Part One: Joe O'Shea's groom's guide to weddings
I thought we were planning a low-key wedding – but then the mothers got involved . . .
Groom-to-be Joe O'Shea thought planning a wedding would be like planning a 40th birthday party. Little did he realise.
When you tell people you are getting married and have set the date, first comes the congratulations, then comes the advice.
And if, like myself, you are a guy about to plunge into the world of wedding planning, the reaction from male friends is usually a sharp intake of breath and a muttered: "You poor, foolish man, you have no idea what you are letting yourself in for, have you?"
Myself and my girlfriend Holly (I can't use the term "partner", mostly because it makes us sound like we're running a small accountancy practice in Athlone) have been planning our nuptials (another cringe-y word) since Christmas.
Her friends have thrown themselves into a frenzy of flower-arranging and dress-selection; my friends have mostly been gleefully commiserating with me about the "year of hell" I'm about to enter.
Their considered opinion, as guys, is that if I come through this without a nervous breakdown or running off to join the French Foreign Legion, it's one for the win column.
Irish men have come a long way in redefining gender roles. But not, it seems, when it comes to the Big Day. A popular approach is the one favoured by jittery bomb-disposal experts.
And weddings are just one of those life events that everybody has an opinion about. We have all either walked down the aisle ourselves or been to many, many special days, at home and abroad.
We remember the great ones with fondness or shudder at the recollection of the odd wedding bash that was a bit of a trial (and let's be honest, we have all been to one).
And our expectations of what the perfect wedding should be, both for those tying the knot and those throwing the confetti, have changed so dramatically over the past five years alone that the Traditional Irish Wedding has (almost) gone the way of the weekend honeymoon in Bundoran.
Those working in the wedding industry say the excesses and one-upmanship of the Celtic Tiger era, the rented swans, three-storey Belgian chocolate fountains and ever bigger castles, are now firmly out of fashion, even for the few who can still afford them.
Ostentation is out. "Quirky", "fun" and "low-key" are in. Why get married in a church when you can have a civil ceremony in a decommissioned lighthouse followed by a fish 'n' chips reception on a renovated river barge?
The industry itself, worth at least €500m a year according to one recent survey, no longer even refers to what it does as "weddings", now often preferring the term "celebrations".
Irish couples, increasingly, do not get married with a wedding. They celebrate their love with a Special Day.
And while most still get married in a church (71pc of Irish couples, according to the most recent survey), their choice of reception venue, music, food, and honeymoon destination varies wildly with the buzz-words in the industry: "quirky", "cool" and "individualised".
"There's definitely been a big change in the last three or four years; the rule book has gone out the window," says Naoise McNally of Irish online wedding magazine One Fab Day.
"There has been a big shift towards individualising weddings to reflect the tastes and personalities of the couple getting married.
"Couples tend to have lived together longer. They share the same tastes and interests; they might be big into food, or music, film or fashion, and they want their wedding day to reflect that.
"So you have foodies who are getting married and they don't want the traditional beef or salmon, they might go for tapas, or want the food to be farm to fork. Locally sourced food is a big trend – they want the food they serve their guests to reflect the kind of food they would eat out at the weekend.
"The type of venues they are going for has also changed. There has been a shift away from the big hotels and prestige castles; people want smaller, more private venues such as small country houses or family-run hotels, where they feel it's their place for the day, with a sense of intimacy."
Naoise says the wedding industry, and the more traditional venues, have had to dramatically change what they are offering to keep up with changing fashions.
"The traditional venues are now facing a lot of competition from restaurants and even bars. There has been a shift towards smaller weddings, people having a civil ceremony or doing it in their local church and then taking 40 or 50 close friends and family to an old-fashioned pub and then maybe on to a good restaurant with a private room."
As a relatively typical Irish guy who has recently plunged into the increasingly bewildering world of planning a wedding, this back-to-basics trend is welcome.
When myself and my fiancé (we have had a relatively short engagement by Irish terms, three years) sat down to finally make our plans, my catch-phrase was "small and classy", with the "small" spelt C.H.E.A.P.
The groom wanted an old-fashioned city wedding – the kind our parents had in the '60s: close friends and family, a small reception in a cosy hotel or restaurant, no celestial choirs, rows of harpists, horse-drawn carriages, swans or doves. I was particularly concerned that no animals would be hired in the making of this wedding.
And to be fair to the bride (since she may well read this), her general thoughts chimed with the groom's, up to a point.
Our initial plans for a small city wedding in Dublin, a low-key party, were soon being changed and upgraded.
And then the mothers got involved.
The groom's initial childlike belief that it would be along the lines of organising a 40th birthday bash only with a few more flower arrangements, was soon exposed for what it was: hopeless, pitiful naivete.
So we have drawn up a plan, settled on a budget (which we have been determined to keep below the Irish average of €22,000) and started negotiations.
Everybody is helping out, all advice and suggestions are being gratefully received and even though the road is going to be long and hard, there is a growing sense that we may get there without needing to honeymoon in a home for the bewildered for two months.
We are not expecting a perfect day; we will settle for a special one.
Joe O'Shea will be writing further about his adventures in wedding planning over the coming weeks.