Until the 1800s, the only place you could get married was in the church, but in 1836, the law opened up to allow you have a civil wedding ceremony in a registry office. In more recent years, a longer list of civil wedding ceremony locations has been approved, allowing couples to marry in a whole host of locations. While we welcome many and varied ceremony locations to suit every couple, this does add some variables and complications into planning your 'I dos'.
We thought we'd simplify the process and bring you our ultimate guide to everything you need to know about planning a civil wedding ceremony.
How do we start planning our civil wedding ceremony?
First things first, having a civil wedding ceremony doesn't preclude you from fulfilling the legal requirements to get married, so you'll still need to give the Civil Registrar's Office three month's notice of your intention to marry, no matter where you plan to do it. We have a full guide to the legal marriage requirements here, so make sure you get those boxes ticked good and early!
Next, you need to decide where you want to hold your ceremony, whether at your reception venue, in a Registry Office, or elsewhere entirely. We'll go through the specific requirements of each of these in more detail below.
Only registrars can legally marry people at non-religious ceremonies in Ireland, though as of 2013, you can also have a secular ceremony organised by a humanist solemniser from this full and current list of legal solemnisers. Civil ceremonies solemnised by registrars can only take place from Monday to Friday in Ireland, which means no weekend or bank holiday ceremonies, unfortunately. If you want to get married outside a Registry Office, only particular days and times will be available, and these are set by the local registry office, and so vary from county to county. It may also come at an extra cost, but you'll have to enquire about it with your local Registrar.
Be aware that the civil registry offices book up fast, and though a minimum of three months notice is required, there is usually length queues, especially in Dublin where registrars can be booked up more than seven months in advance. If you don't want to get married on Monday at 9am, give yourself plenty of time. Fridays, unsurprisingly, book up first so definitely put this to the top of your planning list if a Friday wedding is a priority for you. At your first meeting with your registrar is when you can also provide your legal notice of intention to marry, for which you need to bring along various documents. You can find a list of Registrar Offices here and can book an appointment at http://www.crsappointments.ie/.
Where can we hold our civil wedding ceremony?
Registry Office wedding ceremony
A Registry Office is the most straightforward option when it comes to a venue, as there are various limitations on other venues. To book a Registry Office, first you must register with the registrar of the county in which you intend to get married, and as mentioned above, book your civil ceremony date and time. Each registry office will have different opening hours so check what hours the one you want to marry in operates. They schedule weddings for 30-45 minute increments and many offices take a lunch break from 12.30-2.15pm, or some offices only do ceremonies at 12pm, so you'll have to check with your individual office. In terms of decor, most registry offices will have some flowers in the room (though double check this if it's important to you) and you can bring in other decor, but it's recommended not to bring along anything too big or difficult to assemble due to the time constraints - as the ceremonies are scheduled in time slots, you'll have to be set up and have everything back down again within the timeframe, including holding your ceremony itself. No confetti is allowed inside or outside the registry offices and you can't bring in candles either.
On the day, one of you will have to be there 15 minutes before the wedding, while the other can follow up to five minutes before the ceremony is due to start, and neither of you need bring any documentation. You'll inform the registrar on the day itself if you're having readings and music (though some offices will ask you to confirm this a month before), and if so who is doing them, and if you're having personal vows. No religious content is permitted in the music or readings. You must have a witness each on the day minimum, but there is room for some guests to attend in the room - many offices cater for 60-70 guests but check with your specific office to be sure. As with any other ceremony, one of you can be given away, you can walk up the aisle alone, or you can walk up together - it's up to you! The ceremony opens with music (if you choose), and a greeting, and then follows with a reading (again if you choose), a verbal declaration there's no impediment to your marriage, and your vows, before the (again, optional) exchange of rings. You'll sign the register to finish the ceremony, and then you have the opportunity again to have a reading and or music. Typically the vows take around 10 minutes and the signing takes another 10 minutes, so you have the remaining 15-25 minutes for ceremony extras, chatting with guests and taking photos.
Reception venue or other venue
If you'd prefer to host your civil ceremony at your reception venue or another location, there are some specifications you must meet, plus there is often an extra fee to have a registrar come to your chosen venue - this varies depending on the registrar and how far the venue is etc. Venues for civil ceremonies must be pre-approved and licensed, and must be fixed structures, so that rules out getting married in a marquee or on a beach, cliff or in the woods for the most part. You can get married outdoors where it's a courtyard, garden, yard, field or piece of ground that's open to the public and is near to and usually enjoyed with a building that's open to the public. Many established reception venues, including many of our recommended wedding venues, will already be approved for indoor and outdoor ceremonies, but if your venue is not, you'll need to give plenty of notice so that your ceremony location can be inspected and approved in time for the wedding. You may get sent a letter to give to your chosen venue to fill out in advance of meeting the registrar to prove they are an authorised wedding venue and have the required facilities - most venues are experienced in this paperwork and will do this on your behalf no problem.
These are the criteria a venue must meet to be deemed suitable on inspection: it must be 'seemly and dignified'; the ceremony room must have adequate capacity and be open to the public (with unrestricted access and no charge for entry); it must meet fire, health and safety requirements; it must have adequate public liability cover; it must be accessible to all including those with disabilities; it must be clearly identifiable by description and location; and it must not have any connection with any religion or religious practice. As your family home is a private dwelling, it unfortunately can never meet these requirements - if you want a backyard wedding, you'll have to have a registry office wedding before the big day and then you can have a blessing or your own ceremony at your home afterwards (This won't have any legal relevance as you'll already be legally married from the registry wedding, so you'll be completely unrestricted in what you do).
On the day, your civil wedding ceremony must be conducted by a Registrar (a civil servant). You can find a full and up-to-date list of all registered solemnisers here, and this includes civil registrars and humanist solemnisers (more on humanist ceremonies below). At your notice meeting with the Registrar three months out from the wedding, you'll come away with a green folder which contains your Marriage Registration Form, ie the document you need to sign on the day for your wedding to be legally certified - you don't need any other documentation on the day, but make absolutely sure you have this with you to sign in front of your solemniser on the day. You must have at least two witnesses, and much like a registry office ceremony, you'll be required to make declarations that there are no legal impediments to your marriage, and that you accept each other as husband(s) and/or wife (wives). Again, no religious content can feature as part of your civil wedding ceremony, but you can choose any other music and readings for your ceremony.
The time restrictions of the registry office don't apply, however your venue may have a schedule for the day. Many venues that include a ceremony and reception space are exclusive use venues so you will have more free run of the place, but as always, it's best to check with your individual venue what way they usually work. Same goes for things like decor, candles and confetti - your venue may allow you to go to town with all three if you like, but each venue will have their own approach, and these are questions you should be asking before you book, if certain decor items are a priority for your ceremony, for example. If you’re unsure about any part of the civil ceremony process, talk to your Registrar who will be able to help you with any queries.
How is a humanist wedding ceremony different to a civil wedding ceremony?
It's mostly a different approach to the content of the ceremony - humanists take a more personal approach to the content. A lot of the same steps above for planning a civil ceremony apply to planning a humanist wedding ceremony, but when it comes to choosing a solemniser, you'll look to humanism.ie to find a celebrant who can cater to a humanist ceremony, and you'll work with your celebrant to put together your ceremony.
One of the core principles of humanism is a tolerance for others who hold different belief systems, but they don't believe in god or the supernatural, instead relying on scientific evidence and human achievements. Like a standard civil ceremony, humanist ceremonies are secular, non-religious occasions that include no religious content. You don't need to be a member of a humanist association or even call yourself a humanist to have a humanist ceremony - you just need to share the same philosophies.
Humanist ceremonies can be legally binding, assuming you follow the above procedures for a civil ceremony, and providing you use the required wording for the legal bits, though you do have more opportunity to personalise the ceremony elsewhere. According to Humanism.ie, a humanist wedding ceremony is typically made up of "an introduction (traditional entrance if you wish), words on love and marriage, music, readings, a symbolic ritual or two, vows, marriage declaration, exchange of rings, signing of the register and closing words". Ceremonies will typically last about 25-35 minutes, though the more readings, music and other elements you include will obviously lengthen that timeframe. Celebrants will provide you templates you can alter to suit your vision for the day.
Humanists are big on adding meaningful elements to their ceremonies, which is often done through symbolic rituals. These can include a hand-fasting, candle lighting ritual, wedding ring warming, sand or salt rituals, jumping over a broom, a wine box ceremony, and a whole host of others you can discuss with your celebrant. These rituals typically have a theme of celebrating your love and unity. For a more detailed look at some of the most common humanist wedding rituals, check out our guide here.
In terms of logistics, Humanist ceremonies aren't restricted to being performed on weekdays, so if you're planning a weekend or bank holiday wedding, this may be a good option for you. You can choose a humanist celebrant based on where and when you're getting married, and you can expect they will charge a fee in the region of €450-500 for their services, though this may vary depending on whether travel and accommodation costs need to be accounted for, or if your celebrant is required to charge VAT. This is in addition to the €200 charge that goes to the State at your intention to marry meeting with the Registrar.
What if we want more freedom over our ceremony than a civil wedding ceremony allows?
Unfortunately, you have to meet the legal requirements in order to be officially married so there is only so much wiggle room. However, many couples go alternative routes, whether because the registry dates don't work for them, they want some religious content or they don't want to use the official wording as part of their vows, or a whole host of other things. In order to be officially married, you will still have to go through a civil ceremony in some form, however some couples treat this as a formality ceremony, and have a small Registry Office ceremony in the days and weeks leading up to their actual wedding day, and then an independent ceremony on their wedding day itself.
On your wedding day then, you have the freedom to design a completely personal ceremony that can include whatever content you want - ie if you wanted a ceremony that included some religious content, you can mix and match, or if you want a religious ceremony that has music your church wouldn't permit, you can fire away, etc. You will still need a celebrant, and this could be a be a humanist celebrant, a spiritual celebrant, an independent celebrant, or even just a family member or friend - you have full control over your ceremony in this instance so it's totally up to you, and it's just a matter of finding a celebrant that suits you as a couple.
The downside to this is that you are already technically legally married by the time your wedding day comes, and this would just be a ceremony for your family and friends, but if the meaning behind what you're doing is what counts for you, this may not be a disadvantage at all.
Checklist for a civil wedding ceremony
That was a lot of info, so let's break it down into a simple checklist of things you need to plan a civil wedding ceremony...
- Give three month's notification of your intention to marry with a Registrar (find a full list of Civil Wedding Registrars here, along with a list of the documents you need for your meeting)
- If you want a Registry Office wedding, book your date and time in as early as possible.
- If you want to have your ceremony at an alternative venue, make sure it's approved for legal ceremonies, and if it isn't, get it inspected if it suits the criteria. You'll also need to book in a registrar for your date and time, and additional fees may apply for travel to the venue.
- If you're planning to have a humanist ceremony, you'll need to separately go about booking a humanist celebrant.
- Design your ceremony! Since you're not limited to religious content as with a religious ceremony, the world is your oyster (so long as it's a non-religious oyster) when it comes to readings and music, so choose away.