Meet the mum who's quit her job as a top DJ in Ibiza and now helps Northern Ireland couples pledge their love to each other in unusual style
Jillian Canney returned to her native Derry to raise her son after 20 years of DJing and a VIP lifestyle in Ibiza. Now, she is using her experience of bringing people together with music to help couples tie the knot in unconventional fashion, writes Lee Henry.
For couples seeking to abstain from traditional forms of marriage and express their love and commitment to one another in weird and wonderful ways, Jillian Canney is, perhaps, the first port of call here.
Her Civil Celebrations business enables couples of all backgrounds, beliefs and persuasions - be they atheist, pagan, LGBT or otherwise - to enjoy the wedding of their dreams featuring original vows, handfasting, ring warming, sand pouring and a multitude of other unusual but increasingly popular symbolic civil ceremonies.
It's been a natural progression for 43-year-old Canney, a mother-of-one originally from Ballymoney but now based in Londonderry, who, in a previous life as a resident DJ in Ibiza and brought thousands of people together on a nightly basis to express their love of music.
Canney moved to the party paradise island off the south-eastern coast of mainland Spain with a friend back in 1997.
An English and theatre studies graduate, Canney had set down roots in London, working mainly in the hospitality industry, but a life of sun, sea and musical adventure seemed like a great idea at the time.
"I left home at 18 to study at Manchester Metropolitan University and then made the move south to the Big Smoke," Canney recalls. "I had heard about Ibiza very vaguely through some friends who were infinitely cooler than I was and, after taking a bit of a mad notion one day, I packed up and set off to this place we knew very little about."
Canney loved life on the Balearic Island so much that she stayed there for the summer, and after another winter working in London decided to make the move permanent the following year. It's not difficult to understand why.
Ibiza, after all, is a Mediterranean Mecca, where the temperature rarely falls below 15 degrees Celsius even in winter. Its port is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, its villages are quaint and peaceful, and its reputation as a global clubbing hotspot is legendary.
"For the most part I lived in Ibiza town or not too far from it," says Canney. "For a number of years I lived within the old city walls, which coincidentally are the same age as the Derry Walls. And by the time I left, I was very much a resident of Sant Jordi, my sweet little village on the way to Salinas beach.
"There's not just one thing that I grew to love about the island, there are a million things. The sun, the sea, the air, the energy, the light, the gorgeous beaches, the multi-cultured, colourful array of people, the music, the parties, the freedom, the never quite knowing what amazing thing would happen next. It's a beautiful lifestyle and it was where my dreams came true."
Canney quickly established herself on Ibiza, initially finding work as a go-go dancer, flyer girl, cocktail waitress, holiday rep and English teacher before her background in hospitality and management led to better-paid roles.
Within five years, in fact, Canney had found work in some of the island's biggest nightclubs.
Her CV reads like a clubber's bucket list - event co-ordinator at Privilege, event promoter at luxury club brand El Divino, then PA to the music director of Pacha and press officer at Manumission.
Canney carved out her niche, helping to organise some of the biggest club nights on the planet and rubbing shoulders with all sorts of celebrities along the way, including hip-hop icon P Diddy and DJ royalty Carl Cox.
"Success, of course, is relative, but hard work, commitment and longevity definitely helped my mission to have a great life in Ibiza," she explains.
"I had many fun times. Privilege, for example, has an enormous stage, which begged to be filled with the exotic on a nightly basis, so fill it we did. Think dancing horses and acrobatic troupes and you get the idea."
Despite her background in theatre studies, Canney did not spend much of her teenage years performing music.
Being surrounded by the world's finest DJs and producers, however, naturally led her to experiment with spinning records on the decks.
Working in the evenings, she spent much of her free time practicing and developing her mixing skills, and eventually performed in most of the big clubs as support to the headline acts.
"It wasn't long after arriving that I decided that I wanted to have a go at DJing myself," she says. "I started putting on parties here and there in some cool little spots and would end up mucking in with the music.
"As far as kudos goes, I'd have to say playing at the legendary Space was a highlight.
"The world of radio always interested me immensely and it wasn't too long before I was co-hosting various programmes on the Spanish airwaves, doing live on-air interviews with household names like Pete Tong, hosting a weekly broadcast on Ibiza Global as part of the Ibiza Rocks the Radio series.
"Thanks to my time spent on Ibiza, DJing has become a nice little hobby over the years. I don't know where I would be without music, to be honest. I don't play out so much these days, what with my boy Sean being just two, but my alter ego, The Stray Kitten, does creep out of the shadows every now and then to throw a few records on."
Canney finally became her own boss in Ibiza, launching her own PR agency, Fix Ibiza, in 2008, whose clients included the Ibiza Rocks music festival. Through the agency, she organised a series of star-studded charity events raising money for Macmillan Cancer Support and its Spanish equivalents.
"The Butterfly Ball was a great success," Canney remembers. "People like Neneh Cherry performed live, and each year there was an auction which brought in an endless list of items under the hammer, donated by the likes of David Beckham, Lionel Messi, Kate Moss, Jeff Bridges, Ricky Gervais and my own heroes, Duran Duran. It was amazing."
During this time, Canney became pregnant, and though she kept up work for a time, the idea of raising her boy back home in Northern Ireland proved too great to ignore. In 2014, she left her island life behind to return to the Maiden City.
"Returning to one's roots after 20 years living abroad was a massive thing for me," she says. "Being a mum made me realise that family is number one - without the support of mine, I'd be lost - and so, taking the notions of family, love and babies as the starting point for my new chapter, it made sense that those elements form the basis of my next bright idea, pursuing a future as a civil celebrant."
Canny had been considering gaining the necessary qualifications to act as a celebrant for some years, having attended friends' weddings while living in Ibiza, during which couples had shared their own vows, choosing to incorporate certain aspects of their religion or none at all.
While raising Sean, then, she studied remotely and subsequently completed residential training to achieve an NOCN Level 3 Diploma in celebrancy (naming and couples). Civil Celebrations has been in business since the beginning of 2016. "Statistics show that civil weddings are on the rise in Northern Ireland, and so too are baby-naming ceremonies and the renewing of vows, as people look for alternative ways to celebrate their commitment to each other and their children," Canney explains.
"The absolute joy of a civil ceremony is that, because there are no legalities involved, there are much fewer restrictions in so far as ceremony content, location and timing are concerned.
"Ceremonies can take place anywhere at all - no licence is required - so within the logistical limitations you can let your imagination run wild."
Over the past number of months, Canney has officiated at a diverse array of ceremonies, completing ancient Celtic rituals and performing ceremonies in woodland glades.
"That was my first ceremony and the bride was expecting her first baby, so it became a union of three," she says.
"The couple chose to have a handfasting using three ribbons, plaited into one, symbolising the three of them. It was a beautiful moment."
Canney herself believes "in love, that we are all free to believe in whatever God we choose, as long as we are not hurting anyone, to live and let live", and plans to work with couples at home in Northern Ireland and on her second home of Ibiza in the months ahead as the demand for civil ceremonies continues to rise.
These days, life is much simpler for her - no more late-night parties, celebrity rider requests and charity galas to organise. Though she admits to missing her old Ibiza party lifestyle, being a mother and expanding her entrepreneurial horizons is now the biggest buzz of all.
"My partying days are over," she laughs. "I'm too busy right now being mum to a very active toddler to be thinking about partying. That said, everything is definitely more fun in the sun, so maybe I'll return to Ibiza some day."
- Couples can contact Canney via the Civil Celebrations Facebook page or meet her in person when she exhibits at the Walled City Wedding Fayre in Derry's Craft Village on December 11.