Mary Kenny: 'Fewer couples are marrying in church, or getting babies baptised... but people still want milestones'
'Tis the season for weddings and it's always a season for Christenings and funerals: but in a more secular Ireland, fewer people are seeking such ceremonies in a church. Nearly 30pc of weddings last year were civil, and nearly 10pc were "humanist" events, for those who affirm faith in humanity rather than a deity.
Modern life is all about 'choice'. That was Clara Malone's purpose when she set up Coastal Ceremonies in Ennis, Co Clare two years ago: to give people the opportunity to celebrate their union, or their baby's arrival in the world, or even their new house, with a rite of passage that was meaningful to them. "People want milestones along the road - whatever their belief system," she says. So she trained as a celebrant with the Irish Institute of Celebrants and developed her ceremonies from there.
Having the Wild Atlantic Way nearby, and the magnificent Cliffs of Moher, was another useful context: couples often like to have Moher as a photographic backdrop - not too close, now! - to their bespoke ceremony. The 'vow renewal' is a popular rite for couples who have been together for, say, 10 years, and want to mark that.
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Then there are the ancient Celtic traditions like 'handfasting' - from which, apparently, we get the phrase 'tying the knot' - that was performed under Brehon law. Handfasting is done after vows and rings are exchanged and involves coloured ribbons binding the couple together. Different ribbons represent different blessings bestowed on the couple, and the knot itself the ties that bind, and hold, under pressure.
There is also the 'sand ceremony'. Sand is collected from various beaches and mingled together - the sand placed in a vessel can be displayed in the home, although, if a couple got fractious, I wonder what would become of the jar of mingled sand? Perhaps contemplating the sand blended together would hold tempers back!
Other ceremonial acts can involve wishing stones, or a time box capsule in which individuals can write letters to one another, to be read on a future occasion - a sweet idea in an era in which the phone text has almost replaced the love-letter. And people can also devise their own ceremonies.
Clara, an attractive 41-year-old, married, with two children at primary school, emphasises that she is a celebrant, but not, at this point, a solemniser. She is entitled to perform ceremonies: but legalising a marriage still requires a visit to the state registrar, owing to a tweak in the 2004 Act that doesn't allow the Irish Institute of Celebrants to legally sign off marriage. But that may change.
Over two years, she has (assisted by her deputy, Orla Cronin) conducted more than 35 ceremonies involving couples marking a wedding, a commitment or a vow renewal. There have been five baby 'naming ceremonies', with more coming up. She hasn't ventured into funeral rites yet - she would need to do further training for that.
Funerals, however, are the most resistant to non-religious ritual. At the end of the day - literally - a community is likely to be comforted by a church funeral, whether the person was a believer or not. Maeve Binchy was not a religious believer, but she chose a Catholic funeral because she just thought people in Dalkey would find that pleasing - and they did. Still, the Catholic funeral is itself changing, with the disappearance of the "removal" of the body to the church for overnight vigil.
Yet Clara thinks that alternative ceremonies can be mingled with elements of religious faith, if that's what people want. You could have a genuinely inclusive and wholly ecumenical service for any occasion, in which, say, ancient Celtic practices were accompanied by a Christian hymn, or prayer. Whatever you're into!
However secularised a society becomes, it seldom dispenses with rites and rituals, and always searches for ways in which to observe passages of our lives with something meaningful. I recently met a young woman wearing a sparkling ring on her engagement finger: it was, she explained, a 'promise' ring, after she and her partner had had a baby. They felt they couldn't afford to marry, but the ring was an emblem of commitment.
Some rites are easier to replicate than others: the Catholic Church still occupies 'market dominance' when it comes to First Communion. Nothing has yet been devised to replace this sacramental rite which traditionally marked the age of reason, at seven.
Confirmation might be more amenable to a secular version: the Jewish version of this significant milestone, entering adolescence and preparing for adulthood, the bar mitzvah (bat mitzvah for girls) is regularly celebrated by secular Jews who have scant religious attachment, but recognise the value of a rite of passage.
Modern weddings are often expensive - maybe an average of €25,000 spend. And possibly because there are fewer rites of passage now, a wedding takes the whole weight of ceremony. 'Coastal Ceremonies' will do the package for just under €450, by the way.
Clara's own parents, though themselves Catholics, support her wholeheartedly in her alternative ceremonies. Perhaps that too is an indication of how diversely ecumenical Irish society has become.