I always imagined my wedding as a beautiful and romantic event: My dad would walk me down the aisle, my brother would be a groomsman, and my very best friends would be there standing up for me. The “who” was easy. But when John and I got engaged in August of 1996, the “where” and “when” of our plans did not take shape so effortlessly.
I hadn’t lived in my hometown in Greenboro, North Carolina, since I left high school and I didn’t feel right about having the wedding there just for the sake of tradition. My fiancé and I decided to pick a location together and we ran through endless possibilities.
We chose our honeymoon spot more easily. John’s mother’s family is of Irish descent, and I had grown up hearing wonderful tales of my father’s parents who emigrated in the early part of the last century. My grandfather had been a fisherman in the north of Ireland, and my grandmother a telegraph operator in the south.
As we told our families our honeymoon plans we met with tremendous support. “Wish we could go with you!” John’s mom joked. And suddenly it seemed so right and obvious: We would get married in Ireland.
Since John had never been to Ireland and I hadn’t been there since I was six months old, we were unsure of how to proceed. We bought stacks of guidebooks but only ended up identifying the spots we wanted to see on our honeymoon.
My Aunt Kathleen came to the rescue. She suggested we contact my cousin Billy Carroll in the town of Knocktopher, just south of Kilkenny City. Billy and his wife, Mary, own a restaurant, pub and Bed &Breakfast in the village where my great-grandparents met and were married. It sounded like a great place to have a wedding and it would offer an ideal opportunity to get to know our Irish cousins.
To John, who loves Irish beer, it seemed too good to be true that not only did I have relatives in Ireland, but they also owned a pub where we could have our reception.
Aunt Kathleen telephoned the Carrolls on our behalf and they agreed to help.
The first important issue was the wedding date. We decided that it should be on a Tuesday so that guests who could only take a week off would have the weekend to travel and get rested. Next we decided to take a planning trip to Ireland, which proved to be invaluable.
We wrote to the Irish Consulate in New York to determine the requirements for getting married in Ireland. The documents we received outlined many regulations, and as we waded through all the papers we became increasingly confused.
We decided to enlist the aid of my uncle, Father Bill Young, a Catholic priest in Cleveland. He was able to help us determine, for better or for worse, that nearly all of the requirements apply to non-Catholics. The only one that concerned us stipulated that we register at the Office of Births, Marriages and Deaths at least three months prior to the wedding, and not necessarily in person.
Throughout the course of our adventures we learned as much about cultural differences as we did about wedding planning. Before we left on our exploratory trip in November we attempted to iron out the wedding date with my cousins in Ireland. They didn’t seem to share our sense of urgency and kept telling us that no one in Ireland would have anything booked nine months in advance, that we needn’t worry about verifying the date with the church, the florist, the band, the photographer, or anyone else just yet; they were all sure to be free on any date we might choose.
Fortunately, my Uncle Bill, who would officiate at the wedding, confirmed a date with the clergy at the Carmelite Friary in Knocktopher through a series of faxes and telephone calls. The Big Day was set: June 23, 1998.
We decided to invite everyone we would have invited had the wedding taken place in North Carolina, even though we figured most of them would not be able to make the trip to Ireland. In October 1997, we sent letters to friends and family and included a return postcard on which they could indicate whether they would be able to attend the wedding. We hoped for around fifty guests, but figured on closer to thirty.
In November 1997, we flew to Dublin and rented the smallest car we’d ever seen. We drove three hours south through gently rolling hills and finally reached Carroll’s Pub in Knocktopher. It was late and Billy and Mary had gone home for the evening, so we were given directions to their house, which was only five minutes away.
As we drove away from the pub, John and I were thrilled. We were finally going to meet my relatives, and we had just seen the restaurant, which vastly exceeded our expectations as the perfect place to have our wedding reception.
Carroll’s pub is a beautiful 14th-century building attractively painted yellow with brown trim. Paintings of ancestors who ran the pub in earlier generations adorn the walls. There is a fireplace next to the bar and adjacent to the “snug” or sitting room there is a large function hall where we would have our reception.
John and I spent the week in Knocktopher at the mercy of Mary Carroll, the most organized woman in the world. With Mary’s help we accomplished the majority of our plans. She introduced us to Fr. Andy O’Reilly, the lovely priest at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church where we would be married, and she also arranged for the photographer.
We met the florist Jim McCarthy at 1 a.m. one morning in Carroll’s pub. Mary interrupted his card game to introduce me and to talk about the flowers.
“So you’re coming home to get married in June? What are you doing over here so early? When you come back, a few days before the ceremony, give me a call and we’ll work it all out. We’ll see what’s in season then.”
That was the end of it. The flowers were taken care of.
Mary also picked a band for us. “Checkers will play something the Americans will like,” she said, and just as quickly, the band was taken care of.
The wedding cake was to be made by Mary’s cousin. “You must have an Irish wedding cake,” Mary implored us. “It’s a fruitcake aged in whisky for about three months with a thick layer of white icing. It’s just gorgeous.” When I tried politely to voice my concern that the American guests might not eat fruitcake, she asked, “Why are you coming all the way to Ireland to have an American wedding?”
The Irish have an unparalleled ability to cut through nonsense. From that point on we took every bit of advice Mary had to offer.
There was one exception. We wanted to have something akin to a rehearsal dinner the evening before the wedding for our out-of-town guests and family.
Billy sent us into Kilkenny to check out Langton’s Restaurant on John Street. We told the manager at Langton’s that we estimated 45-70 guests, just to be on the safe side. Unbelievably, no down payment was required, and there were no rental charges for the room or dinnerware; only a per-person charge for the dinner, which at 13 pounds (about $19.50) was much less than American prices for a comparable meal. We simply gave them our phone number in the U.S. and it was settled.
Next we were off to find a tuxedo rental shop. Luckily there was one right down the block from Langton’s. John explained our plans to Mr. Hennessey, the shop owner.
“You’re getting married on a Tuesday, you say? Hmm. A little strange, but all right. We can take care of you.”
His prices were so reasonable and his service was so good that it didn’t make sense for the groomsmen to bring their own tuxes. The charge was £30 (about $45 U.S.) per person, and Mr. Hennessey promised that he would provide new shirts for the men.
Our plans were really beginning to take shape. As we drove around the countryside between Kilkenny and Knocktopher John looked at me and grinned. “I can’t believe we’re pulling it off!”
Other than accommodation and the logistics of getting our guests to Knocktopher, we had most everything worked out.
We decided to tour as much accommodations in the surrounding area as we could. We went to every B&B in our guidebooks and took detailed notes: How many rooms in each, how many had twin beds, double beds, ensuite accommodation, TV, in-room telephones, sitting rooms, nice views, close proximity to interesting sites, price per person, etc. We also toured hotels in Kilkenny City and the famous Mount Juliet golf resort in neighboring Thomastown.
By the time our trip was finished we were exhausted but excited. Ireland was more beautiful than we had imagined and the people were so hospitable and helpful. Everywhere we went we were offered tea and people always seemed to have a moment to sit and chat.
Meanwhile, back home, my Aunt Kathy made arrangements with a travel agency in Alexandria, Virginia, called Isle Inn Tours, which specializes in trips to Ireland. Not everyone who came to the wedding ended up using them, but for those who did, the agency provided a week’s free rental car for every two tickets purchased.
Upon our return to the States we sent out a second letter to our friends and relatives. We included a map, outlined our intended dates of travel, the schedule of events around the wedding, the rehearsal dinner and the reception. We suggested accommodation that we had inspected and added our general impressions of Ireland.
For the next several months we planned the details of the ceremony and reception via telephone calls to Billy and Mary and E-mails to their daughter, Marie, who lives in Dublin, and acted as a liaison between us all.
We arranged for the wedding ceremony music with Vivienne Teague, the church organist/flutist, via telephone. John held the receiver up to the CD player so that she could hear some of the pieces that we both liked. She knew them but also had some suggestions of her own. With the phone pinched between her ear and shoulder, she sat at her piano and played and sang the songs that she recommended. We decided on a few of her suggestions and some of ours.
When we began to receive replies to our wedding invitations in early May, we were overwhelmed by the number of responses. Almost a hundred family members, friends from elementary school and college, and even our colleagues from work, wanted to come to Ireland for our wedding.
By the time we boarded the plane on June 18, we’d coordinated the transportation of all the necessary items. John’s mother brought the church programs over in her suitcase. One of the groomsmen brought disposable cameras for the tables at the reception. My Aunt Kathy brought a unity candle for the ceremony, which she had had a friend buy for us on a trip to Austria.
I rolled up my wedding dress and stuffed it into a carry-on suitcase; I figured the wrinkles would iron out, and I didn’t want to risk shipping or checking it. Bridal party and thank-you gifts were brought over by other family members.
John and I flew out on the Thursday before our wedding date and arrived at Shannon Airport on Friday morning. By the time our guests finished trickling in to Knocktopher on Sunday and Monday, stories were being told about rental car agents in Dublin asking people if they were going to “the big wedding down in Knocktopher.” It wasn’t until then that we realized how small Ireland is.
Upon arrival in Knocktopher, we were faced with several final arrangements. First we met with the photographer, Michael O’Byrne.
When we met with Michael’s assistant, Helen, the previous November, we had been struck by a stunning wedding photo he’d taken at Jerpoint Abbey, a magnificent 12th-century ruin built by the Cistercian monks, which lies just east of Knocktopher. The abbey is now owned by the Irish National Trust, who no longer allow wedding photos to be taken there. But Michael thought we might be able to get special permission. He suggested that we write to the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, in Dublin. After two letters we were denied permission, but Michael persevered and decided to contact his local politician for a special favor. Two weeks before leaving for Ireland we were finally granted permission to have our photos taken at the Abbey. We knew then that we had chosen the right photographer, even before we saw our pictures.
On Saturday, I met Jim McCarthy at the church to discuss the flowers. My bouquet would include light pink roses accented with fern and ivy, and the bridesmaids would carry various shades of pink roses and carnations with navy blue ribbons.
Mary told us that it is an Irish custom to provide a “buttonhole” or boutonniere to each family member. We ordered 75. There were, in fact, more than 75 “relations,” as the Irish say, in attendance at the wedding. Thirty-five were Irish. Thirty-nine came from America, and one came from Australia. In total we had 152 guests. Many of the proprietors from the local B&Bs came to me church for me wedding mass and sat in the choir loft. We never dreamed that we would fill the entire church, but we did.
I had been told that an Irish bride shouldn’t be on time for her wedding, but I hadn’t given it much thought. Mary had arranged for my bridesmaids and me to have our hair done that morning at her hairdresser’s a few miles down the road in Kells. We were carpooled there by my Aunt Kathy and the husband of one of my attendants. It poured rain the entire morning, and the hairdresser, Mairead, was short-staffed.
Two of my high school friends were back at Mary’s house ironing my wedding dress, which, thanks to my careless packing job, took them three hours. By the time we’d all had our hair done and were dressed, we were an hour late for the photographs at Jerpoint Abbey. But we got there as quickly as we could, with cousin Billy as chauffeur.
Fortunately, the rain stopped just in time for us to take the photos, but it started up again as we left for the church. I was getting nervous — the wedding was supposed to begin at 3:00 p.m. It was now 3:20 but Billy drove right past the church.
“Hey, Billy, I think I have an appointment back there,” I nervously ribbed him.
“Oh sure, they can wait a little longer,” he chuckled.
I could see the twinkle in his eye in the rear view mirror. He pulled into Carroll’s and together he and Jennifer extracted me and my gown from the car. We went in through the back door and Billy poured us each a Guinness. We were both so nervous, we hardly drank more than a few sips.
As it turned out, there was a bonus to being late for the wedding: we got a sneak preview of the reception. The place looked brilliant. The tables were decorated with colorful bouquets and accents of navy blue to match the bridesmaids’ dresses. Lush plants hung from the stained glass skylight in the middle of the dance floor, which was now set with tables. The head table was beautifully appointed with more flowers and Waterford crystal champagne toasting flutes, a gift from my bridesmaids.
As I finished taking in the details, Billy finally announced that it was time to go. I was stuffed back into the car for the short trip to Our Lady of Mount St. Carmel.
When we pulled up at the church at 3:45 my father was waiting for me. When I saw his face I knew that the moment we had worked so hard for had finally become a reality.
It had been 99 years since my great-grandparents had been married in the same church, and when I took my dad’s arm and we began to walk down the aisle to Bach’s “Air on a G String,” I saw the faces of all those people who had come so far and done so much to support us. And there at the altar was John, waiting for me, smiling. I knew then that we really had come home.
Following the ceremony, we were greeted by a champagne toast and the most delicious dinner of our entire trip. Smoked Note Trout with Marie-Rose Sauce was followed by homemade cream of vegetable soup, and the entree choices, Roast Stuffed Turkey, Ham with Cranberry Sauce or Beef Forestaire, were served with green beans and new potatoes.
For dessert we were served a beautiful assortment of cakes. But most decadent was the wedding cake: three large tiers covered in at least an inch of white icing with flowers and navy blue ribbon.
The reception that was to begin at 5:00 p.m. went on until nearly 2:00 a.m. After dinner and all the speeches, tables were cleared from the dance floor and the band played everything from traditional Irish music to American pop. In keeping with Irish custom, many of the local people from Knocktopher came to join in the celebration.
We were blessed by many Irish customs that evening. My father’s cousins from the North traveled hours to Knocktopher and performed for us all at the reception. Little Anne Young, eleven years old and nationally ranked among the top ceili dancers in Ireland, danced for us in traditional costume. And two other cousins, Billy Young and Charmaigne Logue, sang traditional Irish ballads as the band played in the background.
We danced for hours and had the best night of our lives. ♦