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Celtic Celebration

By Alison Henry | Photography by Indigo Photography

Posted: Tuesday, Jun. 02, 2009

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Amid the thatched-roof cottages of a quaint Irish village, Adare Manor was hosting its liveliest party in nearly 200 years. After a perfectly choreographed foxtrot, taps were flowing and pints were poured as the beat of House of Pain’s “Jump Around” echoed across the countryside. Guests immediately flocked to the dance floor and rocked the reception hall into the evening.

Earlier, Shannon Spake and Jerry McSorley found themselves dining at the head of a grand table seated with 74 friends and family who traveled overseas to join them on their wedding day. They dined on Irish beef and sea bass, mesclun greens with goat cheese, and potato and leek soup – all prepared by the five-star resort’s master chefs. A refreshing orange crème brulee encased in a chocolate shell romanced their palates for dessert.

Shannon never dreamed she would wed in a 19th century Gothic castle in brilliant pastoral Ireland. While most women in their mid-20s were clipping pictures of gowns out of bridal magazines, Shannon was focused on her career. Now in her early 30s, her success as a broadcaster led her from New York to Charlotte, where she is currently a NASCAR pit reporter for ESPN and ABC. After Shannon arrived in North Carolina, her sister set her up on a Valentine’s Day blind date with Jerry, a land developer. Since that fateful day, the two have never spent more than two days apart.

“Once I got to know him, I knew he was one of a kind,” says Shannon. Jerry felt similarly, recalling the first moment he saw Shannon over four years ago. “I know it sounds corny,” he says. “But it was love at first sight. My days of dating girls were over. I knew it right then and there.”

He was certain he wanted to spend the rest of his life with Shannon. He and his friends began brainstorming proposal ideas, and two years into their relationship, the perfect opportunity presented itself. Shannon and Jerry were headed to Italy with Jerry’s grandmother, who had not been back to her homeland in over 30 years. Along with their luggage, boarding passes and good spirits, Jerry had one extra-special carry-on item: the ring. “I kept checking my pocket to make sure it was still there!” he exclaims.

One evening during their trip, the couple enjoyed a romantic gondola ride beneath the Venetian skies. Just as they were about to exit the boat, Jerry handed his camera to the gondolier, took a knee and asked Shannon to be his wife. She was completely surprised. “All my friends had always told me that it’s one of those times that you’re so shocked that you don’t remember how he proposed, so I kept telling myself, ‘Try to remember. Try to remember,’” Shannon recalls. They stepped off the gondola and walked around town kissing and smiling until their bliss led them into unfamiliar territory. “We were literally on cloud nine,” says Shannon. “One moment we stopped and looked around, and we had no idea where we were!”

Back in the States, the couple was discussing wedding plans over drinks at Jerry’s cousin’s bar in New York when Shannon suggested they get married in Ireland. Both Shannon and Jerry share Irish and Italian heritage, and after their engagement in Italy, Shannon thought it would be fitting to tie the knot in Ireland. They scouted seven locations in every corner of the country, and the couple decided on Adare Manor, in western Ireland.

In the early 1800s, the Second Earl of Dunraven and his wife, Lady Caroline Wyndham, lived on the estate in a Georgian house dating back to the 1720s. When the Earl had fallen ill and could no longer participate in his usual leisurely activities, the Lady suggested they transform the house into a grand estate, which was completed in 1852.

Intricate stone arches, gargoyles, chimneys and bay windows adorn the manor, surrounded by lush gardens, stately trees and 800-year-old ruins. Guests can stay in one of 63 bedrooms, 11 clubhouse suites, 25 townhomes or 46 luxury villas, and can enjoy the indoor swimming pool, laser clay pigeon shooting, fitness center and world-class equestrian center. The estate also boasts a beautiful and challenging 230-acre golf course, highlighted by the wandering River Maigue through the back nine. “We were holding our breath,” says Shannon. “At first glance, it was everything we wanted.”

Impressed with the photography of a friend’s wedding, the couple quickly secured Indigo for the big event, agreeing to fly photographers Jay and Mimi Weinmiller across the Atlantic, along with a videographer from Dreamlight Films. Shannon found a wedding coordinator in Ireland who had a stellar reputation among American brides, and for the next year and eight months this cross-continental team left no detail untouched. For the first time in her life, Shannon spent a small fortune on bridal magazines, tearing out her favorite pages. “I’m a total Type-A, hands-on person. There wasn’t one detail I didn’t have control over.”

Invitations were immediately sent to the bride and groom’s closest friends and family, with the hopes that if given enough time to plan, most could arrange to attend. As the RSVPs trickled in, it became apparent that "most" were not attending – in fact, every invitee replied, “Yes.”

Floored by the unanimous response, Shannon wanted every aspect of her wedding to be just as much a gratuitous celebration of their traveling guests as it was about her and Jerry. She thought about her favorite details from weddings she had attended in the past and began incorporating those ideas into her own wedding. As the planning stages came to a close, Shannon promised herself she’d stop worrying about the details as soon as she was on her way to Ireland. “I told myself that as soon as I got on that airplane, I was done worrying,” she says. “I had spent so much time planning that I just wanted to enjoy my wedding.”

Guests arrived at the manor to find personalized welcome gifts that included maps of the area, the story of how Shannon and Jerry met and hand-written thank you notes. After the rehearsal dinner, all were invited to a welcome party at Lena’s Bar, a local establishment across the street from the manor. “Just having everyone together in the place Jerry and I had our first pint in Ireland really meant a lot to us,” says Shannon. At the pub, Shannon surprised Jerry with his groom’s cake, decorated with a picture of their black Labrador retrievers.

In the remaining days leading up to the ceremony, guests enjoyed playing golf or traveling to the Cliffs of Moher – a popular sightseeing spot in southwestern Ireland known for its spectacular view of the Atlantic Ocean – while the wedding party attended additional activities of their own. Two nights before the wedding, Shannon’s father gathered Jerry and his groomsmen in the manor for a whiskey tasting. The men took turns giving Jerry marriage advice while sampling some of Ireland’s finest libations. The following evening, the bridal party stayed in a three-bedroom townhome on the estate, sipping wine and sharing stories until 1 a.m.

Shannon woke on the morning of April 14 to a brilliant 65-degree sunny day – practically unheard of in the typically moist, chilly climate of Ireland. A vintage Bentley arrived to chauffeur her and her bridesmaids to the church, where she was moments away from becoming the future Mrs. McSorley.

Shannon held her bridal bouquet of Grand Prix roses, entwined with two tiny photographic charms of her grandmothers, who had both passed away in recent years. Canon in D resounded through the chapel, and Shannon clutched her bouquet close to her heart. She gracefully walked down the aisle, too elated for tears. When Jerry’s eyes met hers, he felt as if he was watching himself from high above looking down. “It was surreal,” he says. “But to me, that’s how the story was supposed to go.”

After exchanging self-written vows – which Shannon admits were somewhat difficult to remember when all eyes were on her – a bagpiper led the entire party on a half-mile walk back to the manor, stopping traffic along the way. As the spring breeze carried the sounds of the bagpipe through the air, Shannon looked behind her and saw the sun shining on the elaborate processional. “I looked back at all my family and friends, took this huge, deep breath, and I realized that this was the one moment I would remember for the rest of my life. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for everyone involved.”

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