A wedding

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Siege of Ennis

Photo by Tim Vetter

Everyone danced at my sister’s wedding.

The wedding singer was once the black-haired lead in our school plays, three years ahead of me. By now he had dropped the Sixth-Year poses and his hair was grey, but all the years of leppin’ to Chuck Berry and Van Morrison and Neil Diamond had kept him free of the usual Irish gut. Business was good—he and the band had worked every night for the past five months—and he seemed to enjoy the liturgy of other people’s songs. With his black shirt and pants, he had the hands-off charisma of a good-looking curate.

His heart sank when he saw us come in, he said. Sixty five people in a ballroom that would hold more than two hundred for a summer wedding—and on top of that, he recognized a good number of them as his teachers from twenty years ago. The rest were our neighbours, who had known my sister since she was born, and our aunts and uncles, who were in for the day from their farms in Roscommon and Tipperary. How was he to warm up a crowd like that?

And then the long-stemmed bride and her new husband finished their first dance, and the band launched a waltz, and all the friends and neighbours and aunts and uncles filed out to the dance floor and paired up. Here were Siobhán and Pat, Dónal and Mary, Nora and Denis—the naming order for each couple as established and natural as their moves. The Roscommon uncle I hadn’t seen in 20 years danced with the aunt I remembered as a bride. My neighbour Pat refused to dance with anyone but his wife—but how well he danced with his wife! Esther and Martin, who had been there to greet me when I was born in Zambia 35 years ago, now waltzed for Claire’s wedding.

They all did. The graduates of the 1960s ballrooms swirled around the dance floor like cream in black coffee. The under-forties made circles, unskilled but enthusiastic. The toddler flower girl raised her skirts over her head and shrieked, while the older kids chased the white balloons they’d blown up the night before.

A few nights before the wedding, we girls had made our parents tell us again about the night they’d met, at that céilí dance in Cork in 1968. Their friends used to go out dancing all the time, Mum said; all night, all kinds of music. No drink or drugs to keep them going—it was just pure craic. She felt so sorry for the young ones now, trying to meet someone in the nightclub scene she’d witnessed on Claire’s hen night in Limerick the week before. Shouting drunks, thumping music, sloshing beer, married fellas on the pull, bottle fights in the Ladies. Those weren’t our only options, we told her, but I believed her when she said they’d had more fun.

After decades of Christmas drinks and summer barbecues and year-round bottomless cups of tea, I’d never seen our friends and family dance. They jitterbugged and foxtrotted. Dad danced with each daughter, and none of us could dance like Mum. Everyone gave it up for Tutti Frutti, and shook arms high for Brown-Eyed Girl. We made my sister’s boyfriend show us the moves for his oh-so-serious Dance-Offs with his rugby teammates, including the ultimate winner, Reversing Around the Dance Floor: one arm draped in mid-air, the other turning an imaginary steering wheel, while you glide backward and make beeping sounds.

When the band took a break, a musician friend set up her trad band to play The Siege of Ennis. It’s the easiest of the traditional Irish set dances, but many of us hadn’t done it since primary school, and others had never learned it at all. In vain our friend Seán tried to call the sets—“Slip sides, change back, swing to the right…”—as the Canadians and the under-forties flailed, and the older men swung the bridesmaids til the Guinness churned in our bellies. A flushed guest succumbed to a swing with extra elbow grease, and landed on the bride’s train. When it was over we called for more sets—Fallaí Luimní, The Walls of Limerick, or Ag Baint an Fhéir, The Haymaker’s Jig—but we didn’t deserve the efforts of such fine and serious musicians. I felt a little guilty when they packed up the bodhrán and the rosin and handed us back to the wedding singer.

For children, Irish weddings are still about fizzy orange and Coke and Taytos, and racing around a hotel unchecked, and getting twirled by the bridesmaids, and letting your mouth hang open while the younger men teach you The Robot. People you don’t know come up to you and give you money and tell you you’re a lovely girl or boy. It’s magic. I know—I was a child at the weddings of some of these dancers.

My uncle J.—another I hadn’t seen since I was a young teenager—shyly handed over a creased photograph he’d brought for me. In it, he had the dark looks of a young George Best, and I was sitting on his lap with my curly-headed cousin. Our full names were written on the back, though we were only babies. It was dated Dec 2 1973: the day before he married my aunt.

I rattled off life-bumps for him—London, New York, divorce, backpacking, San Francisco—and when I saw his stricken look it occurred to me that I was the only wedding guest who was divorced. It’s the kind of news that doesn’t filter out to the quieter men in a family, and he was shocked and grieved that I’d had to go through such a thing. For me, it was only a fact, not a feeling, and I had to cast back five years to reach the rawness that matched his.

Divorce wasn’t legalized in Ireland until after I left, in 1995. Most of these friends and relatives were still in their fractious forties then, and might have been tempted to split if separation had been sanctioned. It seemed archaic and cruel to confine people to bad marriages, and I’d still vote for legal divorce today. Yet the patina of a mellowed marriage is lovelier than the shine of fresh romance, and without a social structure that supported enduring love—in both senses—we would have lost many relationships that could have been restored. If, when you’re sixty years old, you can dance joyfully with the one that brung ya, then you’ve earned your great luck.

I thought about how we would have celebrated this day in the U.S. or Canada or England: the delicate seating plans to accommodate merged and cleaved families; the reception briefings on splits and re-marriages. Love is too tough to be left to couples alone, and that’s what the wedding singer acknowledged when he closed the night by sending our bride and her Canadian groom under the steepled arms of the people who love them, while he bawled “Everybahhdy…needs somebahhdy…”

Earlier, I’d given a speech about what it meant for emigrants like my sister and me to be part of a gathering like that. We aren’t rootless—that’s a different problem entirely. But we don’t have tap roots, burying deep in a single place for nourishment. Ours are runners: we grow by extending outwards to make new plants. We have have too many roots entirely—tendrils that pull us to Limerick and Dublin and Ottawa and New York and San Francisco, and more tendrils that tug us toward the others who have moved. We dream of the mythical party where all our beloveds will be under one roof, even as we know it won’t ever happen.

In a rushed world, where “I have to work” isn’t called out as the lie it usually is, we know how rare it is to be surrounded by decades-worth of friendships and memories. Between the Caher Road neighbours and the Crescent teachers and the old friends, there were about 2,000 years of affection and friendship gathered in that room to send Claire and Glen off into their married lives. I was proud of the dowry we raised.

Happy 37th anniversary, Mum and Dad.

Wedding party

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19 comments to “A wedding”

  1. Comment by India:

    What a lovely way to end the year.

    Best wishes for aught-eight, Dervala.

  2. Comment by Bernie Goldbach:

    Lovely story, Dervala! I can’t get over the number of Irish weddings I’ve enjoyed during the past four years with children of the couple bearing rings or working the altar. That’s probably as significant a change in Irish life as a young woman returning to church after her divorce.

  3. Comment by John Cowan:

    Yet another wonderful piece of Dervala. I read this one to my wife of 30 years, and she loved it as much as I do. How can I tell? Be together for 30 years and you can find out.

  4. Comment by Frank Paynter:

    Beth and I read this one together, Dervala and knowing me for a sentimental sap, she wasn’t surprised when I teared-up a little. What a wonderful event! Thank you for the story, and our best wishes to you for a Happy New Year, and fond regards to Tim.

  5. Comment by Leyla Farah:

    What a beautiful story about family and tradition and faith. I’ve missed reading the words that flow from you so delicately and so fiercely.

    May 08 be a beautiful year for you and yours.

  6. Comment by dervala:

    India, Bernie, John, Frank, and Leyla: I write for you. Thanks for reading. And have a wonderful year.

  7. Comment by Jack Dalton:

    I’ve typed and deleted three comments so far because none of them catch well enough what I’d like to say about your writing; this could go on all night!
    So, maybe I’ll just go: magic as ever, really great to see you writing so well, and hope the island treated you tip-top on your visit.
    :-)
    Hope you have a great and a bright year…

  8. Comment by Bindu:

    What a beautiful wedding, and family. I don’t even know you all, and am a confirmed wedding avoider, and would still love to go to a party like that. The perfect way to begin a life together.

  9. Comment by Julie Felner:

    Here I am, with my back to your back, tearing up reading this beautiful story. Thank you!

  10. Comment by genevieve:

    The last line says it all for me – ‘the dowry we raised’. And I do wish the under-forties could dance (and some of the over-forties here, too) – like cream in coffee, how lovely.
    Beautiful piece, Dervala, you have done the wedding proud. Have a great New Year.

  11. Comment by sam tripodi:

    Thank you for writing such a stunningly beautiful story. Dervala, I’m in awe of your genius.

  12. Comment by dervala:

    I’m delighted you like this story—and especially glad to see my San Francisco friends, colleagues, and neighbors show up here. I’m sending you all a hug. By the way, Tim claims these nice comments are all a ploy to train me to stop writing about the goddamn chickens. Too bad.

  13. Comment by India:

    Hey, I’m not picky. You can write about what ever you want, as long as you post it where I can read it. Bring on the birds!

  14. Comment by John Mc:

    Great sceal D. I was at my cousins wedding back in County Limerick, last year, and just change the names you’d have an identical story. I had a ball, I chatted with cousins who were still in nappies when I left, had Uncles embarrass me with my baby stories. Maya got twirled by every bridesmaid and cousin over the night. She still talks about the lovely dresses!

    Tim is right by the way. Enough with the feckin’ chickens! ;)

    Pint ?

  15. Comment by Claire:

    BTW, there was one other divorced person at the wedding…the groom!

  16. Comment by dervala:

    I was very careful to say “the only guest” not “the only person.” Didn’t want to bring Disgrace on the Family.

  17. Comment by Claire:

    Oops, sorry about that whole Disgrace on the Family thing!

  18. Comment by DennisDeery.com:

    [...] A wedding Simple but beautiful words about an Irish wedding. (tags: writing) [...]

  19. Comment by zambiaraftingguru:

    Love the blog! some great information, Zambia does have a few problems but doesn’t every country?I’ve bookmarked your blog so will be back. Thanks