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Their Walk Down the Aisle Begins in Irish Castle

<i> Florman is a Santa Ana free-lance writer</i>

For 60 years Aunt Betty rued the day her mother-in-law tagged along on her honeymoon. Imagine her reaction if not only both mothers had shown up, but 70 others too.

But that’s exactly what happened last fall when Jeannette Tirico Bean traveled 6,000 miles to walk down the aisle, accompanied by guests who bought a tour package for an odyssey of lodging in Irish castles, sing-alongs in pubs, medieval dinners with pageants and touring in jaunting carts, culminating in a wedding at a 13th-Century castle.

In a creative fervor, the groom turned a marriage celebration into a travel adventure and a happening for a little town called Cong. The wedding invitation, designed as a travel brochure, promised “A Wedding Happening in Ireland” that was “unmatched in the annals of Irish wakes and weddings.” A postscript declared: “No gifts, but it will cost you!”

The embryo of the trip began seven years before when Allan Armstrong, a widower, became captivated by the lush majestic grounds of Ashford Castle in Cong. He and his brother had just returned from a round of golf, skirting sand traps shaped into four-leaf clovers. Allan said, “I don’t plan to marry again, but if I do, here’s where I want the ceremony.”

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He Pops the Question

Seven years later, when he popped the question to Bean, he also laid the ground rules for the ceremony: “We can either spend $20,000 feeding 200 fat people who don’t need to eat, or we can take the family to Ireland.”

The guest list ballooned to include extended family and friends, with requests (not granted) from such varied characters as a chief of police across the state who heard reports of the impending happening.

The odyssey began at Shannon Airport, where we boarded buses for the ride past enchanting scenes of silence: swans gliding in meandering rivers visited by swallows and water hens; lazy sheep grazing on rocky green hillsides; heather and lichen clinging to granite boulders, and meadows crisscrossed by rows of gray rocks gathered from the surrounding hillsides and stacked neatly into low walls. From crevices between rocks sprouted lacy yellow and pink flowers.

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The groom-to-be belted a continuous rendition of “Get Me to the Church on Time,” with the wedding enclave chiming in with the chorus as we traveled in dual motor coaches from Shannon to Limerick, to the Lakes of Killarney, along the rugged Cliffs of Moher to Galway, and ending on the shores of Lough Corrib at romantic Ashford Castle.

There, on the eve of the festivities in the castle’s Dungeon Bar, rousing choruses of “Rose of Tralee,” “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” and “My Wild Irish Rose” were climaxed by a final and perfected bravura cantata of “Get Me . . . " by the ensemble.

The arrival at the castle the next day proved almost as stirring as the ceremony at the little abbey.

Entering the grounds through the 15-foot walled massive gate, our buses meandered over a narrow driveway winding over soft hills shaded by immense gnarled elms. Ashford Castle, with its castellated battlements, loomed ahead at the crest of the hill.

In castle-like protocol, we received a royal greeting by footmen attired in livery who attended to the luggage.

Inside, thick carpets, chirping birds and colorful modern paintings helped create the ambiance of a family home, dispelling the cold draftiness of most stone castles. Antique furniture and objets d’art reflected the castle’s early history as Ashford House. Armor from the early days of the castle stood guard.

The grand foyer/reception hall, where we were received by the staff, was built by the Arthur G. Guinness family of the famous black stout and “Book of World Records.” From the hall, where welcoming scones were served on an elaborate silver tea set, we viewed the majestic manicured emerald lawns that stretch down to a tranquil lake.

A hunting and fishing preserve, Ashford lies in 700 acres of forest and golfing greens, 45 minutes north of Galway along the banks of Lough Corrib, the second largest lake in Ireland with its hundreds of islands, bays and coves.

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Built in French chateau style with battlements carved by ancient stonemasons, the castle traces its beginnings to the 13th-Century de Burgo Castle. Downstairs in the dungeon, which was transformed into the bar where the wedding revelers would sing that evening, was the site of the original lounge built for the king’s private entertainment of a few honored guests.

Though most of its reconstruction occurred over 30 years in the 19th Century by Lord Ardiluan, Ashford’s sleeping accommodations have recently been modernized.

The grandest room of all, the Presidential Suite, named for the stay of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, was reserved for the bridal couple. The suite is decorated in yellow and white French antique furniture replete with a living room and fireplace, king-sized bed on a pedastle atop a sitting area, and a separate dressing room with closet 30 feet long. A bay window overlooks flaming gardens of hydrangeas and roses extending to Lough Corrib.

While the bride and groom finalized the next day’s plans, we strolled through the formal gardens and across stone bridges along the banks of the Cong River.

On the grounds sits a tiny village of houses enveloped in climbing vines, built for the filming of the movie “The Quiet Man.” The cottage where John Wayne once swept the raven-tressed Maureen O’Hara off her feet, and where he fought raucously with Victor McLaglen, is a gift store. The other bungalows are homes for groundskeepers.

The next afternoon, with an air of merriment, our wedding party filed into St. Mary’s Church in Cong through a subterranean door in a wall of a medieval abbey. On the outside the small stone chapel, sheathed in gray stone, blended with the ancient wall. Inside, the chapel was startlingly modern, with stark white walls, angled glass and skylight.

Father Brian Kavanagh, a retired university professor filling in for the ailing rector of the parish, officiated. While the groom cried, the priest regaled the congregation with jokes until the bride and groom composed themselves. “We don’t want Allan to claim duress later,” he warned.

Phenomenon for the Town

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The wedding turned into a phenomenon for the little town of Cong as well. The villagers looked forward to this momentous American event. The groom, with typical Irish devilment, had hoodwinked the newspapers into reporting that there were “six millionaires who (had) jetted into Ireland to wish the couple well.” The town folk made ready.

Following the ceremony they came rushing out of their homes to join the merrymaking, waving dish towels and children in their arms. One man dashed from his dinner table with a napkin still tucked under his chin. A matron, arms filled with sacks of rice and not sure which of the two buses held the bridal couple, pelted both.

Back at the castle, as part of the wedding banquet, we were feted to a 25-pound challah bread baked earlier that day by a member of the wedding party.

The California champagne, toasted at the dinner, had been toted into the country by our group. Acceptance of the wedding invitation included an agreement to carry one bottle of champagne supplied by the wedding couple. Since Ireland levies an exorbitant duty on imported champagnes, champagne at weddings is unheard of in this country.

Though this area of Ireland normally experiences “soft weather” (Irish for rain), even the elements celebrated the American union with a two-week gift of sunshine.

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Irish castles offer fanciful nuptial settings. Ireland has a three-week residency requirement, so it is recommended that couples arrange a civil ceremony before leaving the United States, followed by religious rites at the castle of choice.

Reservations are more difficult to get at Ashford Castle. When Jeanette Bean made her reservations only one date was open, and that was a year later.

Arrangements should be made at least a year in advance, taking into consideration that April, May and October are generally the driest months. For more information about the castle, write to Mary O’Donovan, Sales and Promotions, Ashford Castle, Cong, Country Mayo, Ireland.

Though the Bean-Armstrong nuptials were Catholic, the castle often hosts other denominations. A stately Gothic wooden chapel on the grounds accommodates Protestant weddings. Inquiries should be directed to O’Donovan. Jewish couples may contact the head rabbi in Dublin for assistance: Rabbi E. Mirvis, Stratford Schools, 1 Zion Road, 6 Dublin.

Wedding requests to St. Mary’s Church, as well as other Catholic churches, must be accompanied by a letter from an American parish priest certifying the “good standing” of the applicants.

Men’s formal attire may be rented and reserved by writing to Patrick Ryan Haberdashery, Galway, Ireland. Renting a complete cutaway package, including top hat and gloves, is about $20 U.S.

Travel arrangements may be made through a travel agent or by calling an Aer Lingus sales manager. CIE TOURS International, the tour company of the Irish government, can arrange seven-day-plus package tours.

For information about weddings at other castles, plus general information on travel to Ireland, contact the Irish Tourist Board, 757 3rd Ave., 19th Floor, New York 10017, (212) 418-0800.


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