Shannon + Ryan's Irish Island Wedding - Inishmore April 22, 2019
This wasn’t easy. Let’s just start there. But I didn’t agree to this project thinking it would be. Here’s what I was presented with: Come to a remote island off of western Ireland to produce floral installations for a destination wedding that is five weeks away. That gave me four weeks to produce budgets, find vendors, order flowers, book cars, schedule ferries. Every resource I depend on here was unavailable to me overseas, so I was starting from scratch. In those few weeks I would also open up my first retail store, travel to Virginia twice for a production remount at Virginia Opera, and secure the apartment I would be moving to the week after I got back from the wedding. So maybe the timing wasn’t great, but…. IRELAND. How could I say no?
This started one night with a cryptic, “what are you doing next month” message from a former flower student, Emilee Burgess. The next thing I know my Instagram is blowing up with likes and comments such as, “I can offer you a church ruin in Ireland?” I knew instantly what was up. When I first met Emilee years ago she was already helping her friend, Shannon, to plan her wedding on Inishmore, the largest of the rocky Aran Islands off of Galway. She had asked for some advice about it and I told her honestly that I would be intimidated by the prospect even with my years of experience. When their vendor relationship in Ireland fell apart at the last minute, Plant Office got the call to pinch-hit.
Working with Shannon was a joyful challenge (Hi, Shannon!). Her bright mind runs loops around everyone and she gets very excited and is full of ideas, so distilling the design out of our rushed process was a challenge. Shannon also lives in Philadelphia, meaning we wouldn’t meet in person until Galway four days before the wedding. Fortunately for me, Emilee lives in Maine and had been working with Shannon on a design playbook with extensive notes and research from the last few years. They had done site visits, taken measurements, and had established relationships with a few vendors. This was absolutely indispensable, and Emilee’s knowledge of Shannon and the situation would be a key to success for us. We settled on a guiding principle of “future faerie tech,” taken the natural and bringing whimsical and weird touches to it, with a healthy dose of gothic romance.
While the design was coming together I was starting to source floral material. Basically, I e-mailed every importer and grower in the country, offering them the few hazy details I had about flowers and budget. I’m not sure many of them took me seriously but I am forever indebted to Brian from Brian Keogh Flowers, Audrey from Eirflowers, and Sarah from Burren Flower Farm for their patience, guidance, encouragement, and kindness. I was granted access to two different Dutch flower auction portals, and had to navigate a marketplace of actively fluctuating prices and quantities. I had never ordered through a dynamic system like this, and suddenly I felt like a hunter, jumping on the flowers I wanted as I saw Euros going up and supply going down.
With our flowers lined-up and a rental car on reserve, Emilee and I started the journey from Maine to Kilronan. We left Tuesday night and woke up in Ireland Wednesday morning. After a day in Dublin to get the car and adjust to the time change we were officially off to work. We started early Thursday morning visiting the two wholesalers for the bulk of our flower order. Brian Keogh Flowers was our first stop and I could tell from the moment we arrived we were in trouble. I had rented a minivan, but of course the European version is smaller than I expected. On top of that, every blossom, branch, and green was healthier and bigger than their American counterparts. I had brought some straps “just in case” we needed to put a few things on the roof, but soon Brian and were soon chucking huge bundles of contorta on top a the car, turning it into a hedgehog for our cross-country roadtrip. The cargo area of the van was two-thirds full of blossoms, the roof covered, and we only had half our flowers...
We arrived at Eirflowers in a bit of a nervous state. While Emilee bought candles and supplies upstairs I worked desperately to fit as many stems as possible in to our little van. It was clear before long that the dahlias and eremurus and tulips and all the non-crammable items were not going to fit. But Emilee was already on the horn coordinating with other wedding guests to pick up the remains the next day. I packed Em with gloriosa lilies and our luggage and on we went west to Galway.
This is when we faced our greatest challenge: getting the flowers from Galway to Inishmore. Honestly, this was the place where our planning never caught up with the timeline. Initially I had expected that we could transfer the flowers to the passenger ferry, but they felt our cargo exceeded their capacity. Fortunately they guided us to the Lasta Mara Teo, the only cargo vessel making the trek to the Aran Islands. Did I mention that the wedding was Easter weekend in a Catholic country on a tourism heavy island? By the time we got in contact with the boat they were more or less booked for the weekend and couldn’t promise us anything. Be there by 3pm, they said, and we’ll do what we can. It was our only option, the last sail before the weekend, and missing the boat meant ruin.
We arrived 20 minutes late.
I walked in to the office, was told “no” and left dejected. We had sprinted across the country, performed impossible packing feats and negotiated driving on the left side of the road to now be told this was the end of the line. Without our van on that vessel we would have NO flowers for the wedding. Inishmore was deforested millennia ago, and very very little grows in the porous limestone landscape. I couldn’t have foraged a fantasy together even if I wanted to, as the flora of the island is unique and protected. Seeing the car full of flowers sitting there on the edge of the bay I knew I had to talk my way on to the cargo ship.
Something you should know about flowers is that they are powerful. They hold sway over people because of their beauty and emotional resonance. If you’re holding flowers, people unlock doors, smile at you, talk to you, flirt with you. Combine that with a wedding and you have a force that is impossible to deny. This day, flowers convinced Winnie and her crew to make room for our van. No one wants to be the reason a wedding went flowerless. Next thing we know, our stick-covered, flower-filled van was being winched into the air by the boat-mounted crane while we unleashed a tempest of those laughs that only come when exhaustion meets relief. Knowing the flowers were on their way meant everything was going to be ok. All that was left to do was make pretty in a pretty place. No big deal right?
With the car stowed away we pop in to Galway, where we finally meet up with Shannon for a quick second before getting on the bus to the passenger ferry to Kilronan, the main village on Inishmore. I don’t think I’ve ever been more happy to be enjoying the sun and a cider on a boat. We arrived early evening at the Aran Islands Hotel and were greeted by Niall, the manager, and his awesome staff. They were so welcoming and helpful, and without their support this would have been much closer to impossible.
It’s worth noting at this the landscape and history of the area. The Aran Islands, of which Inishmore is one, is in an area of Ireland that was scrubbed hard during the last ice age. Whatever trees and shrubs were able to grow after that were wiped out 6,000 years ago, followed by near total topsoil loss. This means no coverage or hiding, just stone cottages, rock walls, strange small plants, and huge skies. From the cliff-top stone-age forts you can see everything, and the sense that a god’s hand could come and wipe you away at any moment lingers. They thought this was the literal end of the Earth, and it left a mythological energy to the place. It is also a bastion for traditional culture, and Irish Gaelic is still spoken there, sounding like songs in the salty air.
It was 7am on Friday morning when the flowers arrived at the cargo dock. The wedding was on Monday, so we still had three and a half days. Barely enough time to make magic, but where there are quality flowers there is hope. After processing all the blossoms and getting them in water we headed out to visit the ceremony site, Na Seacht d’Teampaill, a monastic site dating back to the 8th Century. This collection of religious and residential ruins is set in a graveyard on the edge of the ocean and is the most gothic-romantic site I’ve had the pleasure of working in. But it is also an ancient sacred sight, so again Respect was the key word.
After getting us settled on the island, Emilee headed back to Galway on the mainland to take care of other wedding duties, leaving me alone to get to work. It had been decided that I would handle the environmental installations, leaving Emilee the personal flowers. I starts in the marquee. The tent was nice, but not so pretty on its own, so I started to fill in where I could with willow, breaking down the massing of the space while providing an armature for flowers the day of. I had made the decision not to bring floral foam or water tubes along because of their waste and bulk. There were no arrangements in vases for the event either, meaning that we would have to wait until the last minute to work with the fresh material. All day Saturday was spent with the branches, wiring them anywhere I could in the tent, building frames for the flower portal towers, and prepping for the ceremony install.
By Sunday I was adding hardy greenery that didn’t need water, including huge chunks of bush ivy from on the Burren Flower Farm . The armatures I had created for the flower portal and sweetheart table were put in place. After a final preparatory visit to the ceremony site, I dove into the moss- and rock- heavy tables capes, knowing they would survive the night without problem. The collection of black candles and unusual blossoms finished the scene.
Monday was the wedding day; a blur of floral insertions. By this time the whole marquee was festooned in branches and greens, and so I started to toss the flowers in. I finished up the flower portals with just enough time to get the ceremony together.. The site is one of the most visited on the island, so minibuses of tourists were constantly cycling through as I’m there with my zip ties and sticks and stems, trying to find balance between answering questions, getting out of the way of pictures, and getting my work done. I was finishing just as the first of the family arrived for the ceremony, and finally started to feel that, Yes!, we had pulled this off.
As the guests, decked out in all black, arrived at the graveyard a pair of horses appeared, heralding Shannon and her dad. Walking under the willow arch to the strains of the Imperial March from Star Wars (sung by an Irish troubadour), she was a vision in a crystal crown, Hayley Paige dress, iridescent Louboutin shoes, with light blue ribbons streaming through her braided hair. The faerie queen had arrived. Her groom, Ryan, was decked out in a maroon suit, looking dapper AF. The scene was set and now it was time to bow out of the way and let their love guide the rest of the day.
The memorable ceremony was solemnized by Dara Malloy, and was as much a history of this special island as it was a blessing of the new couple. Beyoncé’s Halo was sung by his daughter while she strummed a celtic harp. There was much laughing and joy is that little roofless chapel. The curly-willow structures leaned against the wall, but were not affixed anywhere. This way the old stone wasn’t damaged by anchors.
Upon their return to the reception, the guests were treated by big funky flower tower portals, full of some of the most beautiful material I’ve ever worked with. Passing these to enter the tent, they then passed by the festooned cake backdrop and under an arch of branches and flowers to find the dining area.
The sweetheart table was given a sweep of flowers coming up from the floor and working its way up to the ceiling. I loved this moment for its balance of beauty and weirdness, which was such a wonderful reflection on Shannon & Ryan and their goofy, earnest love for each other.
For the tables, I wanted to pull a lot of textures from the landscape of the island, so ivy, moss, rocks, weird leaves, and dead bits were well in order. We accented these with black candles and a touch of strange blossoms for color. As the night went on the light transitioned from day to night, the candles were lit, and the fairy lights came on creating a magic ambience for the dancing. I slipped out of the party and started the process of cleaning up after ourselves, and preparing to escape back to the States early the next day.
The long journey home, from boat to bus to bus to plane to bus, gave me time to rest and reflect on what just happened. Iron Man was on the seat-back screen on the airplane, and I couldn’t help but feel like a flower superhero. Sure, there were plenty of lessons learned and a few (many?) hiccups along the way, but what an epic adventure. A thousand thanks for Shannon & Ryan for bringing me along on their journey. And to Emilee for reaching out and bringing me this magic project. And to the wonderful vendors I worked with, who made me laugh when I needed it most. Sláinte na bhfear agus go maire na mná go deo!