Civil marriages have doubled in Northern Ireland over a 22 year period according to figures published by Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA).
In 1991, there were 9,221 marriages of which 15.4 per cent were civil marriages, whereas in 2013 the figures increased to 30.8 per cent out of a total of 8,126 marriages.
The statistics for civil marriages in the South of Ireland are very similar to that in the North. Civil ceremonies accounted for 29.5 per cent of the 20,680 last year, compared to only five per cent 20 years ago, as sited in the Irish Times.
There has been an increase of 66 per cent in civil marriages in England and Wales from 2002 to 2012. Figures produced by The Office for National Statistics show that 70 per cent of all marriages were civil marriages.
A civil ceremony is a non-religious, legal marriage, conducted by a government official or functionary, normally known as a registrar. Local authorities designate where a ceremony can take place such as hotels, stately homes, Council Registry offices, etc.
Almost one third of weddings here are no longer conducted at a church, and like most European countries, Northern Ireland is experiencing a decline in religious worship and a rise in secularism, humanism, paganism and atheism. Many couples want to celebrate their marriages with their friends in a ceremonial fashion, as opposed to the no frills, no trimmings registry office event.
The recent marriages of Andy Mcauley and Joanne Doherty, and that of Rachael Johnson and Frank Rafferty highlight this.
Joanne and Andy had been together for 12 years and have a six year old daughter, Ramona. Explaining why they opted for a secular/ humanist wedding, Joanne said:
“We are both non-religious, so we wanted to have a service that reflected our life together so far, and the experiences we share together.”
Joanne detailed the process. They first had to find a venue that facilitated such a ceremony, as well as one that was easily accessible for the older guests. ‘An Grainan’ hotel in Burt, County Donegal was the perfect choice for them. Next, they contacted the Registrar in Donegal by letter. This was followed with a telephone conversation with the Registrar, Florence Blackburn who informed them of what was required for, not only a civil marriage, but also what was required legally for a cross-boarder wedding.
Six weeks before the ‘big day’, Joanne and Andy had a one hour face to face meeting with Florence Blackburn to pay the fee, declare there was no lawful impediment to the marriage, and discuss the modalities of the ceremony.
Joanne said: “Regardless of whether a couple are religious, hymns are not permitted at civil ceremonies, but we wouldn’t have wanted that anyway, but what we did want was anthem-like songs to heighten the emotional impact, and music that would be strong enough for the moment.”
She recounted how, breaking with convention, her god son and mother walked up the isle along with her and her father. “I felt well, my mother has been such an important part of my life, and has always been there for me, I wanted her to walk up the isle too.” Jo said.
They choose the song, ‘Just like honey’ by ‘The Jesus and Mary Chain’ to walk up the isle. Other songs that were played throughout the service were: Buddy Holly- True love; The Pogues- Rainy night in Soho; The Teddy Bears- To know you is to love you.
The rituals that were chosen for the service were as follows:
Exchanging of rings; Family hug, instead of traditional kiss; Individualised building blocks built to represent all three family members; Rose ceremony, which Joanne explained, was there first gift to each other after getting married, and if they have an argument in the future, they would give each other a rose, as a means of apology.
The readings were chosen by the couple and read by sisters’ of the bride and groom- Kim Doherty and Lisa Grey. The first reading was a friendship blessing and the second reading was an Apache blessing. Andy’s first record that he bought Jo was, ‘Church on Sunday’ by Green Day, so they thought it fitting to play this as they walked back down the isle.
One of the special moments of the day for her was, Joanne said: “During the service I noticed an older family friend sing along to, ‘To know you is to love you’, and I saw the happiness in him and others. It just made the moment.”
John and Caroline O’ Neill who were guests at the wedding, spoke of how they had been to Registry Office ceremonies but never a service like this.
John stated: “The Registrar made the ceremony very symbolic. It was as emotional as a church wedding.”
Caroline said: “That it was such a beautiful and gorgeous wedding. In fact it made John cry, and he didn’t even cry at our wedding.”
The marriage of Frank Rafferty and Rachael Johnson last summer attracted a flurry of media attention in the Fermanagh area. They opted to have a pagan ceremony at the Mummers Centre in Fermanagh. Both Frank and Rachael describe themselves as ‘non-theists’ and having a reverence for pre-Christian, Celtic, customs and rituals.
The couple choose a pagan marriage as Rachael stated: “Because it was non-religious, and a communal, inclusive ritual for all 150 guests to participate in.”
The ceremony lasted for 30 minutes. Rachael had a maid of honour and three flower girls, while Frank had two best men, dressed in kilts. They arranged an alter on which blueberries, fage, corn bread, salt, honey and oat cakes were placed. The salt symbolises times of poverty while, honey represents times of prosperity.
Rachael informed me that in Scotland it is legal to have a pagan wedding, but in Northern Ireland it is not recognised. Therefore, to make their marriage legally binding, they had to have a civil ceremony at Enniskillen Town Hall, prior to the wedding ritual by the idyllic Fermanagh lakes.
The couple choose a ‘Hand Fasting’ ceremony, which is one of number of rituals performed by the ‘Mummers’. By having your hands bound together during this service, is why we now refer to marriage as ‘tying the knot,’ they explained.
The ritual sequence is as follows:
Hands are bound together by the best man and maid of honour.
The couple exchange vows.
The hands are untied and everyone eats berries (harvest ritual).
Break bread which everyone eats after dipping it in either salt or honey.
Bride and groom drink from a chalice, before sharing it with the guests.
Groom takes bride’s hand over a hole in a large stone, symbolizing carrying over the threshold.
Mother gives bride a fertility symbol.
Guests make an arch, then the couple jump over a broom, representing a new life together.
Mummers gate crash the wedding to represent good luck.
One of the most memorable aspects of the ceremony was, Rachael said: “Even though this was a true and sincere ceremony, everyone laughed from start to finish.”
Frank recalled: “The ritualistic aspects were much more powerful and meaningful because they were rooted in Celtic tradition.”
Rachael spoke of how her mother thought the most wonderful thing was, ‘all the guests took part in the ceremony.’ Since their marriage, some of the guests have told Frank and Rachael, they intend to have a similar wedding.