£609 average cost of girl's First Holy Communion in Northern Ireland
Mums lose run of themselves and can’t help dressing up daughters, says priest
Would you lavish £6,000 on your eight-year-old daughter's Communion dress?
When it comes to outfits and celebrations, money is clearly no object for some Northern Ireland parents.
Indeed, when you tot up the cost of the dresses, parties, food and drink, make-up, fake tan and visits to the hairdresser, First Holy Communion is far from a cheap family affair.
The average bill for a child's Communion here reached £538 this year, an increase of £39 on last year, with spending on gifts also hitting a five-year high, according to new research.
Unsurprisingly, it's more expensive - £139 more to be exact - for parents of daughters than those with sons, but the pomp and ceremony of the male event will still set you back a whopping £470.
Big Fat Gypsy Wedding dressmaker Thelma Madine, who's been making her extravagant trademark creations at her Liverpool base for almost four decades now, probably knows everything there is about the market.
She's already taken 48 orders for dresses from Northern Ireland families for 2018, with the bespoke commissions alone costing between £600 and £6,000 depending on the simplicity of the robe.
Last year a Belfast couple spent £5,000 on their daughter's big day, with just part of that going on a dazzling white gown made by Thelma, who never reveals individual price tags.
"I had around 180 customers from Northern Ireland last year and I find people are willing to spend more each year," she said.
"Communion is an event that people start planning for when a child is born so they will generally have saved up for it even when money can otherwise be tight. I'll probably have to close my books to future orders around the end of October or start of November, because we turn away more orders than we actually do."
Although Thelma makes Holy Communion outfits for Travellers, she said the majority of her Northern Ireland customers are from the settled community, with clients visiting her workshop twice before the dress is ready.
She added: "We have someone in Northern Ireland who helps us in case the child has had a growth spurt or has put on or lost weight, so they don't have to come over again."
Fr Paddy O'Kane, parish priest of the Holy Family parish in Ballymagroarty and one of Londonderry's best known clergymen, said that mothers were driving the boom in the Communion dress industry. And while he conceded that wearing school uniforms for the event would be "rather bland", he advised parents to "beg or borrow dresses" because "there are enough of them in the community by now".
"Every priest will agree that this isn't a Church thing, it's a mother thing," he said.
"Mothers just lose the run of themselves and can't help it. It's all about dressing up their wee girls like a wee bride. It's something irrational and a very emotive issue for a lot of parents.
"Priests in the past have suggested that children wear school uniforms and parents were up in arms. The Church actively discourages extravagant dresses, but it doesn't want a fight either."
He added: "We had 120 First Communions in this city this year and those dresses are sitting in cupboards now. They should be reused. People don't need to buy more Communion dresses."
Ulster Bank said the bulk of Holy Communion expenditure this year went on the party, celebrations or food and drink (£245, on average, the highest recorded in recent years), while children's outfits accounted for 30% of the total spent (an average of £161), up 26% since 2013.
Unsurprisingly, it cost more for parents of girls, with the average spend on a girl's First Holy Communion equalling £609.
This is £139 (29%) more than was spent on average on their male counterparts.
Sean Murphy, managing director of personal banking at Ulster Bank, said: "First Holy Communion is a significant event for many and it's often the first time they receive significant amounts of money from family and friends. With the majority being put into savings accounts, we're pleased to see parents instilling the importance of saving."
Two families compare their bills for youngsters’ big day
Full-time mum Deirdre Quinn, who is 48 and from Belleeks in south Armagh, said she and husband Patrick (65) spent "around £400" on now 10-year-old daughter Caolaidh's First Holy Communion.
The service took place at Dorsey Chapel on April 23 last year. The couple have two other daughters - Bebhionn (18) and Aine (21).
Deirdre said: "Even if I was a multi-millionaire I wouldn't spend a fortune on it. I didn't go overboard with my other two daughters, it is silly.
"I think that it is absolute madness for anyone to spend thousands on a Communion. Caolaidh got a beautiful dress from Debenhams and everybody commented on how beautiful she was.
"They said that it was simple but elegant, and a lot nicer than other dresses they had seen.
"Everybody had a brilliant day, including Caolaidh, who had everything that her friends had.
"My own outfit was just a trouser suit from Next, and I got my hair done at the same place as Caolaidh, which was maybe another £10 or £15.
"After the service we had a nice family meal in Newry Golf Club, great food and a few drinks, there is no need to have a big party."
Dress, shoes, bag, tiara... £110
Family meal... £225
Professional photos... £150
Total cost: £495
Lawyer Emma Duffy (41), from Lissan outside Cookstown, said she and purchasing manager husband Michael (forty-something) spent "the guts of £1,000 in total" on their eight-year-old daughter Hannah's First Holy Communion.
The service was in St Michael's Church in Lissan in May. The couple also have a 10-year-old son, Michael.
"For little girls in particular First Holy Communion has developed into a mini wedding," she said.
"It's a big event in the child's life and, for me, it was an opportunity to get family together, which doesn't happen very often. Our family are all over Northern Ireland and in England, so it was an excuse for a get-together.
"We had catering in the house afterwards and everyone had a fantastic day. It was very relaxed. Most importantly, Hannah had a great day. She was like a princess, although I know it's about religion and not about being a princess!
"Michael might have been in charge of the alcohol, but it was mostly down to me when it came to organising everything for the big day."
Dress, shoes and tiara... £250
Bouncy castle... £90 Catering... £300
Total cost: £1,000