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How seeds of love grew into wedded bliss for these Northern Ireland couples

The roller coaster of married life comes under the spotlight in a new UTV series, With This Ring, which starts tomorrow. Stephanie Bell talks to three of the couples involved and hears about first dates, proposals and what their vows really meant

Andile and Matthew on their wedding day
Andile and Matthew on their wedding day
Andile and Matthew Gould at home
Instant spark: Andile and Matthew Gould with son Ezekiel
Mixed marriage: Lynda and Carl Whinney with their children (from left) Zachery, Isla and Cohan
Mixed marriage: Lynda and Carl Whinney
Loved up: Alana and Shane Mullan
Loved up: Alana and Shane Mullan on their wedding day

By Stephanie Bell

The roller coaster of married life comes under the spotlight in a new UTV series, With This Ring, which starts tomorrow. Stephanie Bell talks to three of the couples involved and hears about first dates, proposals and what their vows really meant.

'Long-distance relationships can be hard and it did scare us, but deep down I knew that it could work'

Matthew and Andile Gould knew the moment they set eyes on each other there was a spark, even though they lived thousands of miles apart.

Andile and Matthew Gould at home

They met in 2012 when Matthew (31), a freelance cameraman from Ballynahinch, visited Cape Town, where Andile lived, on a three-month trip with the Youth for Christ charity.

They made eye contact across a crowded church and felt an instant connection.

They had been in a long-distance romance for a year when Matthew secretly travelled back to South Africa to spring a surprise proposal on an astonished but delighted Andile.

After a lengthy process to secure a visa, Andile made the move to Northern Ireland in 2015.

The couple married here in 2016 and in June of this year welcomed their first son, Ezekiel, into the world.

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"I went to Cape Town to make videos for a charity," Matthew recalls. "The first week I was there, I went to a church service and got talking to the pastor, who asked if I could come back and take some pictures for him.

"I went back the next week and spotted Andile through my camera lens. I thought immediately, 'I have to get talking to her'.

"She had seen me and came up and spoke to me first. We were both looking for an excuse to talk to each other.

"Andile then invited a group of volunteers from our group to go to the cinema.

"Nobody wanted to go, but I begged and pleaded until I got one person to go with me. While I was there, I managed to sneak my number into Andile's phone.

"She told me she volunteered with a youth group and they were always short of drivers.

"I offered to put my number into her phone, so that she could ring me if she was ever stuck for a driver."

The couple started to text each other and romance soon blossomed.

When it was time for Matthew to return home, they vowed to keep in touch, hoping that love would somehow find a way to bring them together.

Instant spark: Andile and Matthew Gould with son Ezekiel

He says: "Long-distance relationships can be hard and it did scare us a bit, but my sister had done it with her husband, who is also from South Africa.

"Deep down, I knew that it could work.

"Andile didn't have wifi at home and had to go to an internet cafe to talk to me, which wasn't ideal, but we texted each other all the time."

Matthew returned to South Africa several times over the next two years.

He then shocked Andile with his surprise visit. While there he sprang a romantic proposal on the beach where they had spent time together after meeting.

The couple married in February 2016 and plan to return to South Africa next year for a belated celebration with Andile's extended family.

"Andile loves it here, although the weather is a bit of a sticking point for her," Matthew says.

"She just graduated from Bible college this year and then our son, Ezekiel, came along. Yes, life is great."

'We both take  our faith very seriously - we have different beliefs and  we accept it ...  we had a joint baptism service'

Mixed marriage: Lynda and Carl Whinney with their children (from left) Zachery, Isla and Cohan

There is a humorous story in how Carl and Lynda Whinney eventually got together after years of sending each other mixed signals.

Hailing from opposite sides of the religious divide has in some ways made for an unconventional partnership for the couple, who live in Lisburn and have been married for 11 years.

They first met as teenagers when they took part in the cross-community arts programme Crosslinks, which was set up to bring kids from east and west Belfast together and which Lynda (36) is now the director of.

Carl (37), a wedding photographer from west Belfast, met Lynda when he was 16 and she was 14. They now have three children together, Zachery (6), Isla (4) and Cohan (2).

"We took part in the pilot of the scheme and then we both became peer members and at different times were employed in it. Linda is the now the director," Carl says.

"We were really good friends for a long time and I didn't think of Lynda in a romantic way at all until I was about 19.

"I fell in love with her quite early, but she was sceptical. She thought I was a flirt because I kissed her friends and she wouldn't have anything to do with me.

"It got to the stage when I didn't want to fancy her anymore because I realised I was totally in love with her and I couldn't cope with it."

Having spent years as friends in Belfast, fate eventually conspired to bring them together as a couple thousands of miles away from home after they both signed up for the same mission to work in the slums in Mexico.

"A friend's parents had invited me to join them on the trip and I had no idea Lynda was going too," Carl says.

"When she told me, I was actually quite annoyed. We weren't really friends at that stage because of the way that I felt for her - it was just too much for me."

Three days before the end of the trip, the volunteers were allowed time to themselves.

At that point, Carl decided he couldn't go any longer without making a move.

He recalls: "I went in to kiss her and she said, 'Absolutely do not do it'. Then I went in a second time and it happened.

"We were together secretly for the rest of the trip, which was just three days, and it was really weird that it had happened in Mexico.

"When we came home, I took her to the cinema and we kissed again.

"Shortly after, she arrived at my house and said her parents were okay with it.

"I asked her what she was talking about and then I realised that she was asking me out. This was 10 years after we first met and it was really was quite weird that it had finally happened."

Mixed marriage: Lynda and Carl Whinney

A couple of years later, Carl planned a romantic marriage proposal.

He took Lynda to one of her favourite places, Portstewart Strand, and, holding a wooden ring he had asked a friend to make, got down on one knee and asked her to marry him.

"She wasn't expecting it at all and she was really surprised," Carl says.

"I was down on one knee with the tide coming in, waiting for an answer - and eventually she said yes."

The couple have continued to follow their separate faiths throughout their marriage, which has led to some compromises, especially after their children came along.

Their eldest, Zach, goes to an integrated school and all three children attend Catholic Mass and their mother's Protestant evangelical church in east Belfast.

The children were also christened in both faiths.

"We both take our faith seriously, but we have found that it has generally made everything easier," Carl says.

"We know we have different beliefs and accept it.

"For us, Christianity in general only has one baptism, regardless of which church you go to.

"We combined both of our expressions of faith by having a joint service in our back garden.

"We had a Catholic priest there and a pastor from Lynda's evangelical church and all our family and friends.

"A lot of people told us that it felt more authentic."

The couple thoroughly enjoyed discussing their relationship on camera for the new UTV series.

"In some ways, our story is kind of funny, but it's also a bit serious because of the religious difference," Carl says.

"I hope it is a useful story because in Northern Ireland it can still be a problem for couples from east and west Belfast getting together."

'For our wedding video we made a Carry On-style film involving a Massey Ferguson tractor and it went viral'

Loved up: Alana and Shane Mullan on their wedding day

Omagh couple Alana and Shane Mullan don't take life too seriously and their sense of humour was something not only their wedding guests got to enjoy but tens of thousands of people on social media as well.

The couple, who have been together for six years and married just over a year ago, starred in their very own "get me to the church" comedy video which went viral on the internet.

Shane (37) is a beef farmer currently expanding into dairy cattle and Alana (29) is a civil engineer and part-time lecturer.

They met on a night out in Sally O'Brien's pub in their home town six years ago and, as Alana recalls, Shane has entertained everyone with his version of events ever since.

"We didn't know each other and to be honest we were both three sheets to the wind and don't really remember much about how we met although Shane tells the story that I ran round after him.

"I think he has told it so many times now that he has convinced himself its true," she laughs.

The couple, who are currently building a new home on the land where Shane farms, will be seen on the TV show sitting in the garage of the property.

Again Alana laughs as she explains: "We've built the garage and studded the walls and we are living in it until the house is built.

"It was quite entertaining getting all the cameras and everything in our living room.

"We chatted with the TV crew for a good hour before they started filming and we all had great craic and it was very relaxed."

Loved up: Alana and Shane Mullan

It was the viral comedy video they filmed and starred in as a surprise for their wedding guests which brought them to the attention of the TV company.

Viewed more than 130,000 times on Facebook, it was the couple's way of ensuring that everyone enjoyed their special day.

The video was played at the wedding reception before the bride and groom made their entrance.

It showed the couple in a hilarious sketch travelling from the church service to their reception in a tractor which faced a series of mishaps along the way.

Alana says: "I wanted to do something different from the normal photo booth or fireworks. I thought about it for a while and then because a school friend was doing our wedding video it gave me the idea of making our own 'Carry On' film.

"My dad restores Massey Ferguson tractors and we put a sketch together which was a light-hearted look at life on a farm and the things that can happen to us.

"We left the chapel in a Massey Ferguson tractor and as we are heading down the road to the reception the phone rings and we are told there is a cow calving.

"Shane has to get his boiler suit on and head off. Then we are back on the tractor and it breaks down in the middle of the road and Shane's brother is seen coming over the hill in a bigger tractor and trailer and saves the day.

"Then we get a call to say the cows have broken out. We dressed up for the video and I was wearing the cheapest wedding dress I could find in a charity shop.

"On the wedding day it caused a great laugh and it went viral on Facebook and had more than 130,000 views. It was good craic and I always wanted my guests to enjoy our wedding and it really was the best day of my life."

With this Ring is produced for UTV by Belfast-based independent company Triplevision Productions and is sponsored by Ellisons jewellers, Belfast. The series starts with a double episode tomorrow on UTV at 8pm and runs for eight episodes

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