Vow factor: the celebrants changing the wedding dynamic
The growing demand for non-religious ceremonies has seen an explosion in alternative ways to tie the knot, writes Celine Naughton
As a radio and TV presenter, MC and event host, journalist, voiceover artist and social media whiz, Ruth Scott already has enough strings to her career bow to give Robin Hood a run for his money. And now she's added another - wedding celebrant.
The Radio Nova presenter has "ordained in the non-religious sense" and can legally officiate at weddings in most states in the USA, which she did shortly after becoming accredited.
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"Yes, I finally got to say the immortal words: 'By the powers vested in me'," she laughs. "In the States I can do the legal bit as well as officiating at the ceremony. I conduct weddings in Ireland too, but like most non-religious celebrants, apart from humanists, I'm not a legal solemniser, so the couple have to sign the legal paperwork separately in a registry office."
Ruth says her interest in marking milestones without having a priest involved began in the year 2000 when she joined the movement Count Me Out, set up to facilitate non-believers to remove themselves from the Catholic Church.
"My sister said, 'How are we going to conduct your funeral?'. It set me thinking, I couldn't be the only one who wants to mark big life events without having the Catholic Church in them," she says.
When she and Rob Morgan, son of the late Father Ted star Dermot, married two years ago, they had a humanist ceremony in Bunratty Castle - and there was no 'giving the bride away'.
"Rob and I walked in together hand-in-hand as a symbol of our equality," she says. "In lieu of prayers, we had music, stories and poems. It had just the right balance of gravitas and humour and couldn't have been more perfect.
"As a celebrant myself, standing up in front of people comes naturally to me. I've been doing it for 20 years. But I also love talking to a couple about what they want and helping them put their own stamp on things to make their ceremony unique and memorable.
"Celebrants are like orchestra conductors, managing lots of different elements. You have to be super-calm, no matter what's going on. If the in-laws are having a hissy fit, or there's a power cut, you're the one who has to hold it all together. You're like a duck gliding along a river, looking supremely calm on the surface while paddling furiously beneath the water."
Clara Malone trained with Marry Me Ireland two years ago and now runs Coastal Ceremonies in Ennis, Co Clare.
"The Cliffs of Moher are popular with couples eloping from the States to marry in Ireland," says Clara. "They're also where I officiated at a renewal-of-vows ceremony that a man had arranged for his wife. I pretended to be a tour guide until we reached the designated spot, at which point he presented her with a necklace and told her the real reason they were there and how much their marriage meant to him. It was very touching."
Ruth and Clara are just two of a growing number of celebrants filling a demand for alternative weddings in Ireland today. An amendment to the Civil Registration Act in 2013 allowed for humanist weddings to be legally recognised by the State. Humanists, who don't believe in a supernatural power, are the only non-religious group qualified to legally solemnise weddings. Other solemnisers include priests and ministers of various denominations, interfaith ministers, spiritualists and civil registrars.
Brian Whiteside has been performing humanist ceremonies for 15 years and has seen things change dramatically in that time.
"When I started, 90pc of weddings were held in the Catholic Church, now it's 50pc," he says. "People then were either Catholic or Protestant. Now we've got multi-denominational religions: humanism, spiritualism, paganism, atheism, interfaith beliefs and a wide mix of philosophies that reflect a cultural shift. Religion is no longer binary."
Another group to be accepted on the register of legal solemnisers - as a religious group - is the One Spirit Interfaith Foundation. Reverend Geraldine Bown was one of its first ministers to be ordained in 1998.
"At one time, there were just five of us here in Ireland, now there are 44," she says. "We're filling a gap in response to a changing spiritual landscape. More and more couples want to celebrate their wedding in a spiritual way, with a sense of the sacred without invoking God. I love celebrating weddings, but it's only a part of how I serve my community. I also run spiritual workshops and I'm a management consultant."
Just as well, because solemnisers need to have other ways of earning a living. The Civil Registration (Amendment) Bill 2012, which came into force in 2013, specifies that a secular body registered to solemnise marriages must not have the making of profit as one of its principal aims. Equally, most celebrants who are not solemnisers have other strings to their bow.
Social anthropologist, university lecturer and entrepreneur, Lorraine Mancey O'Brien, set up the celebrant organisation Marry Me Ireland five years ago as a response to a demand for non-traditional ceremonies.
It started with two celebrants - herself and co-founder Neill Fleming, actor and star of Game of Thrones, who also officiated at Lorraine's wedding. Now it has 54 celebrants on its books.
"We were inundated," says Lorraine. "We put an ad on Radio Nova and had 50 bookings in six months. We needed more celebrants, so I devised a training course and set up the Irish Institute of Celebrants, which now trains 100 people a year. Celebrancy wouldn't be a full-time occupation, but it is a very rewarding one and we have many more applicants than we take on." Training takes place one Sunday a month for six months at their headquarters in Dublin, where voice coaches, actors, storytellers and other professionals guide trainees through the many aspects of the job. Trainees come from every walk of life - and include Conor McGregor's dad, Tony.
"At the end of the process, we have polished, confident celebrants who go on to provide a valuable service to their communities," says Lorraine.
"Getting married used to be a choice of registry office or church, but it was the in-between bits that begged the question, what else is there? We Irish love to redefine ancient traditions and put a modern spin on them to make them relevant to our lives today. We haven't thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Quite the opposite. Couples today often use ancient rituals like hand-fasting (tying the knot) and sand-blending, rites which pre-date Church and State, and adapt them in powerfully symbolic and beautiful ways."
Clara from Coastal Ceremonies admits because the weddings have that personal touch, they can really tug at the heart-strings.
"Sometimes I'd have four weddings a month, other times, one or two. I charge €450, which includes a 90-minute consultation with the couple, creating a bespoke ceremony for them and officiating at the wedding.
"I have the honour of telling a couple's story, and each story takes on a life of its own. One groom said he had trouble writing his vows because he wasn't good at writing. As our conversation progressed, I discovered he'd trained with the military for six months during which he wasn't allowed any contact with his fiancée other than letters. The pair went back over their correspondence and came up with vows that were pure gold.
"Others can be funny. One groom addressed his wife's tendency to get 'hangry' if she needed food and said, 'I promise to always have snacks for you in the car'.
"When it comes to the part of the ceremony where the couple exchange vows, I step away. This is the moment when two people bare their souls. That's when I pass the tissues. People need them - including me."