Irish weddings in flux as number of Catholic ceremonies declines
Older marriage ages and rise of secular events mirror trends abroad, expert says
Jamie Baker and Keighley Kierans, who married in a humanist ceremony on Friday in a hotel in Co Meath. Photograph: James Forde
“For me, it would feel quite hypocritical to go for a big church wedding when I wouldn’t step foot in the church from one end of the year to the next,” she said.
Kierans was raised as a Catholic but is now an atheist, and Baker was raised in the Church of England, so a traditional Catholic wedding was “never really an option” for the couple.
“I think that obviously comes into play a lot more where you have inter-racial or interfaith couples, that it’s just not a possibility for them,” Kierans said before the service in Clonabreany House, near Kells.
The abandonment of old traditions by Keighley is nothing new, since the Irish wedding is in a state of flux, as shown by statistics this week, including the religious nature of ceremonies.
Last year, 47.6 per cent of all weddings were Catholic affairs – a significant change from 18 years ago when more than 75 per cent of all weddings took place in a Catholic church.
People are older too when they wed. In 2018, the average age of a bride in an opposite-sex relationship was 34.4, while grooms came in at 36.4. Meanwhile, the average age of male same-sex couples getting married was 40.1. For women in same-sex relationships that figure stands at 38.7.
Sociologist Carmel Hannan, who is a lecturer at the University of Limerick but is currently on a sabbatical working with the Economic and Social Research Institute, said many of the changes mirrored international trends.
“It’s part of a move away from religion that we see elsewhere,” Hannan said.
Those changes were already taking place 20 years ago – but many people who had been “reared in reverence” of the church remained faithful to it, she said. But today, younger people who grew up aware of church abuse scandals tend to approach Catholicism with a degree of scepticism.
“People are less and less likely in younger generations to tick that they’re Catholic,” Hannan said. “Some people tick no religion – that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re atheist, it means that they’re dissociating from the church.”
Baker believes people’s attitudes towards organised religion are changing more broadly. “The church isn’t as prominent as it used to be,” he said.
Shortly after they got engaged in 2017, Kierans and Baker settled on a service conducted by the Humanist Association of Ireland, which handled 9 per cent of all Irish weddings last year.
Yesterday, the wedding bands were passed among the guests for a ring-warming ceremony, while they also had a hand-fasting ceremony – a Celtic tradition – where their hands were tied together using ribbons.
They first met their humanist celebrant over Skype. Later on, they had two face-to-face meetings. “Every time we met up it was very relaxed, just a coffee and a chat about our wedding plans,” Kierans said.
The increasing number of people opting for secular weddings isn’t necessarily a bad thing, said Fr Tim Hazelwood, parish priest in Killeagh, Co Cork, who is on the board of the National Association of Catholic Priests.
“The people who are coming now generally want it in the church – they’re not just doing it for the sake of it. I find that a lot of the weddings now are even a bit more meaningful because of that.”
For divorcees and same-sex couples, who cannot get married in a church, a non-religious ceremony is not so much a choice as a necessity, said Fr Hazelwood.
Many people, however, still have a connection with the Catholic Church, even if they have issue with some, or many of the church’s views. Despite everything, a Catholic service is still the country’s favourite.
However, Brian Whiteside of the Humanist Association believes that the figures do not necessarily mean that all couples who opt for a Catholic wedding are religious.
“Traditionally, it was the norm to get married in a church, or if you really didn’t want to do that you got married in a registry office. You got married in a church usually whether you were religious or not – you didn’t want to rock the boat.”
Today, people have more choice. “I remember in the early years when I’d meet a couple, very often one of them would say, ‘The parents are a bit iffy about this. They’d really rather we went to the church,’ whereas now the couple might say, ‘Our parents are delighted we’re having a humanist wedding instead of going to the registry office.’”
“We would definitely find that more couples are interested in the fact that everything is on-site, so they don’t have to travel throughout the day,” Egan said.
“It used to be the case that you might have an hour’s travel time between the church and the venue location. I think people are trying to limit that as much as possible.”