Last week, Minister for Social and Family Affairs Seamus Brennan was in Britain advising some of the 30,000 Irish emigrants who are set to return this year to expect a different country.

On the same morning, a leaflet advertising wedding fairs came through our door. While the minister was struggling to list examples of the change in the country, such as credit, house prices, costs and immigration, he could have just sent all the would-be returning emigrants to a wedding fair.

This would have opened their eyes to the New Ireland far better than any economic statistic.

Wedding fairs capture the hopes, dreams and expectations of our twentysomethings and thirtysomethings like no other pageant. Over the coming weeks, the social and personal pages will be full of gushing announcements, trumpeting next year’s wedding season.

Marriages are in, and marriage rates are up by 25 per cent since 1995. There will be over 23,000 weddings in 2006 – more than any other year on record. This is big business: the Irish wedding industry is worth �400 million per year and rising.

The nation is in the grip of marriage fever.

And every wedding ups the ante for the next one.

In the new Ireland, your wedding reveals much about the type of person you are. It is a serious business, because wedding envy is alive and well.

From the minute the announcement is placed in the paper, the �weddingometer’ starts to tick. The weddingometer is a large internal clock which is switched on in the head of the bride. It gauges, measures, benchmarks, compares, assesses, ranks, rates and analyses every minute detail of the wedding’s progress, its organisation and crucially its execution on the day.

The weddingometer is both qualitative and quantitative. Taste and style are just as – or perhaps, even more important than – scale and reach. The weddingometer has the precision of a clock, yet the ambiguity of a social climbing judge. One false move can be fatal. One inappropriate flower, one unimaginative hymn can tip you into negative status territory.

For a young couple, nothing should upstage their big day. It is a unique opportunity to showcase your strong breeding, your straight teeth and your ascending status. Wedding faux pas are not easily forgotten.

The weddingometer continues to tick and by the time the bride is up the aisle, thousands of euro will have been spent on everything from flowers to place-names, dresses, cards, drink, food, bridesmaids, photos, cars – all designed to make this day the best wedding in Ireland, the wedding of your dreams, the wedding that will out-wedding all your mates, that will push the weddingometer into a state of mechanised nuptial delirium.

Enter any moderately proportioned hotel on a dark, dreary Sunday between now and March and you will be ambushed by the smell of Mac foundation, hairspray and baby pinks, soft whites, ribbons and general schmaltzy glitz.

This is the nirvana where �dreams come true’. Welcome to The Wedding Show – Ireland’s great nuptial roadshow.

Today, we are in the Point, Dublin’s largest indoor venue. It is thronged with twentysomething and thirtysomething women from track-suited blondes to highlighted brunettes in suits.

Some have forlorn looking fianc�s in tow, others are marshalled by gushing bridesmaids. Many are accompanied by their mothers. Row after row of lilac and pink stands are crowded with girls loudly discussing the merits of various products.

The sound system blares out a looped �My Girl’ by The Temptations and leaflets are thrust at you by the type of woman whose face cracks when she forces a smile.

The focus is on �the dream’. Live your dream, your dream day and so on. Running a close second is the �be different!� mantra. Personalise this and individualise that � from wine labels to match boxes!

New Ireland’s equivalent of the fairy godmother is the wedding planner who can wave a wand here and a tacky carriage with befeathered nags will emerge, a sprinkle of fairy dust there and the bride’s teeth will change from Marlboro Light yellow to J.Lo white enamel.

The wedding planner is the queen of dreams and overdrafts. For a fee she – or he – can create the perfect VIP day.

With such pressure, it is not surprising that half of Ireland’s weddings end with a bawling bride in the loo and a drunken groom at the bar ordering double vodkas and Red Bull.

One wedding planner has a suitably Gothic ad (there is a big Gothic thing going on with wedding planners: helpless maidens and dashing princes that keep recurring in a cross between Shrek and Saddam Hussein’s boudoir).

This agency sets the scene with a blatant white lie, claiming that �no two couples are alike’�. It offers the full service package. It promises the following: �A most comprehensive package. It is inclusive of all of your planning needs from budget development, creative event design, site and vendor selection, meticulous planning, etiquette advice, development of event schedules and timelines, and onsite event management.�

It sounds more like Microsoft’s AGM then an Irish Big Day Out.

I was intrigued as to what exactly etiquette advice is and who exactly might admit to needing it.

As for marketing the product one example is the Enchanted Occasions website, which is full of Arthurian imagery of Gothic virgins with long flowing locks being carried away on horseback by dashing, vaguely camp princes in tights.

However, unbelievable the queenish princes are, the idea of an Irish virgin on her wedding day is even more bonkers.

Given that the average girl loses her virginity in her late teens and doesn’t get married till she’s thirty, it’s a hard circle to square. �If another person asks me for doves, I’ll bloody kill them!� So says one of Ireland’s top fairy godmothers, who has seen a huge increase in demand over the past three years.

When she meets the spellbound ones, they discuss weddings they have been to, what worked and what didn’t. In the benchmark file somewhere deep inside the weddingometer, every prospective bride is gauging, dissing and sniggering at a �friend’s’� best efforts. In no time at all the �to-be-avoided-like-the-plague’ errors are listed. This particular fairy godmother only deals with wedding budgets above �30,000 and the most juicy commission was the big �1,000,000. Lots of doves at that, one imagines. What exactly does a wedding that costs �1,000,000 feel like?

The average Irish wedding costs �20,000 and, as we are getting married in great numbers, typically parental cash is brought in to finance the impact of celebrity weddings on mere mortals’ expectations. Hello! weddings set the tone – from J.Lo’s pink diamond ring and Brad Pitt’s self-designed (but obviously not very effective) ring to Vera Wang’s celebrity frocks and Britney Spears’ gift of Juicy Couture tracksuits to all her guests.

Photographers make out like bandits at weddings, plus they get fed and watered and usually end up scoring some drunk girl who has peeled off from the main group. One photographer describes himself as �relaxed and unobtrusive’� – I would have thought that this be a basic requirement rather than an advertised extra. Why not go for the �fidgety and interfering’ photographer next time just to calm the nerves?

So, if you are talking to friends over Christmas who are considering coming back to Ireland for good, point them in the direction of the closest hotel blaring that signature My Girl loop and tell ’em to take a long hard look at the future.