When most people hear the words “destination wedding,” they think about warm weather, blue skies, and a sandy beach in the Caribbean – not rolling hills, historic castles, dramatic cliff-sides and an ever-present chance of rain.
Nevertheless, Ireland is an increasingly popular wedding destination, not just for people who are from or have family on the Emerald Isle, but also for couples who have never set foot in Ireland before.
“Ireland is such a romantic place – the writers, musicians, poets – and we have such a rich history. I think it’s just a really unique, special island; like nowhere else,” said Michelle Johnstone Clark, a wedding planner who specializes in organizing nuptials in Ireland for clients living elsewhere. “When you see the rolling hills or the seaside, people are just drawn. And then you have the ancestral connections, and the famous attractions – Dublin, Guinness, Trinity. It’s a no-brainer.”
Her company, Waterlily Weddings, launched 10 years ago in April. Prior to this, Michelle had worked at a marketing agency in Dublin, where she gained expertise in planning corporate events at a range of venues across Ireland. She had recently planned her own wedding, in Dublin, and got an intimate look at the logistics of making a destination wedding in Ireland work.
“After, my friends said why don’t you become a wedding planner?’ she recalls. “At the time it was a very American concept; Irish people don’t really use wedding planners a lot. I spent a year researching the market just to see if there was a business in it, and I saw that there was. A lot of Americans go to Ireland to get married.”
Initially, Michelle planned about four weddings in Ireland each year, but the business has since grown exponentially and Waterlily now handles 40 – 45 weddings a year, she said. When it became clear that the business was going to keep expanding, Michelle convinced her friend Sile, whom she met in a college marketing course, to be the company’s full-time feet on the ground in Dublin. The company also now has a representative in the southwest of Ireland and a US-based blogger in Seattle. Michelle and her husband split their time between Baltimore, Maryland in the US and a house in Ireland, in her native county of Wicklow.
Michelle spoke with IrishCentral earlier this week and shared her top tips for planning a wedding in Ireland – whether you’re planning a wedding on the Cliffs of Moher or eloping to a quaint thatched cottage.
Who are your clients?
They’re very diverse in that we do everything from elopements to wedding vow renewals. Our core market is 28– 35-year-olds, often second to third generation Irish, the majority of whom have never been to Ireland before.
They just say that they have always had this yearning to go and that this is the perfect reason to finally do it. They’ve seen images and movies over the years that have let them see Ireland as this beautiful mythological place. Some do a lot of ancestry research and use that as the inspiration – particularly when it comes to the county where they want to get married.
80% of our business is Americans, and then we get a lot of inquiries who are first gen Irish but have emigrated to Australia, Hong King, Dubai, France, Russia, who want to come home to get married but don’t want to put the burden on their family.
Budgets range from $5,000 to about $70,000. We can plan a nice elopement for about $5,000, but then if it’s a castle being rented exclusively for 24 hours it’s more like $70,000. The biggest wedding we’ve ever coordinated was for 170 people, but we have one next year for 200 – a couple in the US, one person is from Ireland.
What are some of the top Irish wedding locations?
It really depends on what you’re looking for. The west of Ireland is where Americans traditionally think of when they think of Ireland – the old castles and abbey ruins. Clare, Kerry, Cork, etc. Sometimes when we talk it shifts, especially if a certain county is meaningful to them. Then we have people who want to have their wedding really close to Dublin, so the next most popular area would be within an hour and a half of Dublin City center.
Castles are requested a lot. We have everything from 5 star Ashford Castle wedding in Co. Mayo to the smaller Ballybur Castle, in Kilkenny, which houses 12 people. Another popular option is the country houses, many left over from time of British reign in Ireland – period buildings with tons of history but maybe less formal. And of course there are those who just want to elope and exchange vows in a beautiful setting – on the Cliffs of Moher in Co. Clare or by the seaside in Kinsale, Co. Cork.
People plan elopements?
They do! We get a lot people who start down the road of planning a traditional wedding at home and all of a sudden the day becomes something they never imagined – they wanted 40 people but then with relatives it’s 150 and it starts snowballing too something they didn’t foresee themselves going, So then they call me and say we’re going to elope. It’s just the two of them or maybe 10 close friends and immediate family. They really have the same criteria as the people who are bringing 100 people: somewhere naturally beautiful, somewhere Irish, and more rural Ireland than the city experience. We don't get many elopements for the city – usually it’s a really simple outdoor ceremony and then dinner and a pub. They're actually really great because they (elopements) focus on the couple and the commitment they’re making to each other. It’s lovely to have a big wedding where you bring a stylist and the wow factor, but then in contrast, to have a small ceremony – they’re the tearjerkers. Sile and I usually wind up crying.
What are the biggest challenges about planning a wedding in Ireland from abroad?
For Americans one of the hardest things to get used to is the ‘Ah, sure it’s grand” attitude, that laid back ‘we’ll get to it when we get to it’ mentality, which when you’re planning a wedding that can be frustrating. In America you’d expect to get a reply from a florist or a photographer the next day, but in Ireland it might be two or three days. People aren't tied to their phones the way they are in the US. So I tell people it might be frustrating, but when you get to Ireland it will be worth it when you get there.
Also, be realistic about the Irish weather. It does rain a little bit every day. In the US you usually have some advance warning of when it’s going to rain, whereas here the typical forecast is “sunny spells and scattered showers.” Initially people don’t want a plan B so we have to try to coax them. We don’t plan an outdoor ceremony without a plan B. Some people say no we don’t mind a bit of drizzle, and sometimes the rain can make the photos absolutely beautiful, but it’s important to be prepared.
That being said, we’ve only ever had to use a plan B twice in 10 years. Usually it works to just push things back half an hour, etc. We’re happy to do whatever people want.
What advice do you have for people looking to plan a wedding in Ireland?
People feel daunted by the prospect – it’s not like a Caribbean destination wedding where there’s a package that comes complete with a photographer, florist and cake. It’s like planning a traditional wedding, but in Ireland – everything is independent. We give people ideas, but it’s not a package. I always say to a couple the very first thing to do is to write down their top five must-haves, the things that are really important for them to have as a couple and to refer back to that throughout the planning process. People mean well with advice but sometimes it can get overwhelming, so having the list is helpful. But then compromise on the things that are not so important.
Having a wedding website also makes a huge difference for a destination wedding. Your guests are going to have a lot of questions – can I rent a car, which side of the road to they drive on? Where can I stay? So having a personalized website removes a lot of that stress.
Are you getting more interest from LGBT couples now that the Marriage Bill has passed?
Yes, we are definitely seeing the inquiries from same sex couples increase. We even helped one couple who planned their wedding in Dublin before the law actually came into effect, with their fingers crossed it would pass in time! Of course it did, and it is going to be a beautiful December wedding!
Why do you think so many people choose Ireland for their weddings?
It’s a completely unique place to get married. You rent your castle or country manor and you have this experience that you just can’t have in America. It’s a mixture of everything – the history, the stunning countryside, the venue options, the deep connection some people feel, and of course the hospitality.
In Ireland we do hospitality very well. I’ve been doing this for almost 10 years now and I’m still always amazed at the friendliness and passion of the vendors we work with. The pub culture is also a huge draw – down to the hospitality again.
I was just talking to someone yesterday about how it doesn’t matter if it’s your first time or 10th time in Ireland, you just feel at home. You can’t make that up; you can’t buy it or force it. And when you see how happy people are with their wedding experience – it makes you proud to be Irish.
For more information, visit the website for Waterlily Weddings.