Church wedding not your style? Here's how to say 'I do' a little differently

Jill and Patrick Conway at The Chocolate Factory. Photograph: Memento Photography

LESS THAN HALF OF COUPLES IN IRELAND ARE NOW OPTING FOR A TRADITIONAL CATHOLIC WEDDING, WITH ALTERNATIVE APPROACHES BECOMING THE NORM

Jump to our list of alternative wedding venues

Once upon a time, weddings in Ireland followed a very specific formula. Couples exchanged vows in a church before descending on a hotel to feast on beef or salmon and performing that most Irish of wedding rituals: the Rock the Boat dance. These were traditions to be upheld, not broken.

Nowadays, more and more Irish couples are foregoing the traditional church-and-hotel do in favour of something more secular and modern. According to the Central Statistics Office, Catholic wedding ceremonies accounted for just 47.6 per cent of all marriages in 2018. On the flipside, civil marriages accounted for 29.8 per cent, while 9 per cent of couples went for humanist ceremonies.

That means for newly engaged couples the world is very much their oyster when it comes to planning their wedding. No longer expected to conform to rigid ideas about what constitutes a wedding, couples can now get married in country houses, barns, warehouses, museums or wherever else tickles their fancy. These days, you are as likely to be invited to a wedding in Fallon & Byrne as you are to one in a traditional church and hotel.

Among the spaces throwing open their doors to couples is Juniper Barn, a new wedding venue in Ballymote, Co Sligo. The venue consists of multiple barns set across a lush 200-acre estate, and will host its first batch of weddings this year.

“We wanted to create a unique venue that allowed people to experience the magic of where we lived,” explains Dorothy-Ellen Kitchin, who lives in Juniper Barn with her husband and children. “We decided to restore the stone barns and open them as an alternative wedding venue to share our love for the place.”

Juniper Barn was designed to cater to the increasing number of couples seeking something less formal and fussy for their weddings.

Juniper Barn is a new venue in Ballymote, Co Sligo

“Couples are keen to have less traditional, more relaxed wedding days that are fun-filled and stress-free,” says Kitchin. “We meet lots of couples who want their ceremonies in our barn or who prefer more informal ceremonies in the gardens or by the lake.”

Maria Reidy is an event planner based in Dublin. She says she has noticed a shift towards couples having more unique and alternative weddings.

“We did a two-day festival in a country house for a couple who had eloped and got married in Las Vegas a few months prior, and then decided to have a party. This was their way of celebrating.

“It was a very different style of wedding to what the general public would see as a wedding. But that was them. They were festival-goers and they just wanted to express their individuality.”

Many couples are now eager to have a wedding that reflects who they are. Tom Sheppard and Sarah Fink met in London and moved to Dublin six months before their wedding. The couple had guests travelling from overseas – Fink is originally from the US – and they wanted to give everyone a sense of the city they call home, so they planned a wedding that saw them traverse across Dublin.

Tom Sheppard and Sarah Fink planned a wedding that saw them traverse across Dublin. Photograph: DASCHA CAFFREY
Tom Sheppard and Sarah Fink traversed Dublin for their wedding. Photograph: Dascha Caffrey

To begin, they held a spiritualist ceremony in Smock Alley Theatre in front of 60 guests. “As well as being a beautiful venue, it gave us the flexibility to plan the ceremony as we wanted,” says Sheppard. “We had flexibility over timing, music, and how the ceremony was structured.”

Afterwards, guests walked down the quays to the Woollen Mills where they were treated to cocktails, speeches and dinner. The couple chose the restaurant not only because it accommodated their food and drinks preferences, but also because the rooftop offered unparalleled views of the Ha’penny Bridge.

That just left the final portion of the evening. “We didn’t think dancing and a DJ really fit us, so the vibe we were going for was a great night out in a Dublin pub,” says Sheppard. The couple booked a room in Toners on Baggot Street. “We had an open bar and a Spotify playlist, and we ordered pizzas as a late night snack,” says Sheppard. “We stayed there until it closed around 2am.”

A theatre, restaurant and pub might seem like unconventional choices for a wedding, but for Sheppard and Fink, it worked perfectly. Not only was it more affordable than a country house or hotel wedding, but it was relaxed and intimate.

“We felt very close to our guests throughout the day, and it felt warm and close-knit,” says Sheppard. “There was a really nice atmosphere in the pub, where our families and friends were chatting and it was very easy-going. It was exactly the kind of vibe we wanted. A friend described it as a wedding for people who don’t like weddings.”

Joey Kavanagh and Liam Karma met while living in London in 2015. They didn’t plan to get married, but as Liam is Australian, they encountered a lot of visa-related issues early on in their relationship. “It became clear that getting married was going to be the best way for the two of us to be able to live and work in the same country,” says Kavanagh.

Once they were engaged, they wanted to have the wedding as soon as possible, which left them short on both time and budget. “Even so, we were determined to make the night as fun as possible for our family and friends,” says Kavanagh.

The couple got married in a registry office in Dublin surrounded by immediate family. Afterwards, they had dinner in Locks on Windsor Terrace, and had photographs taken in the Phoenix Park by their friend Eoin O’Neill. From there, they decamped to the Commercial Rowing Club in Islandbridge, where they were joined by 100 guests for a prom-themed party.

Liam Karma and Joey Kavanagh with their friend Louise Bruton
Liam Karma and Joey Kavanagh with friend Louise Bruton at their prom-themed party

“It was affordable, wheelchair-accessible and available at relatively short notice,” Kavanagh explains. “Our wedding ended up falling on a swelteringly hot day, so the venue’s outside decking overlooking the Liffey came in very handy.”

The room was decked out in “cheesy prom-adjacent decorations” while guests were encouraged to wear their “finest prom night eleganza”. Entertainment was provided by band Attention Bébé and Aoife McElwain of Sing Along Social. “The night culminated in a – rigged – prom king coronation where Liam and I were announced as joint winners and presented with varsity jackets and crowns,” he adds.

Looking back, Kavanagh regrets not having been able to give guests more notice as it meant many of his husband’s family and friends weren’t able to travel to Ireland, but otherwise they wouldn’t change a thing.

His tips for couples embarking on a similar path? Don’t stress.

“Things will likely go wrong – our helium canister arrived empty and the bakery forgot to bake our cake – but you have to try not let the mishaps get in the way of your fun. The plans that go awry make for good anecdotes afterwards.”

WHILE WE might traditionally associate pubs with day two celebrations, there are numerous ones around the country that double up as boutique wedding venues. Larkin’s in Garrykennedy, Co Tipperary and O’Mahony’s in Watergrasshill, Co Cork are just two examples.

When David Ward and Fiona McMorrow got engaged, they set about viewing wedding venues across Ireland. “They were all beautiful, but the prices were more than off-putting, and we couldn’t shake the feeling that we were having the venue owners’ dream wedding which was played out many times a year rather than our own,” says Ward.

Ward’s parents run a pub called The Fisherman’s Thatched Inn in Co Laois, and McMorrow suggested they look at getting married there. At first, Ward worried it would be too stressful for his parents.

David Ward and Fiona McMorrow. Photograph: David Ward
David Ward and Fiona McMorrow at The Fisherman's Thatched Inn in Co Laois

“Sitting around one night we chatted to friends who had gotten married in the pub a few years before, and they and my partner convinced me that I was mad to be even thinking of looking elsewhere,” he says. “My parents had offered every time we were down, and they seemed over the moon when we asked if we could take them up on the offer.”

They started referring to it as #WeddingFest in WhatsApp conversations. “With the pub being a few miles from the Electric Picnic, that morphed into the vibe we went for,” says Ward. “What we were really after was a chilled-out blend of festival fun with rustic country.”

The pub has two beer gardens, so they got married in one and held the dinner and party in the other. The couple hired Silk Road Tents to provide a marquee and bell tent for the bridal suite, while caterer Claire Hanley looked after the food. “When you say ‘cold buffet’ to someone they don’t tend to get too excited, but people were absolutely raving about the food,” says Ward.

“The venue is so unique and has so much to offer in terms of different spaces for people to enjoy and retreat to,” Ward says. “There was cheese and politics by the fireplace, pool competitions in the pool room, family and friends catching up in every corner, and random chats at the tractor bar in the garden.

“My brother and parents had done amazing work getting various corners and outdoor spaces set up, and they looked fantastic with the lighting and the plants and various rustic installations.”

Museums, historic buildings and cultural attractions are also ideal for couples on the lookout for something out of the ordinary

He acknowledges that there were “chaotic and stressful scenes” in the lead up to the wedding, and credits family and friends with helping out with everything from decorating tables to making last-minute runs for wine.

His advice for anyone following a similar path?

“Learn to accept help when it’s offered and also ask for help when you need it. It’s fantastic to be able to create a day that is unique to you. However it does come with a lot more work, and many hidden expenses.”

MUSEUMS, HISTORIC buildings and cultural attractions are also ideal for couples on the lookout for something out of the ordinary. The likes of Dublin Zoo, Royal Hospital Kilmainham, National Maritime Museum, and Cork City Gaol are all available to hire for wedding ceremonies.

When Grace O’Connor and James Foley were planning their special day, they knew exactly what they didn’t want. “We both knew it wouldn’t be in a church as we are not religious,” says O’Connor. “Neither of us are particularly crafty and didn’t want a venue that needed Pinterest-style projects to decorate the space. As we were only having 26 guests, we needed a space that wasn’t too big.”

They decided to hold the ceremony in the National Gallery of Ireland, which can hold up to 40 guests and is relatively inexpensive to hire. They are both art lovers and frequent visitors to the gallery, so it made sense. “We Googled pictures of the ceremony space and after a tour, we knew it was perfect for us,” says O’Connor.

Grace O’Connor and James Foley married at the National Gallery of Ireland
Grace O’Connor and James Foley married at the National Gallery of Ireland

After the ceremony, guests made their way to O’Donoghue’s for drinks, and then to Bang for a sit-down meal.

“There was something so magical about just casually strolling through the gallery and Dublin streets in our wedding rigouts,” O’Connor says. “Everyone was smiling at us and congratulating us.

“We had the exact wedding we wanted, as it felt so personal. We have been back to the gallery numerous times since the wedding and it feels so special. In a small way we feel like we’re part of the history of the place now. I want to tell people, ‘I got married here!’”

WHAT OTHER pearls of wisdom can wedding planner Maria Reidy impart? For one thing, she encourages couples to be imaginative, and to think outside the box when it comes to their venue.

“There are lots of unique venues you can hire these days that the public might not necessarily be aware of,” says Reidy. “You can get married in King’s Inns, and that’s right in the heart of town. There is the Royal College of Surgeons on Stephen’s Green, and the Royal College of Physicians [on Kildare Street].”

For a reception venue, she suggests chancing your arm with restaurants, even if they don’t advertise for weddings or parties.

“Many restaurants around town have private rooms,” she says. “If you go and talk to someone – particularly if it’s a month like January and you’re offering them a wedding with 80 guests – they might be open to it.”

What about hosting a wedding at home? Reidy warns that it can be prohibitively expensive for some couples, and that there are a number of factors to take into consideration. Things like marquees, catering, portable toilets, and insurance all come at a cost.

“If you go to a hotel or castle or venue, they normally have bathrooms, running water, electricity,” she says. “Things that you may not think of if you put up a marquee in a garden. It is a lovely way to celebrate, but you do require a decent budget to do it right, and to have the right amount of staff for it to run as smoothly as you want it to.”

How to get married in Ireland

Civil ceremonies can be held at a registry office, of course, but if you would like to get married at another venue, it will need to be approved by the registrar. Most “wedding venues” will already be approved, and will be able to complete the paperwork easily, but if your chosen one is not, you can apply. It must be a building or outdoor space that is open to the public (so not your parents’ back garden, for example). A civil registrar will charge extra for weddings outside a registry office.

Secular marriages (performed by a humanist or other secular solemniser) can also only be done at a registrar-approved location. There is a long waiting list for humanist celebrants, of more than a year in some instances. Wedding celebrants can also perform a wedding ceremony, and are much more readily available, but they cannot legally marry a couple.

Often the easiest option for couples who want a non-religious wedding is to get married officially at a registry office with a small number of guests, followed by a wedding ceremony performed by a celebrant at a venue of their choosing on another day. This also saves a lot of hassle with paperwork, and leaves them free to have their ceremony wherever they wish.

Religious weddings are usually held in a church or place of worship. For more information, see hse.ie.

Alternative Irish wedding venues

Pot Duggan's, Co Clare
For couples seeking a low-key, intimate west coast wedding, Pot Duggan’s pub is perfect. The Ennistymon outpost of the Bodytonic empire has two stunning barns ideal for smaller wedding receptions (80 people max). Venue hire includes exclusive use of the barns, handmade wooden benches and tables, use of The Horseshoe Bar, and PA system. Catering, decoration, and prop hire must be arranged by the couple themselves, but the venue does offer drinks packages. potduggans.com

Niamh Crimmins and Calum Robinson at Pot Duggan's pub in Ennistymon, Co Clare. Photograph: Aoife O'Sullivan

Trudder Lodge, Co Wicklow
Built upon ten acres of idyllic gardens and once used as a hunting lodge by the Archbishop of Dublin, Trudder Lodge in Newcastle is undoubtedly one of the most unique wedding venues in Ireland. The owners of this 19th-century house give couples free rein to host whatever sort of wedding they like, be it formal or free-spirited. You can opt to have your wedding celebration anywhere on the grounds, and your guests will have full access to the house, including piano room, library and basement bar. Note that the venue hosts no more than one wedding per week with a maximum of just 18 weddings per year between April and October. trudder-lodge.com

Trudder Lodge, Co Wicklow. Photograph: Sasson Haviv
Trudder Lodge, Co Wicklow. Photograph: Sasson Haviv

Clare Island, Co Mayo
Destination wedding, anyone? If a wild and windswept wedding sounds up your alley, Clare Island might be for you. Here’s how it works. Guests travel to the island by ferry and couples can choose to get married in the local church or have a civil celebration elsewhere on the island. Afterwards, the reception takes place between Sailor’s Bar and Go Explore Hostel, both run and operated by Carl O’Grady. The venues can cater for up to 80 people for a three-course meal, or 150 people for a buffet. Newlyweds can stay in the dreamy Clare Island Lighthouse, while guests have several local B&Bs to choose from. goexplorehostel.ie

Rascals Brewing Co., Dublin 8
The new Inchicore-based brewery and restaurant held its first wedding last June. With an abundance of space, ambient lighting and an in-house sound system, it lends itself well to relaxed, informal wedding parties. In terms of food and drink, the venue specialises in pizza and, you guessed it, beer. (Worry not, they also serve lager, stout, wine and prosecco.) All beer is freshly brewed onsite and poured straight from tank to tap. In the past, the gang at Rascals Brewing Co has even been known to serve beers renamed in honour of the newlyweds. Pizza and pints? I do. rascalsbrewing.com

Segrave Barns, Co Louth
Owned by Eugene Ginty and John Cooke, Segrave Barns is a wedding venue in Dunany, Co Louth. The Holly Barn is used for ceremonies and drinks receptions, while the decidedly larger Willow Barn is used for wedding receptions. The latter can cater for up to 260 guests and boasts a fully-licensed bar known as the Dunany Pint. The owners take a flexible approach and can be as hands-on or hands-off as you like. Previous guests have likened the vibe of the venue to something resembling Electric Picnic. If that’s your buzz, you know what to do. segravebarns.ie

Vaughan’s Pub, Co Clare
For those on the hunt for a traditional venue with a contemporary twist, this family-run pub in Kilfenora is home to a set-dancing barn that has taken off as a wedding reception venue in recent years. With its stone walls and exposed ceiling beams, the barn seats 120 guests and the venue caters for sit-down meals, barbecues and buffets. There are also plenty of spaces for chats, pints and mingling with guests free to roam the courtyard and large garden area. An ideal spot for a cosy, rustic wedding. vaughanspub.ie

Medieval Mile Museum, Kilkenny
Situated on the site of a 13th century church, Kilkenny’s Medieval Mile Museum offers couples the chance to exchange vows in a space that is wonderfully ambient and alive with history. In fact, it might just be the most unique wedding venue on offer in the Marble City. The space can seat up to 150 guests for a ceremony and up to 120 guests for a dinner reception. The museum’s sister property Butler House and Gardens is on hand to look after food and drink but couples are welcome to bring in their own outside caterers. medievalmilemuseum.ie

The Chocolate Factory
Once home to the Williams & Woods sweet factory, The Chocolate Factory is now a shared creative space home to makers and doers galore. It also happens to be one of the city’s go-to spots for industrial style weddings. With its bright, airy rooms and effortlessly cool vibe, it’s the perfect location for the urban warehouse wedding of your dreams. The building’s in-house events team Green Shoes Events have a number of competitively priced packages on offer that take in everything from venue hire and catering to styling and photography. greenshoesevents.com

Jessica and Patrick at the Chocolate Factory. Photograph: Leanne Keaney Photography

Mount Druid, Co Westmeath
Mount Druid has fast become one of the country’s most sought after venues for couples after something a little different. With a 100-acre parkland, purpose-built red tin chapel, boathouse, converted barn space and ample onsite accommodation, Mount Druid is wonderfully self-contained. They look after all catering and only use produce grown onsite or locally sourced. Hire fee includes exclusive use of the barn, walled garden and boathouse on the day of the wedding, as well as the barn for a morning-after brunch. alternativeweddings.ie

Doyle’s Corner, Dublin 7
Fancy saying “I do” in the heart of Phibsborough? Since reopening in 2018 following an extensive renovation, Doyle’s Corner has hosted a number of weddings and is well worth a gander if you’re after a city celebration. Versatile and spacious, the venue offers a number of options depending on numbers for ceremony, meal or party. Rooms available to hire include an upstairs events space, penthouse suite, and traditional snug bar. The venue can also host sit-down meals, buffets or finger food parties. doylescorner.ie