Here Zooms the bride: When the pandemic puts weddings into disarray

As lockdown throws weddings into disarray across the north, Gail Bell takes a personal look at how things have played out for different people whose plans have all been affected by Covid-19

Writer Gail Bell's daughter Claire and husband Roger Irwin on their wedding day just before lockdown in March. Picture by Simon Hodge
Gail Bell

“IT’S pretty easy”, drawls Andie MacDowell’s beguiling ‘Carrie’ to Hugh Grant’s tongue-tied groom ‘Charles’ in 90s hit film Four Weddings and a Funeral. “Just say, "I do”, whenever anyone asks you a question”….

If only. Getting married has never been more difficult for Northern Ireland’s devastated brides and grooms, many of whom have already witnessed their best laid plans dissolve in showers of limp confetti.

In the face of a deadly global pandemic, a wedding, of course, is a relatively minor event. And yet, for lockdown brides – including terminally ill Co Down bride Samantha Gamble, whose undeterred family has successfully appealed for a change to the rules – it’s no small thing to have to cancel the one day when it really should have been all about you.

Stormont’s first and deputy first ministers’ announcement last week to allow marriage ceremonies for couples where one of the party, or a close family member, is terminally ill, has now given hope to others, among them 20-year-old Rebekah Shannon from Kilkeel.

A speech therapy student, Rebekah is due to marry her fiance, James McAllister, a teacher from Donegal, in July, but due to her father’s late-stage Alzheimer’s disease, feels she can’t afford to postpone her big day for another year – the crushing reality now facing disappointed brides and grooms across Northern Ireland.

“James actually emailed Arlene Foster and she replied, saying she understood that it’s a very uncertain time,” Rebekah says. “She also mentioned about understanding those who aren’t happy to live together before marriage because of their Christian convictions, so we were encouraged by that.

“There were to be 150 guests at our wedding in Kilkeel Gospel Hall and reception at Corick House (Clogher) – now rescheduled for December – but we wouldn’t mind a small wedding and we have talked about going to the Republic of Ireland or England. We just want to get married.

Rebekah Shannon from Kilkeel and James McAllister, from Donegal – 'We just want to get married.' Picture by Jonathan Deighan Photography

“I’m trying to concentrate on my dissertation as well at the moment and all this is definitely adding extra stress. It’s been hard, being apart; we’ve not been allowed to see each other, basically. We can just hope and pray that things change soon.”

Planning a wedding in normal times is a stressful enough experience, but when things really spiral out of control, as they did so spectacularly during the final countdown to lockdown in March for my own daughter’s wedding, there’s not much you can do except hope and pray.

Claire and her fiance, Roger, turned out to be the last couple to get married in Portadown Baptist Church before it shut its doors, but in the space of a few head-melting days beforehand, when the coronavirus situation was escalating wildy, my 25-year-old went from not knowing if she would have a honeymoon to not knowing if she would have a reception, to not knowing if she would get married at all after her groom was taken suddenly ill (not Covid-19-related) and ended up in hospital on the night of his wedding rehearsal.

Newry bridal designer Emma Murnion

The headlines in one daily newspaper the day before screamed ‘Stay at Home’ (before we actually had to) and so, as public fear deepened and panic spread, there was the added worry of who on the guest list would actually show up – assuming the groom would be well enough to attend himself, of course.

In the end, my lovely new son-in-law recovered to get to the church in time (just about) and it was a gloriously sunny and weirdly wonderful day – albeit not the one planned, with tea and coffee in the church hall afterwards, instead of canapés at Orange Tree House in Greyabbey which will host Part Two at a later date. But, as many have discovered during the course of living with this insidious virus, it threw into sharp relief what is important – and what you can do without.

“I didn’t know if I’d be walking down the aisle to 10 or 50 people, but hopefully, there would be a groom at the end,” quips my now happily married daughter. “Although, perhaps clichéd, we learned that love really does conquer all and it’s not the pomp and circumstance, the hundreds of guests or the Champagne that matter. It’s just two people in love, Pachelbel’s Canon – and a little bit of sunshine if you’re lucky.

"It is strange to think that the date I originally picked had been one week later, but, on a whim, I brought it forward, so we now realise how fortunate we have been to get married at all."

According to Newry bridal designer Emma Murnion, most of her brides with weddings this spring and summer have already resigned themselves to waiting another year at least to be legally wed, with the option of a Zoom wedding – only legal in some countries and not possible if you don’t have the proper paperwork in advance – not really high up the agenda.

Belfast-born Gráinne Jess and her Scottish fiance Calum Renz had a Zoom wedding celebration

“There have been lots of tears as brides cancelled big weddings over the summer, but now they’ve been cancelling September dates too,” Emma says. “It’s really impossible to know because everything changes so quickly and there are no definite dates or numbers for gatherings to help people decide.”

Not everyone though, is letting their original date slide without marking it ‘virtually’. Belfast-born Gráinne Jess and her Scottish fiance Calum Renz decided to go all out down the Zoom route as a celebration of the day intended earlier this month.

“Some people are able to officially get married through Zoom, but ours wasn’t like that – in fact, the week we decided to postpone, the registry offices were already closing,” explains Gráinne (30), who lives in Larbert, near Falkirk, with fiance Calum, whom she was due to marry at Patrick’s Church, Ballyvoy outside Ballycastle, on May 9, followed by a reception at Limepark artists’ retreat in Armoy.

“But, we did want to replicate the day as much as possible, so we had several Zoom meet-ups with family and friends and everyone got dressed up. My wedding dress is also in lockdown in a shop, but I wore a white one that I bought for my hen party and I broke out my proper wedding shoes to walk down the ‘aisle’ in our flat.

“Instead of our vows, we read poems that we had written for each other and we now love them so much that we are going to include them when we legally tie the knot on May 8 next year.”

Claire and Roger Irwin on their wedding day in March with Claire's grandparents, journalist Gail Bell's mum and dad, who celebrated their 85th and 87th birthdays last month

A fun quiz, testing how well guests knew the happy couple was also part of the Zoom celebration, along with Champagne and a recreated wedding feast prepared by the bride’s Glasgow-based sister and dropped off at her front door.

“We had asked all our guests in advance to make a little video and send it to us, so during what would have been the speeches part of the day, we watched them, all sent from friends and family from around the world which was amazing,” enthuses Gráinne, a teacher at St Francis Primary School in Falkirk.

“I wouldn’t say I was disappointed by the day at all, although it was undoubtedly tinged with sadness because we’re not yet legally married, but they were happy tears. I think it was a good run-through for next year and now I feel we’re halfway there.”

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