Big changes to the big day: Covid weddings and how they might look in 2021

Shorter guest lists mean couples are spending more on bespoke menus and bouquets

Many people dream of a big church wedding, of getting married on a beach in the Seychelles or of gathering their friends together for a big shindig. But most betrothed couples don't set out to tie the knot in the middle of a pandemic with ever-shifting restrictions.

This, however, has been the reality for many couples who had 2020 pegged as the year they would celebrate their nuptials. And with social distancing set to remain part of our lives well into 2021, engaged couples need to get creative with their wedding receptions.

The Merrion Hotel in Dublin has always been a favourite haunt for happy couples who have just tied the knot. While the venue will continue to host celebratory parties, the guest lists have been getting smaller.

“We are seeing a big increase in small weddings at the Merrion,” says Dorothy MacCann, brand director at the hotel. “In the early days of the pandemic couples were postponing but now they’re just deciding to go ahead with smaller numbers, and we recently had three days’ notice for a small wedding.


“While we can do up to 100 people, the current socially distant number of 25 is perfect, as with small numbers, the food and wine choices become more important and couples are spending time creating a bespoke menu rather than the norm of package options. However, we are also seeing couples booking the more casual option of a table in our Garden Room restaurant.”

Shóna and Wayne McGann from Dublin were due to get married in front of 150 guests and enjoy a lavish reception at the Mount Wolseley Hotel, Carlow in April. But five weeks prior to their chosen date, the country was put into lockdown. They postponed the wedding until September but as the weeks went by, it became clear their guest list would need to be scaled back.

They regretfully reduced the number to 100 but by August they had to cut that number in half. After debating whether or not to put the wedding off until next year, the pair decided to go ahead with 50 guests.

But just before their big day, the goalposts were moved again and the couple, who have one son, Ryan, had to rearrange their plans again.

We had 45 of our closest people who just dropped everything to be by our side to celebrate. It was an extra-special day, considering what it took us to get there. We will never forget it

“Nine days before the wedding, Dublin was moved to Level 3 with added restrictions which meant we couldn’t leave the county [to get to the wedding venue],” says Shóna. “Weddings in Dublin could only have 25 guests but there was no way we could cut our numbers again as that didn’t even cover immediate family.

“However, the Government said weddings taking place that weekend would be exempt from the new restrictions, so I asked Wayne if we should try to arrange it quickly. It was Friday night and we put out the feelers to family and a handful of friends to see if they were free on Sunday.

"Then I contacted our suppliers who happened to be free and rang the venue, but they couldn't pull it off at such short notice. But I didn't give up hope and rang around a few places before the Anglers Rest in Chapelizod said they could do it."

With just 24 hours to go, the happy couple sent an email to guests with the new details and got on with preparing for their big day.

“Our family and friends were all hands on deck as everybody was behind us trying to get this over the line and we couldn’t have done it without them,” says Shóna. “We had 45 of our closest people who just dropped everything to be by our side to celebrate. It was an extra-special day, considering what it took us to get there. We have absolutely no regrets as it felt so special and the best part of the day was actually standing there together saying our vows. We will never forget it.”

Mary Carroll and JP Canning also had a much smaller wedding this summer and, while they wished they could have had all of their guests present, they had a fabulous day.

“We knew pretty early on that our original wedding plans weren’t going to happen,” says JP. “But we have two kids so, were keen to do something. We wanted to do a drinks reception and when IMMA [The Irish Museum of Modern Art] opened up, we thought that might be an option for us.

“Planning it gave us something positive to focus on as lockdown was no fun for anyone, so it was good to give everyone a day out during such a bad time.”

Their wedding was different to the traditional model with the ceremony starting at 3pm and the whole event finished by 7pm but Mary says they were both delighted with the day.

“It certainly wasn’t your usual wedding and while it finished early, some of our pals went on to make a night of it, while we headed to the Shelbourne,” she says. “We had a really lovely time and I would reassure others in the same situation that if you do have to chop numbers and change plans, you can still have a lovely time. We are both so glad we did it as it was a positive thing to do in the middle of a pretty crappy time. We didn’t want to hang around as who knows what next year will bring.”

We have had lots of feedback: no couples have regretted going ahead with their smaller wedding, and they have been genuinely surprised by how heartfelt and meaningful the day was and how much fun they had

Clara Malone is one of the founders of Coastal Ceremonies, a company which provides celebrants for symbolic weddings, elopements and other ceremonies.

She says while many people have postponed their weddings to next year, a lot decided to scale back and do something different.

“Some of these ceremonies involved elopements on the Cliffs of Moher and others were microweddings of 20 or so guests where couples have said they will have a big party when it’s safe to do so. But for now, they just want to say ‘I do’ with their closest friends and families around them,” she says.

“The realisation is that smaller weddings are here to stay for the foreseeable future with social distancing, restrictions on guest numbers and perhaps family members not being able to travel. We have had lots of feedback from [recently married] couples . . . none have regretted going ahead with their smaller wedding and have been genuinely surprised by how heartfelt and meaningful the day was and how much fun they had.”

Wedding planner Kate Deegan of Perfect Details has seen a lot of plans postponed until next year but she says those who decided to go ahead with a smaller event made sure their day was as close to perfect as possible.

“Some weddings were postponed to later this year and others to next year, but those who did go for it with a reduced number went for all the extras,” she says. “One which was due to have 200 guests in Kerry was reduced to 45 at the Locks Restaurant in Portobello and it was just fantastic – so intimate and the food was amazing.

“And most focused a lot more on flowers, decor and the menu. They wanted everything to look show-stopping so, those guests who made the cut would really feel like it was a very special event. And with smaller numbers they could offer more choice, so it felt more like a restaurant experience.”

We even have brides changing their wedding date to suit the flowers in season, rather than pre-Covid brides wanting these imported regardless of their environmental impact. It it gives me great hope for the post-Covid future

Mags Riordan of Bumblebee Flowers in Drimoleague, Co Cork, says things are definitely changing in terms of wedding bouquets as with fewer guests, there is more of a budget to spend on flowers.

“Brides are now looking for the bouquet of their dreams which may not have been possible with the normal costs of a full wedding,” she says. “Church flowers are also changing with couples upgrading their design choice and choosing to repurpose them at their reception.

“There is also a definite shift towards natural organically-produced flowers and we’re finding brides want our bouquets because they support pollinators. I think Covid has changed people’s perspective and they’re asking more questions regarding how things are grown and how eco-friendly they really are. There is a willingness to embrace true seasonality which simply wasn’t there before.”

Because Bumblebee use produce grown on their farm, they were able to provide an uninterrupted supply of bouquets during the lockdown which led to a 400 per cent increase in inquiries for their bee-friendly wedding flowers.

“We now have nationwide delivery for our intimate wedding packages and this has opened up a whole new market for us,” says the florist. “We even have brides changing their wedding date to suit the flowers in season, rather than pre-Covid brides wanting these imported regardless of their environmental impact. It may not seem much but it gives me great hope for the post-Covid future.”

Jenny Gleeson of Sweetie Pie bakery in Dublin, which specialises in wedding cakes, says the trend this year has been for smaller cakes which are unique to the happy couple.

“My style would definitely veer towards the less traditional,” she says. “When I ask about the look and feel of their day, the vast majority of couples say ‘relaxed’ so texture and colour are a great way to give that look on a cake.

“With more intimate weddings due to Covid, the cakes are smaller but I make sure that the wow factor is still there. More than ever I want to make sure the cake adds an element of joy, a visual focal point and, of course, is delicious to eat.”

Wedding photographer Ines Billings says the same is true for photo albums as although there is a smaller guest list, people are looking for extra-special keepsakes from their happy day.

“Guests are looking for more creative images they can hang on the wall like a timeless piece of art,” she says. “The couple may also find the day more relaxing with less people attending which allows for more relaxed expressions in photographs.

“I believe other photographers and videographers will become more creative during these Covid times.”

We want to celebrate our marriage with both families and friends, so it would be fantastic if we could have more than 50 guests, but time will tell. The most important thing is I get to marry my soulmate

After postponing their winter wedding, Niamh de Brún and her fiance, Kilkenny hurler TJ Reid, hope to get married in Limerick early next year.

“We were due to get married this December but postponed to February 2021 with the hope that we would be at level 2 and could have 50 guests, de Brún says. “We decided to postpone because it was forecasted that there would be a surge in Covid cases and it was just too stressful to keep waiting and hoping for the best. We wanted to enjoy the build-up and not to be worrying about cutting numbers further – we originally had a guest list of 200 so cutting it down to 50 was difficult enough.

“So we are praying we can have a minimum of 50 guests and are still going to have our ceremony in the Adare church followed by the reception in Adare Manor. We want to celebrate our marriage with both families and friends, and to enjoy the day, so it would be fantastic if we could have more than 50, but time will tell. The most important thing is I get to marry my soulmate.”

Clara Malone, who organises weddings as well as registrars, says while microweddings are a different way of celebrating, Irish couples are adapting and embracing the changes as best they can, while also being more creative and inventive.

“There will always be a demand for the big party but for now, couples can still have their day and while it might not be what they had originally expected or planned, it will still be a day to remember,” she says. “Covid-19 has disrupted so much in our lives, but it is not going to disrupt romance.”

Kate Deegan agrees: “Most of my work this year has been rescheduling and next year looks amazing . . . and what is really promising is that there are a lot of new bookings, so people are optimistic and hopeful for a return to wonderful Irish weddings.

“But from my experience of over 17 years of organising weddings, I would say that if Covid is still with us next year, they should just go ahead and have their wedding. Because it could prove to be an amazing event and people should not put their lives on hold or keep postponing their future.”

Seven tips if you’re planning a 2021 wedding

1 If possible, try to stick with your planned wedding date and work with the Government guidelines in relation to guest numbers.

2 Discuss options with your venue and plan for numbers for each level.

3 Have a plan A and a plan B in place but if you really feel a smaller, intimate wedding is not for you, consider planning for 2022 or beyond when things should be a lot clearer.

4 Talk to your venue and suppliers and see what their options and terms and conditions are if you have to change your plans. This could be an opportunity to look at quirky non-traditional venues for your wedding.

5 With the current restrictions, weddings must end at 11.30pm, so start your day early, have your ceremony at midday with an early dinner so you can have plenty of time on the dance floor.

6 Make sure the focus remains on you both and do what feels right for you as a couple.

7 Keep it simple, fun and memorable while also adhering to guidelines and ensuring a safe environment for everyone.

Arlene Harris

Arlene Harris

Arlene Harris is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in health, lifestyle, parenting, travel and human interest stories