It’s like a wedding during the war’: A day in the life of a registry office

It’s like a wedding during the war’: A day in the life of a registry office

Before lunch in late February, at the height of a Level 5 lockdown, four couples are getting married at the registry office on Grand Canal Street Lower in Dublin. The officiant is Louise Dodrill, executive registrar and marriages manager at the Dublin Registry Office. An employee of the Health Service Executive, she has worked here almost nine years, ever since her sister sent her the job description and the words, “This is you all over.”

Why was it “you all over”? She laughs. “Because I love ‘love’. It’s so cheesy but I love it. I love romance. I love finding out how [the couple] met and when they incorporate stuff like that [into the ceremony]. I love all that.”

There’s a glass Covid partition at the desk from which she officiates. “The bubble of love,” she calls it. Behind her on the wall is a framed copy of Frederic William Burton’s Meeting on The Turret Stairs. Most of the blue seats in the room have yellow “do not use this seat” signs placed on them.

Some people don’t want the fuss and always wanted the four-people wedding and didn’t want the stress of inviting family

In 2020, 1,793 couples were married in registry offices by the Civil Registration Office that covers Dublin, Kildare and Wicklow. This is fewer than the 2,447 married the year before but this is likely due to the fact they were shut for 10 weeks at the outset of the pandemic. Thus far in 2021 there seems to be an increase in demand. They’re booked up until September.

In Level 5, wedding parties can have just six guests. The room here can usually cater for 60. Smaller weddings, she says, suit some people. “Some people don’t want the fuss and always wanted the four-people wedding and didn’t want the stress of inviting family. For others it’s like, ‘Let’s do the legal bit and let’s have a party next year.’”

Prospective newly-weds must give a minimum of three-months’ notice. Some time slots are harder to get than others such as on New Year’s Eve and during summer. “Sometimes we get calls saying, ‘We’re getting married in exactly three-months’ time.’ You would see a lot of people who get engaged at Christmas time. So January is all queries. And then you kind of hit Easter and then you’re into constant weddings.”

Tom, the security guard, Dodrill says, slags her about her first wedding because she was so nervous. Why was she nervous? “You want to make someone’s day special.”

Marriage Registrar Louise Dodrill

Tom has worked at this registry office since the first civil partnership in 2011. At the moment, part of his job involves giving people a Covid form to fill in and taking their temperature with a handheld thermometer.

“Oh, here’s a very happy bride,” says Dodrill. Out in the lobby, a bride and groom are waiting with their witnesses. They are laughing and relaxed.

“They’ve all been zapped,” says Tom, referring to the temperature test.

Jim and Sarah are in their mid-50s and beautifully dressed. Their 18-year-old son and Sarah’s sister have come as witnesses. “Jim” and “Sarah” aren’t their real names. The wider family don’t know about the wedding yet, so they’d prefer to be anonymous.

“We always said to family,” says Sarah, “that if we were going to do it, we’ll do it. . .”

“Incognito,” says Jim.

So this is a sort of elopement. Sarah has a face mask with “bride” printed on it and Jim has one with “groom”.

“That wasn’t my idea,” says Jim. “It came from that side of the family.”

How long have they been together?

 “Twenty five years!” says Sarah

We don’t want to rush into things,” quips Jim.

A little later he says, “The conversation came up one evening and we just said, ‘Sure we might as well do it.’”

That’s an unusual feeling. I’ve never worn jewellery in my life. I’m heavier on one side all of a sudden

“I think everything slowed down with Covid and you had more time to think,” says Sarah. “You’re with each other more often. You’re not out working so that you only meet passing each other in the hallways or just at dinner at night.”

How did they meet? “We met through my brother,” says Sarah. “And we met up in the . . . What was the name of it?”

“The Bleeding Horse,” says Jim. “It was my 28th birthday, I think. We’d gone up there [to the Dublin pub] and the two girls [Sarah and her sister] came in and history was made.”

Jim and his sister-in-law go into the main room and then Sarah is walked down the aisle by their son. She tentatively joins Jim in front of Dodrill’s desk. “Would you like to get a little closer?” says Dodrill. They get closer and everyone laughs.

The ceremony is simple, but the couple have the option of adding readings and vows. Sarah’s sister reads Pablo Neruda’s Love Sonnet 17 (online I find that this is recommended for “an elopement”) and later their son reads The Art of Marriage by Wilferd Arlan Peterson (It includes the line: “The little things are the big things.”).

Dodrill is a calming and cheerful presence. When Sarah becomes emotional reading her vows in a passage about how kind Jim is, Dodrill passes her a box of tissues. “That’s allowed,” she whispers.

I feel married. It feels right. It took a bit of time, but it feels right

When it comes time to place rings on fingers, Dodrill registers some momentary confusion and says to Jim, “The left one, yeah”, and everyone laughs.

The marriage licence is signed. Rings are exchanged. At the very end they kiss to the sound of the Pogues’ song, I Love You Till the End.

Afterwards they seem really happy. “That’s an unusual feeling,” says Jim, holding up his wedding finger. “I’ve never worn jewellery in my life. I’m heavier on one side all of a sudden.”

Sarah laughs. “He was joking that you’ll need [to book] next Wednesday for the divorce.”

“It was nice to see them have a special day, they deserve it,” says their son.

After 25 years, do they feel different?

“Completely!” says Sarah and laughs. “Ah no, it’s lovely. I feel married. It feels right. It took a bit of time, but it feels right.”

 

The next couple, 40-somethings Neil Ferguson and Marie Ryan, are here with their four-year-old son, Jamie, Ryan’s parents, who have come up from Limerick, and Ferguson’s brother.

They’re not particularly nervous. “We’ve been together so long and we have this little guy,” says Ryan.

We got engaged last October but there were no jewellers open, so there were three jelly rings for today

They’re very relaxed. Her lovely dress even has pockets she can put her hands into. “You can’t go wrong with pockets,” she says.

Ryan works in aviation. Ferguson is a teacher and this is during the midterm break. Teachers often get married during the midterm, Dodrill tells me. She can often guess someone’s profession purely from the timing of the wedding. People who work in hospitality, she says, usually get married on a Monday.

Did Covid affect their plans? Ferguson thinks they’d probably have done something like this anyway. “This number of six [people] altogether is even better in one regard because it’s less organisation and more concentration on ourselves and him [Jamie].”

 

The pandemic has affected things in some ways though. Ferguson opens a ring box to show three jelly rings. “We got engaged last October but there were no jewellers open, so there were three jelly rings for today. Obviously, we’re getting married but Jamie would be upset if he wasn’t getting a jelly ring as well. But when the jewellers is back open again, we’ll get a nice ring as well.”

They could get these ones preserved, I suggest. They laugh. “We’ll frame them,” says Ferguson.

“I don’t think they’ll last that long,” says Ryan, pointing at Jamie. “We have a jelly fan.”

What are their plans for afterwards? “Just go back [home] with the three of us and Marie’s parents and my brother and have something very simple. And tonight me and Marie are going to stay in the Shelbourne for the night.”

In the context of lockdown, he says, it’s lovely to have something to celebrate. “Keep it nice and simple. Just turn up, be with those we love. And then fingers crossed Marie will say ‘yes’, I’ll say ‘yes’ and then we’ll take it from there. It’s a lovely distraction.”

Moments later the three of them are walking down the aisle together to George Ezra’s Shotgun.

“Lovely, Jamie!” says the boy’s granny, encouraging.

“Do you want your own chair or do you want to sit on Daddy’s knee?” asks Ryan when they reach Dodrill’s “bubble of love”.

My own chair,” says Jamie and a third chair is pulled up between them.

He is very involved, as he should be. When it comes time to exchange rings, Jamie, the ring bearer, opens the box, hands one jelly ring to his mam and one to his dad.

 

“Great job, Jamie,” says his mother.

Then Jamie pops the third jelly ring straight into his mouth.

“Straight in,” she says and everyone laughs.

Seamus Heaney said, ‘If you can winter through this you can summer through anything’ and I was thinking last night that this was our day of summer

In this context, the words “I give you this ring as a token of my love, a symbol of all that we promised and all that we now share” raise another laugh.

When it comes time to sign the marriage licence, his mother suggests that Jamie can add an “X” to his parents’ names if he would like. He doesn’t want to. “Don’t sign anything you don’t understand,” says his father approvingly.

After they are pronounced married, they kiss, and Ferguson’s brother says: “You’ll have to do it again, I didn’t get the photograph.”

How do they feel? “Lighter,” he says. “Seamus Heaney said, ‘If you can winter through this you can summer through anything’ and I was thinking last night that this was our day of summer. Despite all the sad things going on and everyone just trying to get through it, everything is going to be all right.”

Melanie Reis and Patrick Holohan on their wedding day at the Dublin Registry Office. Photograh: Enda O’Dowd
MELANIE REIS AND PATRICK HOLOHAN AT THE DUBLIN REGISTRY OFFICE. PHOTOGRAPH: ENDA O’DOWD

Melanie Reis and Patrick Holohan have been engaged since Valentine’s Day 2019. They’ve been together since they met studying physiotherapy in Edinburgh in 2012. They were meant to get married in June 2020 in Niagara in Canada, where Reis is from, but they postponed it until June 2021 and then even that started to look optimistic. “In Septemberish we started looking into having a civil ceremony here,” she says.

Occasionally, as we talk, Reis turns to wave to a phone being held by Holohan’s sister, Kate. Reis’s family are watching on Zoom from Canada. She introduces them to me and The Irish Times photographer. “This is my family.”

“Hi Canada!” says everyone.

Reis is slightly nervous that 70 per cent battery won’t see her through the ceremony. Holohan’s other sister, Jane, is also videoing the event so they have a backup. Their parents, Hugh and Marie, are here too, up from Tipperary. “We were very excited just leaving the county,” says Marie.

I still have a wedding dress I want to wear. I still have to alter [it] and everything. I was hoping to have it in June, but we’ll see

The happy couple walk down the aisle to Ellie Goulding’s How Long Will I Love You? They do so quite quickly.

“You ran down that,” says Dodrill.

“It’s a slope,” says Holohan.

“It’s a slope, yeah,” laughs Reis.

Throughout the ceremony, Jane and Kate hold up their phones, for fear of Reis’s family missing anything, until Dodrill says, “I now pronounce you husband and wife. Kiss your bride.”

There’s a round of applause.

“That was lovely,” says the groom’s mother, Marie.

“It was,” says his father. He adds, with a wink, “The seats are much more comfortable than church seats.”

Outside, two friends of Marie’s who live nearby come to the gate with a dog to wave hello. Marie is a nurse and one of her friends works in intensive care and the other is involved in the vaccination programme. “It’s like a wedding during the war,” says one of them.

The couple hope to be able to have another celebration with the bride’s family later in the year. The beautiful outfit she’s wearing now, she explains, is just her outfit for today. “I still have a wedding dress I want to wear. I still have to alter [it] and everything. I was hoping to have it in June, but we’ll see.”

It was so hard to get clothes. We ordered online. My dress looked like a sack so I had to find something else at the last minute. He wasn’t supposed to wear jeans today

The 12.30pm wedding has been cancelled. One of the couple was diagnosed with Covid. This happens every now and again. “It’s always last minute when you find out so you can’t actually facilitate somebody else into that slot,” says Dodrill.

This morning’s final couple, Seamus and Elizabeth (not their real names), are in their early 20s. They are relatively casually dressed, though when they come in Elizabeth changes out of her runners and into some fancier shoes. “It’s been a crazy experience,” she says. “It was so hard to get clothes. We ordered online. My dress looked like a sack so I had to find something else at the last minute. He wasn’t supposed to wear jeans today.”

“My slacks ended up being a bit too big,” he says. “That’s the problem with ordering online unfortunately. And of course, trying to get a haircut with the restrictions. . . I tried styling it but the wind caught it and it undid all my work.”

“And I trimmed his beard,” says Elizabeth.

They’ve been engaged since summer 2019 and this isn’t quite how they saw their wedding. Elizabeth is Mexican and they had hoped her parents could be here. Many of Seamus’s family are older so they’re joined today by two friends. “I wanted to keep it nice and safe,” says Seamus. “I’m a stickler for the guidelines. We can always have our own ceremony after. We don’t mind on paper being husband and wife, but I feel with our family there it will feel much more gratifying.”

How did they meet? “We actually met online and got chatting. . . and I ended up going to Mexico. ”

“It was so crazy,” says Elizabeth. “I think we hit it off from the very first moment.”

Elizabeth moved to Ireland two years ago and they moved in together at the start of the pandemic. “I think the lockdown allowed us to accelerate a few plans,” says Seamus.

Love is everywhere. Even in a time of pandemic, love wins. People are still able to get married, pandemic or no pandemic

It is the final wedding of the day and Dodrill gives it everything. I think she always gives everything. Seamus and Elizabeth are shyer than everyone else today but when Dodrill asks Seamus, “Do you understand the declarations you have made? Do you make them of your own free will and without duress?”, he responds with an emphatic: “Definitely.”

They seem endearingly surprised when she eventually says, “Congratulations guys. You’re married!”

Their Hungarian carpenter friend, here to witness the ceremony, looks moved as he watches them get a photo taken. “I’m so proud of them,” he says.

“I still can’t believe it,” says Elizabeth.

Dodrill has married all types of people, about 5,000 couples, and she enjoys each one. “I’ve had couples who bring their dogs as ring bearers,” she says. “I’ve jumped over a broom, that’s a pagan ritual. There are some really lovely things. You can’t do it during Covid, but there’s a ring warming ceremony where the ring gets passed through the best man’s hands through all the guests. I love handfasting, literally tying the knot.”

She usually leaves the registry office on a high, she says. Has she learned much about love from working here? “Oh God. That’s a really good question. Love is everywhere. Even in a time of pandemic, love wins. People are still able to get married. People are still able to make that commitment to each other, pandemic or no pandemic. At the end of the day the most important people are the couple and that’s really all you need, the couple and the witnesses.

This article was edited on March 22nd, 2021.

 
 

 

← Back to Listing