These unions were known as "Teltown marriages" because men and women came together at the festival at Teltown, Co. Meath, often not knowing in advance who their partner would be. They remained together through the year and if necessary, parted company at the festival in following year.

Handfasting survives in several forms today. It is present in part in many Western religious and secular ceremonies as the celebrant asks, "Who gives this woman to be married?" The giving of the bride's hand to the groom is reminiscent of the handfasting ceremony. Handfasting is also the marriage rite practiced by pagan and Wiccan groups.