Irish families just might have been perplexed with what to do with daughters who had so many limitations set upon them during the days of the Penal Laws, and beyond. There were few options for those born into poor Catholic families in the West of Ireland. Marriage itself was a difficult challenge within a culture where a dowry was needed. Irish women thought of the custom as essential to entering the institution of marriage with proper standing. Having possessions and a bit of financial position assured her that she would be considered an equal in her marriage, and in important matters. This created a dilemma, however for her birth family; how many parents could afford to offer a dowry for one daughter, let alone two or more? Many families had to borrow the funds to place a daughter in a marriageable position, and younger daughters often became spinsters or nuns as a result. Little was available in the way of domestic service within their rural communities, and industrial work was rare. For many single Irish women, the best option seemed to be to emigrate to faraway lands.
Perhaps you have spent years enjoying and participating in Baltimore’s Irish dance community, whether through the step dance form commonly seen among the many Irish dance groups of the region, or as part of a set dance group such as the Emerald Isle Club. That’s not the case with this writer, but there has been much to discover as I have interacted with dancers and musicians on the subject.
Difficult times call for creative methods and approaches, as we all have seen in these challenging days. Irish Catholic families that sought to educate their children had the laws of the land to contend with, as the Penal Laws imposed by British authorities made it a capital offense to educate children in the way a family thought best.