With this symbolic handfast, I thee wed – the changing face of weddings

For couples who do not want a traditional church wedding, there are a growing number of other options, including humanist, spiritualist and pagan ceremonies

Shaun Moriarty and John James Hickey had a spiritualist ceremony. Photograph: Brian Gavin/Press 22

The wedding industry in Ireland is bigger business than ever, but because so many nontraditional organisations are offering new and unfamiliar marriage services, there is understandable uncertainty.

Luckily, it isn’t the Wild West of profiteering and weird ideologies that some perceive it to be. Having a nontraditional marriage is more straightforward than you might think. The chances of finding yourself in a field of crops while wearing a crown of dock leaves and suffering from chronic hay fever are very low.

John James Hickey and Shaun Moriarty are free to marry now that the 2015 Marriage Act has been passed. They met in 2013 when they were both involved in the Limerick 2018 Gay Games bid, only to find that they had lived in the same town for several years without crossing paths. They got engaged shortly after they met. They now live in Tipperary. When they got engaged, they were resigned to civil partnership but maintained hope that the marriage equality referendum might take place before their wedding rolled around.

Pagan Life Rites specialises in handfasting
Niall McCauley and Nicole Carolan: “Neither of us are religious. We felt that it would be hypocritical to have a religious ceremony.” Photograph: Dave Meehan

When the referendum passed, they were comforted by the positivity with which the Spiritualist Union of Ireland welcomed them when they were looking for a legal wedding solemniser (as opposed to a celebrant) who could create an inclusive ceremony that reflected them as a couple, as well as celebrating the people and circumstances that helped get them to their wedding day this summer.


“For us, marriage and the right to get married has meant that our journey to our ceremony is filled with all sorts of emotions and people along the way,” says Hickey. “Thus, we wanted a ceremony that was reflective of who we are as a couple, but also one that was as inclusive as possible, with our families and friends taking part.”

Embracing change

With marriage equality now a reality, many LGBTQ couples who aren’t catered for by religious institutions are looking for organisations – both religious and secular – that can tailor a wedding ceremony to them. But they are not the only ones: heterosexual couples are also embracing change. Almost 28 per cent of marriages in 2014 were civil ceremonies. Added to those were 392 civil partnerships.

Marriage in Ireland is changing. The 2011 census showed the proportion of the population identifying as Catholic reached its lowest point that year at 84.2 per cent. This number might still sound high, but only about 18 per cent of Irish people attended Mass regularly. Although traditional church weddings – Catholic or otherwise – are not going away, there is a growing appetite for different, and more customisable wedding options.

A standard Catholic wedding usually involves a fee for use of the church and the priest. The smallest overall fee I encountered was €200, and the largest was €600, which challenges the notion that nontraditional or nonreligious weddings are always more expensive or more motivated by profit.

Legislation limits secular organisations more aggressively than religious ones. The Humanist Association of Ireland is a nonprofit organisation and, as a nonreligious body, must fulfil strict criteria in order to be able to marry people. Secular bodies are prevented from solemnising for the purpose of profit or gain. They provide the same ceremonial marriage services as religious bodies with the same moral ideology of solemnifying partnerships – just without the religion.

A secular celebration

Nicole Carolan and Niall McCauley met through friends in 2007, during their time at UCD. They got engaged on April Fools' Day last year. They are in the midst of planning a humanist wedding, and chose humanism because it provides them with the secularism they want. Although they want a wedding without religion, they still want to mark the event with a ceremony and have a memorable day with their family and friends.

Despite the fact that McCauley comes from a family of Mass-goers, the couple have been delighted by the interest and openness their families have shown. According to Carolan, people are occasionally a bit confused by their choice to have their wedding ceremony in a hotel, but a humanist ceremony is the right choice for them as a couple. “Neither of us are religious . . . We felt that it would be hypocritical to have a religious ceremony. The notion of having to do one of those marriage courses didn’t sit very well with either of us, nor did the idea of a priest opining to us as to what love is or should be.”

For those who want a completely secular ceremony, and have no belief in God or the supernatural, the Humanist Association of Ireland – by far the most popular organisation for nontraditional weddings – is arguably the best option. Humanism focuses on appreciation of the world and people around us. They will happily marry nonreligious couples who share their philosophy regardless of whether or not they are members of the Humanist Association.

Demand for humanist weddings is extremely high given that the nonreligious in Ireland are now the second-largest demographic after Roman Catholics, so there is usually a wait involved in securing the wedding date of your choice. The Humanist Association of Ireland recommends booking as far in advance as possible. There are 21 humanist solemnisers working across Ireland at the moment, and fees for wedding ceremonies average €450-€500.

Other spiritual options

If you are like many of us, and cannot muster the organisational skill to plan that far ahead, or you are not secular – but still don’t want to get married in your local parish – other religious or spiritual options are out there. The Spiritualist Union of Ireland was founded in 2009. It has 26 legal solemnisers working in Ireland and it performed the first legal outdoor ceremony in the State, in 2011.

The union is open to all views along the religious spectrum. It recognises a couples’ own belief systems and is a particularly good option to conduct interfaith marriages if a couple prefers not to choose a service that adheres to just one of their faiths.

The union specialises in inclusivity, and isn’t concerned with gender, sexuality or creed. Fees are about € 420. Although the Spiritualist Union is open to everyone, it is a religious organisation, so it doesn’t conduct completely secular ceremonies.

If you are particularly outdoorsy, or have a world view that orients around nature, then a pagan ceremony could be ideal. Pagan Life Rites was founded 2012, and 12 new solemnisers were registered in February of this year. It might sound odd to those who are unfamiliar with the different traditions, but the one thing they all share is a belief in the sanctity of nature. It is a religious organisation, so even though they will conduct ceremonies for atheists, a secular option might be a better fit for those without any religious beliefs.

According to Ailish Farragher – a solemniser with Pagan Life Rites – one person in the couple would ideally need to identify as pagan on some level, although proof isn't required. Most couples who come to Pagan Life Rites to get married request something Celtic. They specialise in handfasting, where a cord is handed to wellwishers at the ceremony one by one, and then tied gently around the joined hands of the couple by the solemniser in a symbolic gesture. Fees vary from €150 to €400, depending on travel.

Handfasting ceremony

Joanna Schaffalitzky and her husband, Jon Hanna, had a pagan handfasting ceremony in 2014. It wasn't yet legal at the time, so they had to follow it up with a civil ceremony in the afternoon. Although Hanna identifies as Wiccan, Schaffalitzky is Church of Ireland. They had the handfasting ceremony – which was written by Hanna – at home in their garden, attended by family, friends and Joanna's rector, who, she says "was open-minded and curious about the ceremony".

Schaffalitzky describes a pagan wedding ritual as “an ideal choice for both religious and nontraditional people. Our ceremony was very personal, and performed by our friends. Jon drew from the Book of Common Prayer, which was a lovely touch he knew I’d appreciate, and even our more traditional guests really enjoyed the ceremony. It was an ideal wedding day.”

A major impediment for most couples in Ireland seeking nontraditional weddings is a fear of ending up with a bizarre or unusual ceremony, where guests have an awkward afternoon of basket-weaving in a damp forest. All the above organisations are committed to helping couples create the wedding they desire. Although it is a competitive industry, it is well-regulated. In fact, the extent of the regulation can contribute to the lag in new solemnisers being registered to meet demand.

Since all of the organisations offering nontraditional legal marriage services in Ireland have met stringent requirements, engaged couples can rest assured that registered solemnisers provide a genuine service. It is just a matter of couples choosing the organisation that aligns with their lifestyle and beliefs. The register of solemnisers, which is readily available online, details every religious and secular solemniser in Ireland who is qualified to conduct legal marriage ceremonies.

It is easier than ever to find a trustworthy, qualified solemniser to help build the ceremony you have always wanted, which leaves you the space to focus on the most important aspect for everyone involved: a really good cake.