While society has undoubtedly become more secular over the last few decades, when it comes to tying the knot, most of us still prefer a church wedding to exchanging our vows in a civil ceremony.
Figures from the Central Statistics Office reveal that while civil marriages are on the rise, weddings in a Roman Catholic church still account for more than half of all marriages in the State each year.
And for most couples who want a church wedding, attending a pre-marriage course is a prerequisite to walking down the aisle (unless of course the priest marrying the couple decides to help them prepare for marriage himself). Each year, thousands of couples put their names down to attend courses.
Couples can attend any pre-marriage course which meets a set of criteria laid down by the Irish Episcopal conference and it’s up to the individual bishops to determine the courses in their diocese that meet these criteria. It’s generally presumed that most go to these courses unwillingly and find them, for the most part, a waste of time, but in reality couples’ experiences differ widely and many find them very useful.
According to Ann Coleman, a specialist in marriage education with Accord (an organisation which runs Catholic marriage preparation courses), couples who come to the course and don’t want to be there, generally tend to say afterwards that they found it beneficial. Accord courses are delivered in a group setting by three trained facilitators (one of whom is a priest), and usually run for three hours on a Friday evening and on a Saturday.
“The work done is on a one-to-one between the couple themselves,” says Coleman.
“They are given that time to turn to each other and have a discussion about a particular topic and the relevance of it for them as a couple — it’s not in a general open forum.”
The programme covers nine topics ranging from family of origin, to intimacy, natural family planning and fertility.
“It’s really awareness of fertility. Sometimes couples feel, ‘We’ll have a baby two years after we get married.’ But sometimes it’s unfortunately not as easy as that,” says Coleman.
The sacrament of marriage (which is usually delivered by the priest) is a big element of the programme.
Coleman said a major benefit of the course is that it presents an opportunity for the couple, “in the madness of planning a wedding”, to take nine hours and to spend that time together as a couple.
“They always afterwards say; ‘I was pleasantly surprised. I actually got a lot out of that’… or , ‘It was different to what I thought it was going to be’. It would be great if couples realised in advance that they are actually going to have an opportunity to talk about things that will be beneficial to them as couple for the future.”
Maeve and Andrew Purcell from Knocklyon in Dublin, who married in 2013, are one such couple.
They did a day-long Accord pre-marriage course at All Hallows College, Dublin, and signed up simply because it was necessary if they were to get married in a Catholic Church. They found, to their surprise, that the course was good.
“It wasn’t very religious,” says Maeve. “There was one section where the priest came in to talk about the sacrament of marriage and about what would happen in the church ceremony. The rest of the day was more practical — the facilitators talking about different experiences of marriage.
“Both the man and the woman were married themselves and one of them was definitely a marriage counselor. I had heard about courses run only by priests and people didn’t find them as useful. Some of the topics we had discussed before. Some we hadn’t. I’m happy we did it — just from the point of view that it might have uncovered some fundamental difference. I would not look back and think — ‘That was a waste of money’.”
Not everyone, however, has such a positive experience of the pre-marriage course. Jacquie Kirrane and her husband Alan O’Brien from Churchtown, Dublin, did a Catholic pre-marriage course prior to getting married in 2010, but were not impressed with the experience.
“I thought it was a waste of time to be quite honest,” says Jacquie.
“What stood out for me was that they needed to update their material to the 21st century,” she says.
One area that really stood out for her as flawed was the discussion on contraception. “I thought it was irrelevant. People do not need to know about contraception. I was just thinking, ‘Do I have to listen to two old women and a priest talking about contraception?’. I think I just switched off.
“I would not recommend anyone to do it. I actually don’t think there was anything we took from the course,” says Jacquie, who added she thought a course which addressed the subject of finances and tax credits could be useful.
Meanwhile, other people who are not having a Catholic ceremony and are not required to do a pre-marriage course opt to do one anyway.
Relationships Ireland in Dublin run non-denominational marriage preparation courses for individual couples. Relationships counsellor Tony Moore says a wide variety of people attend their three-hour length courses, from those having religious ceremonies, to heterosexual and same sex couples having civil ceremonies.
Some people having Catholic ceremonies also attend non-denominational courses, once the priest marrying them gives it the thumbs up. “They want to check that their view of marriage, (how they want things to be). They like the fact that the pre-marriage courses are run by qualified, experienced relationships counsellors who are also psychotherapists,” says Moore.
Both individuals fill in a questionnaire beforehand, which they send back before attending the course.
Expectations of love and marriage, finances, children (fertility treatment, adoption, fostering), communication, the use of electronic devices, sex, contraception and in-laws are among the topics addressed.
Moore says couples get to know each other better and tackle difficult issues. “One of the purposes is to get the couple to talk about these issues. Many of them will say, ‘We never talked about that’ or ‘We’ve avoided that subject’. Many find there are loads of things that they don’t know about each other.”
Denise and Paul Campbell from Oranmore, Co Galway, did a non- denominational course in the West of Ireland prior to their church wedding in Italy. “We are not very religious and did not want a priest facilitating a pre-marriage course when they themselves have no experience of been married.
“We also preferred that it was just us and the counsellor, as I was not keen on hearing other couples talk about their relationship or on others hearing us.
“To be honest, we did not find it terribly useful because both my partner and I had already discussed the topics covered, but it probably helped reinforce some of our beliefs and viewpoints on issues.
“I think it would have been more useful if we had been presented with real life scenarios regarding the difficulties you could encounter as a married couple and asked us how we would have dealt with those situations.”
- Accord courses cost between €120 and €200, Relationships Ireland courses cost €240