Posed in her wedding dress, with her husband, amid the stony ruins of an ancient Irish church, Bridget Morris Stockdale felt an almost mystic tug by time. Sure, she was excited about the future. But Stockdale, of Annapolis, was also nudged by her Celtic roots toward her ancestral past.
“I was looking forward to the rest of my life, but at the same time I was drawn to those family ties of long ago,” she said. “Standing there, I felt a special energy, like I had come home.”
So did many of the 40-plus members of their families who flew over for the wedding in 2014. Jeff Stockdale, 35, of Rockville, has green genes too, so a ceremony on the Emerald Isle seemed apropos.
“He said, ‘I’d love to marry you in Ireland,’ and I said, ‘OK, let’s make it happen,’ ” Bridget, 36, recalled.
Their dreamscape fought the norm. Most destination weddings occur in sun-drenched climes, the most popular foreign venues being the Caribbean, Mexico and Hawaii, according to grouptravel.org. So the couple trolled the Internet, expecting to find their Irish wedding planner in New York, Boston or even overseas. But ... Odenton?
“We didn’t think they’d be a 15-minute drive away,” Bridget said.
From her home on a quiet suburban cul-de-sac in Anne Arundel County, Michelle Johnstone Clark operates Waterlily Weddings, a venture she began in 2006 to arrange nuptials for Americans in her native Ireland. The business has grown from six weddings that first year to 60 in 2018.
“I know Ireland like the back of my hand; that’s what I bring to people,” said Johnstone Clark, 45, who grew up in County Wicklow. (Her husband, Matthew Clark, is Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s chief of staff). Last year, she made nine trips home to smooth the way for marriages-to-be.
“We’ve done everything from a $4,500 elopement to a $560,000 wedding for 200 people,” Johnstone Clark said. For her services alone, she charges an average of $5,000.
“Most couples don’t arrive until the week of the wedding, so they put their faith in us to get stuff right,” she said. “Once there, they are blown away by history. The place sells itself.”
Johnstone Clark and a staff of six mesh every detail of The Big Day for a clientele that hails from New York to California and has been known to make some challenging requests.
One couple got married in a lighthouse; another in Ashford Castle, reveling for two days in the medieval mansion with its 83 bedrooms, mega-fireplaces and Irish wolfhounds that greet all comers. Outdoor weddings are an Irish favorite. One pair tied the knot deep in the Burren, a rugged limestone locale in western Ireland.
“It was just the wedding party and a harpist in this special barren landscape that looked like the surface of the moon,” Johnstone Clark said. Another family sought (and found) a site where they and their friends could surf.
It’s not always the venue that tests Johnstone Clark’s mettle. One couple insisted on getting shamrock tattoos on their wedding day; another asked to have a petting zoo filled with sheep and goats.
In a memorable ceremony, trained falcons flew the wedding bands to the altar, which was inside a tent on the manor house grounds.
The Morris-Stockdale affair was tame, by comparison: a church wedding in the coastal town of Ballyvaughan (County Clare) followed by a reception for 90 at Gregans Castle Hotel, an 18th-century manor house near Galway Bay. The planners coordinated everything for Bridget, a marketing specialist, and Jeff, a state employee in government affairs.
“They took a lot of the stress away from Bridget,” Jeff said.
Both bride and groom had seen Ireland before; they got engaged there in 2013.
“We flew in on a red-eye and were driving around the countryside, tired and lost and yelling at each other, when Jeff pulled over by a lake [Lough Muck], got out, knelt down and proposed,” Bridget said. “I screamed and this older couple rushed out of their cottage.”
“I just got engaged!” Bridget recalled saying.
“Well, come inside and have some champagne,” the couple replied.They gave a toast, became friends and, a year later, attended the Stockdales’ wedding on Sept. 1 — which happened to be the older couple’s anniversary as well.
“The whole thing just felt like karma,” Jeff said.
The night before the wedding, bride and groom hoisted a few in a local pub, where Bridget chatted up the fellow on the next stool, his dog at his side: “I’m getting married tomorrow,” she exclaimed.
“I’m doing a wedding tomorrow,” the fellow said. It was Father Richard Flanagan, their officiant.
After the ceremony, as they stood for photos before the hoary remnants of an aged stone tower, both newlyweds sensed history beckon.
“I was pulled to the past,” Jeff said. “You feel grounded, in a way. It puts everything in perspective.”
Come October, Glen Burnie residents Tessa Turpin, 27, and Justin Covey, 29, will go much the same route. They’ll wed in Killarney, on the cusp of a national park on the southwest coast of Ireland. Waterlily Weddings has set the stage.
“We have no idea what we’re doing, and they know exactly,” said Turpin, who manages a pet care center. Both she and Covey, a software engineer, are of Irish descent. Forty guests should make the trip.
“There are just two things that I really want,” said Turpin. “At the reception, for dessert, we’ll have a great big Irish Banoffee pie, with bananas, cream and caramel. It’s just delicious.”
Her other wish?
“A huge Irish breakfast, with both our families, the morning after.”
Piece of cake, her planner said.