Humanists in Ireland Can Say

A wedding can be one of the most important days of someone’s life – full of joy, excitement and even spectacle. But most people don’t imagine having to go through the event twice in one week.

In Ireland, a country known for its Catholic identity, couples seeking a nonreligious ceremony must do just that. First, they must have a civil ceremony at a Registry Office, which is only open Monday through Friday during regular office hours. Then, they’ll usually have a large wedding with their friends and family that weekend complete with cake, dancing and floral arrangements – the usual staples for celebrating such a significant occasion.

But that is about to change with a bill granting humanist weddings legal status, which was passed last December. Currently, the Humanist Association of Ireland (HAI) is in the process of adding their accredited celebrants to the General Register Office list of solemnizers.

At a time when Ireland’s beleaguered Catholic Church is losing adherents, the number of humanist wedding ceremonies conducted in 2012 increased by 30 percent from the year before. And this shift away from church-based ritualizing of life events includes not just weddings –humanist funerals and baby-namings have increased by even higher percentages.

Even with such evidence of the widespread desire for secular ceremonies, the campaign for the legal status of humanist weddings has taken a decade to reach its goal. Brian Whiteside, the Director of Ceremonies at the Humanist Association, has been at the forefront of the campaign. He says it took so long because in the past, Ireland’s conservative government had no political will to institute change.

“Basically, every time we asked, they said, ‘You have to say you’re a religion, but we’re not,” says Whiteside. “[The government] wanted to make us fit into this little box.”

Humanism is sometimes hard to define or to distinguish from atheism. According to Whiteside, an atheist is simply someone who doesn’t believe in God. He calls himself a humanist since he doesn’t want to describe himself in only negative terms, but rather in what he believes.

“As a humanist, I have an ethical stance that places human values at the center of my philosophy,” says Whiteside. “Atheism is very rational and scientific, but humanism blends that with compassion.”

While Humanism is unfamiliar territory for many Irish, Emma Sides was raised in a humanist household. Her mother was a celebrant, an officiant who conducts humanist weddings, and Sides has followed in her mother’s footsteps, becoming a celebrant herself.

“The best part is getting to peek into people’s lives and make their day,” Sides says.

As one of eleven celebrants in Ireland, Sides says she has noticed an “explosion” in inquiries since the bill granting legal status to Humanist weddings was passed. Most couples find her by word of mouth, and Whiteside says that HAI has no need for marketing.

The second-generation celebrant also sees a grander purpose behind humanist weddings.

“Ceremonies are the public face of the Humanist Association,” says Sides. “They bring more awareness to the fact that there are dignified alternatives for living and celebrating milestones in life.”

Tricia Tongco is a Dean’s Scholar and graduate student at the University of Southern California Annenberg School of Journalism. She has written articles on arts and culture, health and religion for KPCC, the Center for Health Reporting and GOOD.