The wedding of film star Pierce Brosnan and his bride Keely Shaye Smith was lavishly featured last week in Hello! magazine, and I find it difficult to decide whether the occasion was a remarkable tribute to the institution of marriage or a caricature of what the ceremony once symbolised.
The wedding took place at Ballintubber Abbey "a 13th century Catholic church" in Co Mayo: many of the guests stayed at the splendid Ashford Castle hotel nearby. There were "120 close friends" in attendance. The Abbey is said to be the location where St Patrick conducted baptisms around 441 AD.
The bride looked radiant in white lace, and the groom looked remarkably handsome in black tails with a white waistcoat, silver necktie and lily of the valley buttonhole. The Abbey was awash with pastel roses and blue delphiniums: also gardenia garlands, lavender, stock and orange blossoms.
The bridesmaids — one was the bride's sister — were delightful, as were the child attendants, and Rod Steiger read from The First Letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians: "Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful...." Monsignor John Fleming, a family friend at the Irish College at the Vatican, flew in specially to conduct the wedding ceremony. He said to the congregation: "Pierce and Keely have come before God, and before you, to declare their love."
Was not all this very wonderful? To be sure. And an excellent example to young people, too, showing that getting married matters. It isn't just "a piece of paper". It is a deeply significant ritual with a spiritual avowal and a social dimension.
On the other hand, our mothers and grandmothers would have been astonished, could they have seen into the future, to note that Keely and Pierce, the happy bride and bridegroom, have been together for some years, in what was previously known as "living in sin". They have two children together, both of whom were proudly present at the wedding (as well as Pierce's children and stepchildren from his first marriage, his first wife having sadly died). And that was all utterly open and accepted and normal. Nobody thought anything of it: it is quite normal, now, to have children out of wedlock, and then to seal the union with a huge big white wedding.
I do not disparage this, and indeed, I think it far better to have a proper wedding ceremony than merely to continue to cohabit. It was interesting, too, how strongly God featured. But it does strike me, all the same, as a little incongruous to conduct a ceremony in which so many symbols of virginity and surprise are invoked — the orange blossom, the lifting of the bride's veil being a metaphor of a woman's deflowering — the white lace and white tulle and white train of an innocent maiden — for a couple who must bewell into the groove of domestic routine together. The drama of the wedding night — once regarded as an extraordinary physical surprise, which the spouses had so yearningly imagined — is now no drama, no surprise at all. It is simply a continuity of everyday conjugal life, already familiar and familial.
Some commentators believe that we are returning to practices which were once widespread among European peasants — whereby the wedding is the endorsement of a conjugal union already undertaken, and of fertility already proved.
The wedding will henceforth come after the children, if it should come at all. Many legislatures are now busily arranging matters financially and otherwise so that it makes no odds whether a couple is married or cohabiting. The recent example of Anna Homsi, the partner of an SAS trooper who lost his life in Sierra Leone, who is sueing for a widow's pension, is a deliberate test-case to establish that marriage is unnecessary for commitment.
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At one level, the Brosnan wedding is indeed a display of family values: all the family, in the most inclusive way possible, is gathered together for the happy day, which is blessed by church and state. The young folks who read the magazine will want weddings just like this one. But for all the outward symbols, it is a very different type of wedding that was once marked by orange blossom, and white lace.
pregnancy All surrogate stories are ghastly, but surely most horrendous is that of Helen Beasley's twins. Miss Beasley, a British girl, agreed to carry a pregnancy commissioned by a Californian couple, the Wheelers (his sperm, a donor's egg). Helen conceived twins. and the "commissioning couple" demanded she abort (or "reduce") one of the babies. She refused, on grounds of health. Nobody mentioned the children, deliberately created, and then intended for deliberate "reduction", or that one twin might miss another in later life. It is a case of which Dr Mengele, the Nazi scientist, would have been justly proud.