Tuesday 25 October 2016

For richer, for poorer - how we turned weddings into a blockbuster event

From boom to bust, Irish couples are prepared to spend a fortune on weddings. How we turned a simple ceremony into a blockbuster event, with costs that can top €30,000

Published 25/07/2015 | 01:00

Keeping it simple: Breffni McGeough and Aoibheann Greenan from Dublin with registrar Myles Kane after tying the knot last week.
Keeping it simple: Breffni McGeough and Aoibheann Greenan from Dublin with registrar Myles Kane after tying the knot last week.

Ever since the extravagant era of the Celtic Tiger, Irish couples have been prepared to spend lavishly on their weddings.

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Their parents and grandparents may have been content to embark on their marital journey with a simple "wedding breakfast" of ham salad or bacon and egg, followed by a honeymoon in Clare or Donegal; but modern couples continue to want ever more elaborate nuptials.

Tony Moore, counsellor and psychotherapist with Relationships Ireland, likens the modern Irish wedding to a massive theatrical or cinematic production.

"Production values must be high, so that the couple can look back on the perfect day," says Moore. "Location must be straight out of a fantasy film.

"Bigger is seen to be better, but as any film or theatre director will tell you, big and complicated productions bring big problems."

Brides and grooms start fretting because the second band's drummer has turned up late, the bridesmaids' dresses are the wrong shade of cerise, or the wheels of the novelty candy cart have got stuck in the mud.

Oh dear, Table 12 didn't get its "favours" - the goodie bags given to guests (these could be bags of M&Ms with the names of the bride and groom printed on each individual sweet, or mini-bottles of perfume with the faces of the happy couple on them).

Right through the boom and the bust and the economic recovery, a typical Irish wedding has hovered above €20,000 in cost, with more affluent families commonly spending well over €35,000 on the big event.

After dropping off during the recession, new figures out this week showed the number of weddings is soaring again and increased by 7pc last year to over 22,000. The fact that so many couples are getting hitched is another sign of economic recovery.

Naoise McNally, of the wedding website onefabday.com, says: "In the recession, couples may have changed their priorities, but there was no real drop-off in spending."

With hindsight, we may look askance at some of the trappings of boomtime weddings a decade ago.

There were doves released into the heavens, a plethora of Flatley-style Celtic dancers, chocolate fountains, ice sculptures and fireworks.

The preferred mode of transport may have been a helicopter, and the stag or hen party was likely to be abroad. The whole celebration could last the best part of a week.

Wedding extravagance seemed to reach its apogee in 2007, when €100,000 was reportedly spent on the wedding cake of Seán Quinn's daughter Ciara (the family later said the figure was exaggerated).

Now, the trappings of the modern Irish wedding have changed, but they still cost couples and their guests an arm and a leg.

The latest survey by weddingsonline puts the average cost at €21,219. If you talk to anyone at the luxury end of the wedding industry, they will describe that figure as modest.

Another recent survey by the same website shows that a typical Irish wedding guest spends an average of €800 just to turn up, once they have added up the cost of the present, accommodation, travel and clothes.

The survey found that Irish people in the 25-44 age group go to an average of two weddings a years. That means they are spending €1,600 just for the privilege of being a guest.

And you won't get away with giving a present of a simple breadboard or a book token: the wedding present lists favoured by many couples now start at €60.

The modern Irish wedding is one-part Kate Middleton princess fantasy and one part Electric Picnic, with a bit of Game of Thrones thrown in.

The chocolate fountains and the ice sculptures may be less common than they were a decade ago, but there are other trimmings that are becoming popular. Many weddings no longer just have the drinks reception, the meal and dancing, according to Sophie Pigott of weddingsonline.

Scattered around the grounds, there may be crepe stations, ice-cream vans, coffee stalls and for those having late-night hunger pangs - a retro chip van.

Naoise says: "Irish weddings now often have fewer guests than they did 10 years ago, and there may not be 14 bridesmaids anymore; but the bride and groom are much more particular about the food.

"They don't want a pro-forma wedding with beef or salmon. They want something more unusual, and perhaps everything is organic. Sometimes the event is more like a festival."

While there may be less money spent on the cake, wedding entertainment has become much more elaborate, with fewer couples content with an "achy-breaky-heart" band playing a few cover versions.

Mark Downing, who books acts for Irish weddings, says: "At some weddings you might have three or four bands. We would supply a nice harpist at the church ceremony, a Cuban trio at the drinks reception. Then after the meal we might have a band with an 80s or 90s theme. The Daft Punk Tribute act is very popular. And then there would be a DJ."

With so much to consider, from the trim of the bridesmaid dresses to the location of the specially installed photo booth, it is all too easy for couples to become obsessed with the wedding, and rather less focused on the more important business of the marriage itself.

Anne Coleman, a marriage counsellor with Accord, says: "Financial issues are among the top-five problems in marriage, and couples can get into difficulties right at the start with the cost of the wedding.

"They can get carried away with planning the event and don't pay enough attention to what they can really afford. Then it becomes hard to stop the steamroller in its tracks."

The €21,200 figure is just an average and many couples, particularly in affluent areas of Dublin, are notching up wedding bills that are double that, according to Naoise.

"Between the dress, the food and the honeymoon, many couples are easily spending €20,000 just to start with. The more luxurious honeymoons cost €6,000 or €7,000."

Perhaps some of these free-spending grooms and over-the-top bridezillas are not thinking straight.

Marriage counsellor Tony Moore says: "From my own experience of these couples, they are in a very heady zone - euphoric is not too strong a word for it.

"The expectations of what happens on the day are usually somewhat unrealistic. It is a one-off production, so the choreography must be perfect."

If you add in both sets of parents involved in a wedding, the bills can mount up even further, not to mention the tension.

"Both families do not want to be seen as skinflints on the day. So they throw money at the event," he says.

"Parents are under pressure to satisfy their child's wishes. The word 'No' is hardly every used by parents nowadays, and it is certainly never used in relation to lavish weddings."

The tension between families can bubble under the surface in the scramble to organise the perfect day, as the preparations swallow up more time and money.

"Both sets of parents may try to be all sweetness and light when in each other's company," says Moore. "When they get home, it may be another story and this has implications for the couple.

"The tension and bickering behind the gritted smile and air-kissing will resurface in time and can affect the couple."

With the size of the Irish wedding market now estimated at over €500m, it is hardly surprising that there is such plethora of wedding planners, entertainers, caterers, stylists and venues eager to cash in. And the number of marriages is growing again.

According to one theory, couples may feel they cannot afford a house - so, they may as well blow the deposit on their blockbuster wedding.

 The costs may not have diminished significantly since the era of the Celtic Tiger, but the Irish way of marriage is going through rapid changes.

In two decades, the number of civil ceremonies has climbed from 6pc to 32pc, and there has also been a sharp increase in the number of humanist ceremonies.

At the registry office on Grand Canal Street in Dublin, there are 12 civil weddings every day.

A visit to the registry office on Wednesday morning showed that some couples prefer to keep it simple.

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In a ceremony presided over by registrar by Myles Kane, Dubliners Breffni McGeough and Aoibheann Greenan were married with just two witnesses in attendance. They had already had a celebration in Westmeath. While the ceremony was short and simple, it was no less moving than more elaborate productions.

As the registrar asked Aoibheann whether she would love and comfort Breffni, she almost shouted: "Ah, yeah! Of course!"

Anne Coleman of Accord tries to encourage couples to stop and think of the commitment they are making when they get married. "It should not just about be about the wedding day. It's the marriage that is important. Marriage is a journey not a destination."

While some couples may think of the church as little more than a quaint film set for their big production, Anne tries to get couples to understand the meaning and significance of the sacrament.

Of course, for some couples it is all about being the centre of attention and they want to milk it for all it is worth.

Tony Moore says: "From a psychological point of view, it helps some people for once in their life to feel special and to be fussed over and for their needs to be met."

That may not happen again until their funeral, and they won't be able to enjoy that.

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Paying for the ceremony

Civil and secular/humanist ceremonies are growing in popularity, and the costs of these vary, depending on the location.

All couples have to pay a €200 notification fee, whether the wedding is religious, civil or secular. If the civil ceremony is in the registration office, there is no additional fee. Couples can pay €20 for a marriage certificate.

Couples can now have a civil ceremony at an approved venue away from the registry office, such as a hotel. There are additional fees for this, and the cost varies according to the distance travelled. In Dublin, the cost is roughly €100 to €180. Weddings close to Dublin city centre are at the cheaper end of the scale.

Couples also have to pay for the cost of hiring the venue, which is usually where they hold the reception. In rural areas, a civil ceremony away from the registry office typically costs over €100.

 Humanist ceremonies are growing in popularity, and are now legally recognised.

The solemnisers of humanist weddings are in heavy demand, and generally charge €450.

"There is quite a bit of work involved. The ceremony usually goes on for half an hour, and we would usually have met the couple on two occasions. There is also a lot of correspondence," says Brian Whiteside, of the Irish Humanist Association.

In a church wedding there is no fixed fee for the priest and the use of the church, but the typical amounts paid are around €500 in total.

'If it means that we have to tighten our belts, then we are happy to do that...'


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