A giddy ep­i­tha­la­mium

Love and hon­our on the banks of Lough Swilly

Country Life Every Week - - Another Country -

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.’

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