Big on bigamy in Limerick: When one spouse is not enough

Limerick historian and author Sharon Slater

BACK in 1864, in a time before the civil registration of all marriages, it was all too easy to get away with bigamy. When a central database of marriages did not exist, the wedding ritual of saying ‘Should anyone present know of any reason that this couple should not be joined in holy matrimony, speak now or forever hold your peace’ was very important.

In those days, a new spouse had to hold on hope that those who knew about a potential first wedding to get in contact with them or to inform the authorities. Limerick saw its fair share of people – mostly men, but occasionally women – remarrying while their spouse was alive.

The following are a selection of the dozens of local cases that made it to the courts in the mid-nineteenth century.

The Limerick Assizes of March 1842 witnessed a quite unusual case. First to the stand was Richard Head, who swore that David Finucane, a shoemaker, and Eliza Cherry were married in 1836.

When local priest Father Brahan was questioned, he couldn’t remember performing the marriage in St Mary’s Chapel on 24 April 1836. Though he did note their names were in the registry book.

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Eliza’s mother also confirmed that the couple lived together under her roof for six months before they found a house of their own.

Then one day Finucane left his wife and one surviving child to look for work. He travelled the countryside and reached Cappamore, where he met and married Mary Anne White on 20 September 1841. The new couple were only married a week when Finucane left to find work in Thurles.

In the meantime, Eliza was looking for her husband. She found her way to Mary Anne’s door three days later. Confronted with the truth, the second wife went to the authorities. During the trial, Finucane questioned his second wife as to why she turned him in, to which she responded: “I think your first wife was good enough for you. And she would be here today only you gave her money to keep away”.

Finucane was found guilty of the charge of bigamy and was imprisoned locally while his second marriage was annulled.

A much tougher sentence for bigamy

In 1842, Andrew Lyons faced a much tougher sentence for his bigamy in the county.

In 1840, Mr Lyons married Bridget Dunneen in Bruff. Two years later he went to the nearby parish of Rockhill and married Bridget Buckley.

In this case both parish priests remembered marrying Lyons and his wives. After being found guilty, Lyons was sentenced to be transported to Australia for seven years.

The case of Daniel Robinson was heard in the Limerick Assizes in March 1844. Robinson was up in court as it was confirmed that he was still married to Anne Griffith when he wed Herminia McDonough (news reports recoded her surname as Southerwood) in St Michael’s Church, Pery Square, on 16 September 1843.

It seemed as if Robinson was set for prison, but was saved at the last moment by a loophole.

Robinson was a Protestant, as was McDonough, but Griffith, the first wife, with whom he had children, was Catholic.

The legal precedence at the time was that mixed marriages had standing under the law. The court decided that “an Act of Geo II declared the marriage null and void in law, whatever it might be in a religious point of view”.

This rule was finally amended in 1870 when the Marriage Causes and Marriage Law Amendment Act came into force after the Yelverton Affair. This allowed, for the first time, for mixed marriages performed by a Catholic priest to become lawful in Ireland. Prior to this, any marriage between a Catholic and a Protestant or a marriage between two Protestants celebrated by a Catholic priest was null and void.

While men tended to have the freedom of movement required to have two wives, it was not impossible for women to do the same.

A very tangled web of matrimony

A very unusual case was heard in Cork throughout 1844. A warrant was brought from Limerick City by Sir Richard Franklin for the apprehension of Thomas Tyrrell. An actor at the Victoria Theatre, Tyrrell was already in custody in Cork.

He was sought in Limerick as one of his three living wives, Mary Anne Barrett, resided there. His other wives, Sarah Clayton of Cork and Anne Callaghan of England, after discovering Tyrell’s deception, considered their marriages null. Both remarried, causing a very tangled web of matrimony.

Sitting in the court throughout all the trials was a Miss Cowell, an actress who was engaged to be married to Tyrrell. Eventually the indictment against him was quashed as his second and third wife were already remarried. He was released on a £100 bail.

According to Judge Vandeleur in 1829, there were two exceptions to bigamy.

First, if the husband was beyond the seas for seven years, and second, if the husband was absent from his wife for seven years, she not knowing him to be alive.

This clause made an appearance in the 1852 trial of Samuel Southell at the Limerick City Petty Sessions. That year, Mr Southell’s first wife arrived in Limerick. They had lived together in India but separated and she moved Chester, England, over seven years earlier.

As soon as he came to Ireland in 1847, he married a ‘Limerick Lass’ by the name of Mary O’Neill, in St Michael’s Church, Pery Square, who, on finding out about his first wife, gave him two black eyes. The court ruled that Southell should give his first wife 17s 6d a month and give her 30s to get back to Chester. Both marriages were deemed valid.

Finally, in 1849, Patrick O’Connor, a native of County Limerick, appeared before the Dublin Police Court.

O’Connor married a Bridget Neville in Patrickswell but later moved to Dublin. There he married Elizabeth McCabe in Frances Street Church, Dublin, in September 1849. O’Connor’s excuse for his bigamy was that ‘he was drunk at the time of his first marriage and he did not think it binding’.

Unfortunately the court did not agree with him and he was sentenced to two years in prison at hard labour.

For more on the Yelverton Affair that changed the mixed marriage law in Ireland, read: Helena Kelleher Kahn, ‘The Yelverton Affair: a nineteenth-century sensation’, History Ireland, Issue 1, Volume 13 (Jan/Feb 2005).