‘Getting married without a dowry? You must be joking!’
Lorraine Mullaney’s new play examines the choices faced by Irish immigrants
Not everybody is aware that, as recently as the 1960s, it was commonplace for Irish couples to undergo arranged marriages.
As Lorraine Mullaney – a playwright whose latest offering was inspired by this concept – explains, they were referred to as ‘matches’, so as to make them seem less forced. They were also highly political affairs, with families across the country desperate to secure their legacy by keeping hold of what they owned through simple lineage.
“It was usually about land,” Lorraine says. “If you look at a map of Irish surnames, some names just stay in certain parts of the country.
“This is because the land was always left to one of the sons and there were quite a lot of bachelor farmers who didn’t have kids but needed someone to leave the land to under the family name.
“So quite often the marriages were between young girls – who could provide heirs – and older men.”
This was exactly what happened between her grandparents. Her grandmother was 19 when she married her husband, who was in his 40s at the time. It was seen as the norm and Lorraine recalls how her grandma would make genuine jibes at her daughter when she herself got married because she didn’t have any form of settlement.
“I couldn’t believe it when my mum told me that my grandmother had had an arranged marriage – it sounded like something from another era,” she says. “Then she told me that when she first met my dad, my grandmother used to make digs at her because she didn’t have a dowry. That’s quite amazing considering they got married in 1960.”
If Lorraine – someone from an Irish background whose relatives had been directly affected – was taken aback, how would those with even less of a connection react? This, ultimately, is what inspired her to write the play. The concept of an ‘untold story’ will always be an attractive proposition, especially one that is somewhat close to home. But she adds that it is more than just a tale of Irish arranged marriages – themes of immigration, cultural differences and contrasting emotions are also explored.
When a young girl turns up in London in 1956 having crossed over from rural Ireland, she is naturally flabbergasted. A fast-paced life packed with bright lights and bustling people awaits but, while this is something that would tantalise many, others have bonds to their past which are more difficult to siphon off.
“This play isn’t exclusive to Ireland – it’s about all immigrants. A lot of people come to London because they see it as a place that has more to offer than their home,” Lorraine explains. “But they still miss their home and feel this pull back to the old country and the culture from which they came.
“The push and pull of wanting to stay but wanting to return is something that is true of all immigrants.”
The character in Body & Blood who comes to London – and has parallels with the playwright’s mother – has a difficult choice to make; one millions have felt.
“When my mum came to London she absolutely loved it. She was from a very poor background, a peasant really from a two-room cottage in the middle of nowhere.
“So coming to London was very exciting. She got a job straight away at a time when there was very little work, or very little choice of work, in Ireland.”
Lorraine notes that this is a concept which holds true to this very day. Remembering conversations with Eastern Europeans, she says that many of them are amazed by the opportunities available to them over here when contrasted with their homelands. As for Ireland, she believes that things are very different now to what they once were.
“Ireland has changed a hell of a lot. There’s much better education on offer – my mum left school at 13 and went straight into work. “But I don’t think that people appreciate that for somewhere so close, and we’re talking not that long ago, things were so, so different.
“The gap has narrowed, particularly recently, but, even in the 1960s, this gap was absolutely massive.”
Arranged marriages tend to have negative connotations surrounding them, even though, in many cases, they turn out to be very successful, long and happy ones. Accusations of a lack of free will, inequality and, in the most unfortunate instances, domestic abuse mean that it can be quite a burdensome subject. Lorraine, however, makes it clear that her play is far from a doom and gloom spectacle pertaining to female repression. The truths of the matter cannot be ignored, of course, but she believes it can stand on its own as nothing less than a good story.
“I’m aware that when people hear it is a play about arranged marriages, they might have this perception that it’s very grim and heavy but it’s not like that at all,” she says. “There’re a lot of jokes in it, it’s entertaining, we’ve got live music thrown in and I think the Irish are famous for their ability to laugh in the face of adversity.
“It’s not about depressing people, it’s about providing them with a cracking story and some funny lines.
“It’s engaging. It will make people laugh and might even make them cry – though hopefully not too much.”
Body & Blood is showing as part of Festival 47 at the King’s Head Theatre, London from 10-12 July at 6.30pm.
Tickets are available at firstname.lastname@example.org or on 020 7226 8561