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Getting handfasted in Ireland was never so – legal!

Four short months ago, Handfastings News and Views broke the news to our readers that Ireland had legalized Pagan handfastings.  It was our most-read newsletter to date!  Today we interview none other than Ray Sweeney, National Coordinator of the Pagan Federation of Ireland, who spearheaded the movement.

What is the Pagan Federation of Ireland?

The largest representative body for Pagans in Ireland.

Does PF Ireland have any statistics on the number of Pagans in Ireland?
Between 2,000 and 3,000 active Pagans.

How many officiants in Ireland (that you know of, anyway), perform the handfasting ceremony (either legal or not)?
Eight publicly available, twenty available through PF Ireland

Now that the ceremony is legal, do all people who want to perform a legal handfasting have to be registered with the Pagan Federation of Ireland?
At the moment, yes.

What is now the registration process for a Pagan High Priestess or High Priest to perform legal handfastings?
They can attempt to become personally registered, which is a nightmare, or they can apply to PF Ireland.

How did the handfasting ceremony come to be legal in Ireland?
I applied for it, and then fought for it with the tenacity of a cornered rat [smiles].

Wow, sounds like it took a lot of determination.  Are there parts of Ireland where performing a handfasting is still not counted as a legal marriage?
Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, does not yet recognise Handfasting as legal.

Were there petitions? Protests?
No petitions, but serious protests, ministerial appeals, equality tribunals,
the lot.

Who is behind the change of law (i.e., particular politicians, individual advocates, non-profit groups, covens, etc.)?
It was a governmental review of marriage legislation in general, which [PF Ireland] contributed to in the draft stages.

Did the initial governmental review of marriage legislation in general  include legalizing gay marriage as well?  What is the government’s view on that issue?

No, LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) couples were not included in the legislation.  In the uniquely Irish way of dealing with a controversial issue, a Civil Partnership law is currently being enacted, which will give LGBT couples a Civil Partnership entitlement, but not full civil marriage.

There is debate in the LGBT community as to the merits of the Civil Partnership law, with some seeing it as a welcome first step, and others seeing it as enshrining discrimination in law.

The government (at the moment) is a coalition, and includes the Green Party, who are publicly committed to full civil marriage for LGBT couples, so we are hopeful that the bill will pass, and further progress will be made on gay marriage.

How long has active advocacy been happening in order to change the law?
10 years or more – we jumped in 5 years ago.

Do you mean that in the years of advocacy before that, there was no one advocating for Pagan handfastings at all (only general  marriage reform advocacy), or that there was, but PF Ireland then included itself as an advocate among others for Pagan handfastings?
The government, through various statutory bodies, had been undertaking a review of marriage legislation since 2002, but only opened for public submissions years later. That was when we dived in, with a pre-legislative submission on marriage recognition for non-mainstream religious couples.

Our original submission was largely to the effect that any group, who shared common religious beliefs, and could prove a need by having more than 1000 adherents, should be entitled to nominate a legal Solemniser from within their group. This would enable a couple to be married in a personally meaningful religious manner, by a member of their peer group.

When this, and other logical suggestions we made, were totally ignored, we narrowed our focus to our own specific religious path of Paganism, and moved into combat mode. And, five years later, we won the battle.

What does the actual new law state in terms of legalizing the handfasting ceremony?
It states that the religious ceremony of any authorised religious body (that’s PF Ireland) is the concern of the religious body alone, once certain legal declarations are included.

What is the known (recent) history of the handfasting ceremony in your country (or area)?

It used to be a private Pagan affair, but Janet Farrar/Gavin Bone and others carried out Handfastings beyond the traditional Pagan community and attracted interest in that way.

Do you think that the modern handfasting is gaining momentum in Ireland? If so, how?

From my inbox, I can tell you it definitely is.  People, even those from non-Pagan backgrounds, see in Handfasting a union in beauty of two people.  This contrasts with the reasonably mechanical “normal” wedding, and attracts the more romantic sort of person.  And as divorcees cannot remarry in a church here, a lot of couples in this position are seeking a spiritual union beyond the confines of a (much disgraced) Catholic Church.

What kind of attitudes from the general public have you encountered toward Paganism? Towards the rite of handfasting?
To be Pagan here is to be considered oddly eccentric. But Ireland loves and accepts eccentrics more than most countries [smiles].  All handfastings we have carried out have been well received, and we take the time before and after to explain the ceremony to guests.  We’ve had more than one guest request our number for future reference.

What steps does a couple from Ireland have to take to become legally handfasted there?
Contact PF Ireland, and then the local Registrar of Marriages.

In the interest of those who are not from Ireland but would like to travel abroad and get married there (i.e., a “destination wedding”), what are the legal steps non-residents must take in order to be handfasted?
Contact PF Ireland, and then the local Registrar of Marriages.  The couple can do the paperwork with certain Registrars by post, but must turn up, in person, five days before the Handfasting to sign legal declarations.

What is now the legal difference between getting married in a Christian church or getting married in a Pagan handfasting ceremony (if any)?
Only the building and ceremony.

Equality feels good.  Is there anything else that you would like to add about handfastings in Ireland ?
Beware the weather!  Have an indoor alternative available.  And a beautiful woodland setting might seriously attract midges [blood-sucking bugs]. We once had to conduct a ceremony a light speed, to prevent becoming human sacrifices to the great midge lord.

Gross!  Any fun facts about yourself, either personal or professional, that you would like to share with our readers?
I’m a Ninja (Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu) instructor in my spare time. I also brew my own mead for the Handfasting ceremonies with the water that outflows from Brigid’s sacred well in Kildare.

Impressive.  Thanks again to Rev. Ray Sweeney and the great folks of Pagan Federation of Ireland for standing up for Pagan rights!

To learn more about the Pagan Federation of Ireland click the link below:

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