Wedding bells ring out a different tune: How a pandemic can't stop love

The pandemic put a halt to many wedding traditions, we investigate how the €30k party might now be a thing of the past
Wedding bells ring out a different tune: How a pandemic can't stop love

Niamh Donnellan and Tom O' Connor actually moved their wedding forward during lockdown. They celebrated with their baby Clodagh and daughter Abbie. Picture: Pedro Teixeira of Love Like Crazy.

The pandemic pretty much blitzed the 2020 wedding scene. Just 3,190 couples married in the first half of 2020 compared with 8,528 for that period in 2019, according to the CSO. 

A new weddingsonline survey, conducted during the pandemic’s third wave, found almost half of couples surveyed postponed their wedding, with 33% of them postponing more than once.

But love springs eternal and so does marriage, according to those in the business, who say Covid-induced devastation of the wedding landscape won’t put couples off saying I do and that marriage is still an important milestone underlining two people’s commitment to each other.

Jonathan Bryans, commercial manager at weddingsonline, says the wedding portal sees 55,000 people chatting about weddings every day. In the first week of 2021, the site had 2,993 queries about all things wedding. 

“Engagements continue, and in the last 12 months we’ve had 15,148 new registrations from couples,” he says.

Founder of Ennis-based Coastal Ceremonies Clara Malone, an independent celebrant who officiates at symbolic ceremonies including marriages, agrees. 

“Loads of people got engaged during the pandemic. We’ve had lots of enquiries, even some bookings, since the beginning of January. The wedding industry was decimated in 2020 but it’ll bounce back. Couples will always get married.” 

'It felt like our wedding'

Niamh Donnellan says she knew she wanted to marry Tom O' Connor the day the couple met. Picture: Pedro Teixeira of Love Like Crazy.
Niamh Donnellan says she knew she wanted to marry Tom O' Connor the day the couple met. Picture: Pedro Teixeira of Love Like Crazy.

Pre-pandemic, couples were marrying in roughly similar numbers as always, albeit with a small drop in recent years. There were 20,313 marriages in Ireland in 2019, 21,053 in 2018, and 22,021 in 2017. 

Niamh Donnellan, who is 33-years-old, is unusual in that the pandemic led to her bringing her wedding forward. She met husband Tom, 34, five years ago. Until then she’d have said marriage wasn’t a huge thing for her. 

“I didn’t know what way my life would go. I knew I wanted to be a parent but I wasn’t sure what that would look like,” she says. But within weeks of meeting in Galway’s Front Door pub, the couple were joking they’d run off and elope. “Marriage was on the cards from the start. It was just a feeling when I met Tom. I wanted to get married.” 

Parents to Abbie, two, and Clodagh, one, the Galway-based couple had been planning to marry in May of this year, but the pandemic made them re-think when and what type of wedding they wanted. They married in November, scaling numbers back from 180 to a much more intimate gathering of 25.

“The idea of having something small, of having the financial burden of a wedding over, was appealing. Personally, I’d always wanted something small. If the pandemic hadn’t happened, I don’t think it’d have felt like ‘our’ wedding. More like we hosted a party for a lot of people," Niamh says.

Pandemic aside, Niamh says marriage definitely feels right for her, especially with having kids. But she observes marriage isn’t automatically the ‘done thing’ for her generation. “Most of my friends have said they don’t know if they want to get married. Though as they couple off they tend to do so," she says.

'Not practical for us'

Latest CSO figures show 152,302 couples were cohabiting in Ireland in 2016, an increase of 8,741 from five years earlier. 

For Joan, a Cork-based teacher in her mid-30s and mum of two small children, living together is a choice she’s happy with. She met her partner seven years ago and they began living together six months into the relationship. “Not for any ideological reasons but for financial and practical ones," she says. 

"We were trying to get permanent jobs, a permanent home, two decent cars on the road and we're raising a family. The idea of spending €30,000 on a wedding day!

"If I book a wedding date, I have to make sure I’m not pregnant, not breastfeeding, not post-partum or overweight! It’s very hard to set a date, I may as well wait until the kids are old enough to appreciate it.

“I see expanding a family as a very serious reason for committing to someone, but a marriage cert doesn’t stop infidelity or abandonment. Our commitment is something we’re very conscious of. We don’t take our relationship for granted, we constantly work on it.” 

Joan loves going to weddings and celebrating other people’s happiness, however. “The idea of a public declaration of commitment and love is lovely. It’s just not practical or feasible for us right now.” 

An onslaught of weddings?

Wedding planner Sharon McMeel doesn’t see an onslaught of weddings happening post-restrictions, at least not for a while. “It’ll be busy but not insane. Many people have been financially impacted, businesses shut down. Those who’d have got married this year may have to postpone a bit longer,” she says. 

Peter 'Franc' Kelly, wedding maestro and presenter of Say Yes To The Dress Ireland, agreed last week, saying that the wedding industry in Ireland was on its knees. 

"The vendors need to be supported or else they won't be there for these couples in 2022. The biggest question we have been asked by couples is 'will my vendor be there when my wedding happens', and at the moment we can't answer that because so many of them are in trouble," he says. "It's actually at the stage of crisis."

However, Bryans predicts an extremely busy wedding market for the next three years. “Because far fewer weddings happened in 2020, there’ll be an additional 16,000 or so pushed into 2021 and 2022, depending on when restrictions ease,” he says. 

Asked if weddings would stay different post-Covid, two-thirds of the almost 1,300 weddingsonline survey respondents said yes, couples would have smaller weddings. The pandemic has taught many that there's no need for €30k+ weddings.

McMeel agrees. “For many, permission to have a smaller wedding has been a big relief emotionally and financially,” she says. Plus smaller numbers open up new venue options. “Venues with character, great history or places renowned for food that can only take 50, it sets a different, more intimate tone for your day.” 

New traditions

Independent celebrant Clara Malone has seen more and more couples personalising their weddings. Picture: Paul Corey
Independent celebrant Clara Malone has seen more and more couples personalising their weddings. Picture: Paul Corey

In 2019, one in three opposite-sex couples opted for a civil ceremony, while numbers of Roman Catholic ceremonies continued to fall: down to 45.1% from 49.2% in 2018. 

Humanist and Spiritualist Union of Ireland ceremonies are on the rise, however, with 1,813 couples opting for them in 2019 compared to 1,512 in 2018.

Malone sees the trend towards symbolic ceremonies reflected in her bookings. If it wasn't for Covid, she expects that those held in 2020 would have been double those in 2019. An independent celebrant, she doesn’t perform the legal side of marriage, which is done in a registry office before or after the symbolic ceremony. 

She sees couples really personalising their ceremony, opting for rituals reflecting who they are, such as Celtic hand-fasting. Dating to 7000BC, it’s done after vows and rings are exchanged. A cord or colourful ribbon tied around the couple’s clasped hands symbolises hands bound in a union of love. 

“It features in 80% of our ceremonies. The couple might use material the mothers of the bride and groom have worked on together, lace from the mother’s wedding dress, a handkerchief once worn by a grandfather,” she says.

The big pre-pandemic move to three-day weddings will continue post-covid, says McMeel. Couples especially relish getting together with their guests the day after the wedding. “After all the effort they put in, they love reliving their big day, hearing the antics guests got up to," she says. 

Whether new Covid-era approaches, such as bridesmaids doing readings, talented guests doubling as musicians, live-streamed weddings, will remain post-pandemic is anyone’s guess, similarly with other pre-coronavirus trends, like couples surprising guests with saxophone players, musicians, fireworks, or ring-bearing pets. 

But some trends will stay, such as vegan choices on wedding menus, a readiness to think outside the box of weekend weddings, and giving weekdays a nuptial look-in.

Elopement is a recent buzzword in the wedding world. But Bryans says Irish couples aren’t as likely to elope as overseas couples. “We’re a family-oriented nation. Eloping is a more difficult decision for an Irish couple to make than for a couple in Chicago," he says. 

Whatever else, it seems marriage is here to stay, with Bryans predicting that “weddings will be back with a bang once restrictions lift.”

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