A giddy epithalamium
Love and honour on the banks of Lough Swilly
ON the day that England beat Pakistan by 330 runs in the second Test, we celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary. During the lunch break at Old Trafford, we wandered over to the 400year-old barn that now houses our vineyard restaurant. Neither of us remembered to book a table, so we celebrated over lunch in the ‘first-come, first-served’ cafe.
While we waited for our fishcakes, I told my husband about an early poem by Seamus Heaney called Scaffolding. The poet persuades his wife that their marriage is good and strong by describing how masons begin a job by testing the scaffolding. They make sure the planks won’t slip, the ladders are secure, the bolts are tight. Marital reassurance comes at the poem’s end, when the scaffolding comes down: ‘We may let the scaffolds fall/confident we have built our wall.’
Even as I spoke, I could see a distant look in his eyes. Metaphors are to him what cricket scores are to me: infinitely mystifying. But if romantic complicity on this significant day was lacking, I reckon there were three reasons. The wall we’ve built is still standing (a miracle I take not for granted), the Test match was compelling (to one of us) and, two days later, we were off to Donegal for the wedding of our only son.
To my ears, few words are more magical than ‘Irish wedding’. Add ‘Donegal’, ‘Fort Stewart’ and a rambling Georgian house ‘overlooking Lough Swilly’, and you have the makings of epithalamia, a vowel-rich word that simply means a poem for a bride or bridegroom, from the Greek thalmos or wedding chamber.
I first came across the word through the Scottish poet Roddy Lumsden’s poem On a Promise (An Epithalamium), whose wedding is ‘A giddy ship/of fools and family, rocking loose’. We were indeed a giddy ship of family and friends converging on Donegal from a quartet of continents, rocking loose with happiness.
Sam and Georgia met their first week at Edinburgh. What began in friendship turned into romance when she went off to Madrid for her Erasmus year. At least, that’s what we thought. Sam made a lot of trips to Spain that year. He did not learn Spanish.
Meanwhile, we practised the discreet charm of parents who long to know everything, but don’t dare ask. After graduation, Sam grew his own business in London while Georgia went back home to Angus, working long hours in a local nursing home plus tackling science A levels and applying to medical school. Her twin sister was already a doctor, but Georgia decided on medicine late. We admired her dedication and sheer grit. When she was offered a place at St Barts, we wept with relief—and tried not to think about the long years of medical training that lay ahead.
Then, a year and a half ago, Sam shyly inquired if I could face parting with my engagement ring, a sapphire heirloom that has graced the left hands of three Carlisle brides. Dizzy with happiness at the thought that Georgia would be the fourth bride, I eagerly slid the ring from my finger—and then heard nothing for months.
Who does not tremble at the words ‘Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this congregation, to join together this Man and this Woman in holy Matrimony’? Who does not shed a tear when listening to vows ‘to love and to honour’? And when those brave vows are the prelude to the drama of the joined lives of an only son and a young woman with two sisters, a brother and 22 first cousins, it truly feels like Eureka.
The bride entered on the arm of her father to the same cello music by Nigel Hess that I walked down the aisle to with my father 30 years earlier. The homily was by the couple’s close friend Tim, now studying for the priesthood. It was his first wedding. The Celebrant was the same Irish priest who married Simon and Katy, parents of the bride, in 1985. Back then, it was Father Carney’s first wedding service. At the signing of the register, Lucinda May, wife of Tim, sang Down to the River to Pray, probably a first in St Mary’s Church in Ramelton. When we signed our register, three decades earlier, Jill Gomez sang Steal Away and Deep River, a first for the crypt chapel in the Palace of Westminster. A marriage tapestry; something old, something new.
Husband and wife left the church on the back of a tractor, symbolic transport for a country wedding. The reception was at the
‘We were a giddy ship of family and friends in Donegal, rocking loose with happiness’ ‘Husband and wife left the church on a tractor, symbolic transport for a country wedding
family home, which really does overlook Lough Swilly. The Dessain family and extended cousinage spent the weeks before painting the barn, creating the swags that hung from the high windows and making sure everything worked. The bride’s mother grew all the flowers and made the wedding cake. The bridegroom shot the pesky Wyken muntjac and made the carpacchio of venison. We drank Wyken Moonshine, the sparkling wine from our vineyard.
The speeches were gentle and profound, loving and fun. The bride’s sisters sang, Euan performed his wedding song on the bagpipes, whippets Hester and Luna were elegant and photogenic, and velvety young bullocks, posing on the shore like well-fed extras in a romantic film, now feature on iphones around the world. Fortified by draught Guinness, we danced until dawn.
Of course, everyone said that the greatest good luck was the weather: the sun shone all day, shafts of light landing on emerald-green fields like a sudden grace. Which brings me to the last lines of my favourite epithalamium, Alice Oswald’s poem Wedding: ‘and when the luck begins, it’s like a wedding,/which is like love, which is like everything.’