My big fat civil partnership


Civil partnership is available to all from next month, and couples, photographers and wedding planners are busy preparing celebrations, writes FIONOLA MEREDITH

AS FAR as most couples planning a same-sex civil partnership are concerned, it’s a wedding in all but name – as much about romance as it is about rights. “Yes, we call it a wedding. We say we’re getting married. For us, it’s a chance to call each other ‘wife’,” says Rachel Armstrong. Since the law changed on January 1st, 2011, allowing same-sex partnerships to take place, Rachel and her partner Shelley Farrell, both 37 and living in Dublin, have been planning a special ceremony – 11 years to the day since their first commitment ceremony.

“We’ve been together for 12 years, and after one year we had our own ceremony. I never thought in my wildest dreams that we’d have the chance to do it officially in Ireland in our lifetimes. But we always thought – if it happens, then we will. It’s like renewing our vows.”

Both Armstrong and Farrell acknowledge that for many lesbian and gay people, the legislation doesn’t go far enough. For example, while civil partnerships share many of the responsibilities and rights of marriage, when it comes to children, parental rights do not extend to the non-biological parent.

“The legislation is a stepping stone, we know that,” says Farrell. “But let’s just take what we’ve got at the moment. Quite a few of our friends want to wait until we have full rights, but they didn’t make us feel anything less for going ahead. Everyone should take the opportunity to celebrate their relationship, whether they’re gay, straight or in-between.” Since three months notice is required for couples registering for a civil union, the first ceremonies are expected in early April.

Poignantly, however, two couples’ ceremonies have already taken place; it’s understood that at least one partner in each couple is seriously ill, and since there was a risk that they would die before the three-month period elapsed, they received special dispensation to go ahead with the ceremonies.

Armstrong and Farrell’s big day is planned for the August 26th, the anniversary of their first declaration of love and commitment to each other. They will do the formalities at Lombard Street registry office, then it’s off to a reception for family and friends at the Schoolhouse Hotel in Ballsbridge. Armstrong says at first, they were thinking of keeping the whole thing small and simple: after all, they did “the flowers, the big cake, the fab party, the works” last time around. But they’ve decided to make it a big celebration for a second time.

“Life’s too short not to,” says Armstrong. “And besides, I grew up in a straight world, and I have the same dreams. So Dad will give me away – again. And it will all be quite traditional: dinner, embarrassing speeches, champagne.”

The couple has engaged the string quartet Appassionata, to arrange a song for the couple – but it won’t all be tasteful Bach, Vivaldi or Handel. Farrell says that she has asked for Abba’s I do, I do, I do to be part of the proceedings, and she’s both surprised and delighted that Armstrong has agreed. In return, Farrell, who’s not a big fan of flying, has agreed to go to the United States for their honeymoon.

As for the outfits, they agree neither is a natural dress wearer, but Farrell has decided to go for the traditional white wedding gown, while Armstrong is still deliberating. “We’re both that little bit older now, so we’re more relaxed about it all, and we’re really enjoying it,” says Armstrong. “From booking the venue to arranging the registration, everything is another excuse to open a bottle of Prosecco!”

HAVING ENTERED INTO a civil union last August in Northern Ireland, Glenn Cunningham-Vilar (43) and Adriano Cunningham-Vilar (29) – the first same-sex couple to be recognised as civil partners under Irish law – are well-qualified to offer some advice to couples contemplating a ceremony.

“It really was the best day we ever had,” says Glenn. “But there were some negatives. For instance, we spent the night before together, because we love each other and we didn’t want to be apart. But we ended up stressing each other out. So I’d suggest not doing that. If we were to do it again, I’d spend it miles apart.”

More seriously, Glenn says he recommends a civil union to “anyone who’s committed and in it for the long haul. Marriage is much more than a ring on your finger – it gives a feeling of security, of moving into the future together. It’s helped us to evolve. I liken it to the difference between renting a house and buying a property. If you’re renting, you don’t care if there’s a crack in the wall. But if you own the house, you sort the problem out immediately. It’s all about looking after the relationship.”

Glenn and Adriano (known to his friends as Vilar) also suggest that couples personalise the ceremony.

“If you don’t add anything, it’s all over in five minutes. You should plan to add three pieces of music, and perhaps some non-religious readings or poems. Of course, you can also write your own vows if you wish. We finished each vow with the question to each other: ‘do you want this too?’ It was important to us that we could say the symbolic ‘I do’.”

The couple also made sure Glenn’s six-year-old daughter Molly was involved. “She was a flower girl, and when we were exchanging our rings, the best man put a sparkly ring on her finger too.”

WITH THE PREPARATIONS for civil partnership ceremonies well under way, it’s not surprising that the wedding industry has rushed to accommodate the needs of same-sex couples – some more imaginatively than others. Dublin jeweller Carol Clarke has long been making and selling customised rings to same-sex couples planning a commitment ceremony. Now that the law has changed, she’s noticed a big increase in inquiries for her creations, which include rings with interlocking gender symbols and Celtic love knots.

Meanwhile, photographer Shawna Scott is offering free photography services to gay and lesbian couples planning a ceremony; she aims to use the images from her Big Gay Wedding Project in a travelling exhibition, with all proceeds going to the Marriage Equality Campaign.

Many wedding venues have started to advertise their suitability for civil partnership ceremonies too. Springfield Hotel in Leixlip, the D Hotel in Drogheda and Ballinacurra House in Kinsale are among several establishments to have taken out targeted advertisements in the gay press.

Des McGahan of Ballinacurra House says the privacy, style and exclusivity of his property – it’s located on a 40-acre estate, and was for a while the late Michael Jackson’s Irish bolthole – affords couples “a wonderful platform for celebrating the long-awaited granting of their rights”.

Gay or straight, nuptials are notoriously costly, and Dave Farrelly, director of Heart 2 Heart wedding co-ordinators, which offers a specialised service for couples planning a civil partnership ceremony, urges caution, advising couples not to get too carried away: “You may want the wedding of your dreams, but don’t overspend.”

Belfast-based Anthony Miller – one half of wedding planners Ant and Dick – organised some of the first civil partnership ceremonies in London. He says that there are three first steps that every couple should take: decide on the date, confirm the venue and set the budget.

It all sounds very sensible, but Miller says that while most same-sex ceremonies have all the elements of a straight wedding, “the ones I have been involved with are that bit madder. There have been some eccentricity involved, and there’s a lot of fun to be had with them.”

Lynne Hyland, of Daisy Flower Creations – who is planning her own civil partnership with her girlfriend next year – thinks that some gay men may well want to “go all out” and have a real extravaganza, while female couples may prefer something a little more understated.

One last detail of their big day has got Rachel Armstrong and Shelley Farrell perplexed. They are on a hunt for tasteful same-sex cake toppers – the little figurines that sit on the top of the wedding cake – but so far their search has been fruitless. One friend suggested buying two sets of straight cake toppers and breaking off the grooms, but the couple aren’t keen on that option.

It seems there’s at least one gap in the burgeoning same-sex wedding market that’s crying out to be filled.