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A couple walked up the aisle and into the history books yesterday when they became the first in Ireland to marry outside a church or registry office.

Fergus Burke and Michelle Owens say it made a huge difference being able to make their vows at a civil marriage in a venue of their choice.

The couple's main reason for choosing the historic setting was size.

Registry offices were simply too small to accommodate all of the wedding guests.

Yesterday there were up to 70 at the stylish black tie ceremony in the Cahernane House period hotel in Killarney, Co Kerry.


Until now, civil marriages had to be conducted either at a registry office or a church.

The new regulations will allow couples to choose their own civil wedding venues, once they are ratified by the Health Service Executive (HSE).

Fergus (38) from Ballyvolane and Michelle (30) from Carrigaline, both Co Cork, signed themselves into the history books in the hotel's garden conservatory.

Bride Michelle is a dress designer and created a cream ivory dress studded with pearls.

She walked the red carpet -- a mere five minutes late -- alongside her father Declan, to the arched sun-room on the shores of Lough Leane.

It was the nearest thing to open air the happy couple could get -- weddings cannot take place on beaches and must be held in safe buildings.

This 17th-century mansion hotel, revamped by Kerry hotelier Jimmy Browne, fitted the bill. Groom Fergus said the minute the pair drove down the avenue a year ago, they knew this was the place they wanted to get married.

Kerry registrar Mary Teresa O'Shea officiated and also in attendance was Billy Ramsell, superintendent registrar, HSE South (Cork and Kerry); and Kieran Feely, registrar general.

Ms O'Shea said it was an honour to perform the ceremony.

Meanwhile the bride and groom were more than happy with their unprecedented move.

"Being able to choose the venue made a huge difference," the bride remarked.

The HSE had to get a special mention, said Fergus. "They have been absolutely brilliant -- I know they get a lot of bad publicity," he added.

Mother of the bride Rita Owens had been kept busy preparing for the big day. She made the wedding dress designed by her daughter; the cake decorated in jade, as well as the dresses for bridesmaids Deborah and Victoria Owen -- sisters of the bride.

The bouquets were studded with costume jewellery owned by Michelle's late grandmother Philomena Owens. Best man was Michael Burke, brother of the groom.

Tables were named according to rugby pitches in honour of Fergus, a former captain of Cork's Highfield Rugby Club.

The happy couple will honeymoon in Mauritius before returning to their home in Dunkettle, Co Cork.

New procedures allowing weddings to take place outside registry offices only came into force on November 5, after the marriage provisions of the Civil Registration Act, 2004, were introduced.

The civil ceremony could not have taken place today because solemnisers or registrars do not work on Saturdays. This is because there has been no great demand, but resources will become an issue as all sorts of venues, from stately homes to hotels, are queuing up to get a licence now, a HSE spokeswoman said yesterday.

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