My Big Fat Gypsy divorce: One year after her brash 150,000 wedding, how Joan Furey's fairytale ended in tears and tantrums
Joan Furey with her son Roman. 'The wedding should not have gone ahead,' she said
The last time the world saw Joan Furey, she looked very different from the way she does today.
Then she was spray-tanned a deep shade of mahogany and swathed in the most enormous, elaborate wedding gown imaginable.
She looked rather like a toffee apple perched on a cloud of candy floss.
As the original star bride of the enormously popular Channel 4 documentary, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, 6.4 million people watched, transfixed, as two burly bystanders sweated with the effort of shoe-horning her into the horse-drawn Cinderella wedding carriage that would take her to church.
They gaped in morbid fascination as
Joan smiled bravely despite the agony of a cut-away whalebone corset
gouging into her, straining to heave up the aisle seven layers of net
skirts sprinkled with hundreds of heart-shaped Swarovski crystals and a
20ft train, the cost of which we can only wonder. Money is never talked
millions listened as Joan faced the camera and gushed that she would
never get divorced from her groom, 22-year-old Irish traveller and
part-time labourer Patrick Ward. This was it for her. For life. For
Nearly two years
later, Joan cuts a very different figure. Sitting on the sofa in her
parents’ council house in Manchester, her tan is a faded teak and her
big blue eyes seem sad and bitter.
Her one-year-old son Roman sits on
her lap, and there is a telling absence of rings on the fingers of
Joan’s left hand.
It took just eight months for her ‘Big Fat Gypsy
Wedding’ in 2009 to turn into a messy, acrimonious Big Fat Gypsy
The decree absolute was granted in April last year, on the grounds of Patrick’s unreasonable behaviour — controlling, jealous and sometimes with a vicious temper.
He has since been absorbed back into the travelling community in Ireland, and Joan, 25, hasn’t heard from him in over a year. She doesn’t even know if he’s aware of his son’s name.
Not one wedding day picture adorns the family mantelpiece. That extraordinary dress has been sold — again for an undisclosed amount — and has since made a second trip down the aisle on the frame of another young traveller bride whose identity Joan doesn’t know.
‘I just hope it brings her more luck than it brought me,’ she says. ‘It was my dream dress. It’s a shame I didn’t feel the same about my husband.’
When documentary researchers first scouted out the newly-engaged Joan in 2009, they were looking to gain a rare insight into the intriguing world of English and Irish gypsy and travelling communities in the UK.
The programmes proved to be at once compelling and controversial, inviting viewers on a surreal journey where scantily-clad, perma-tanned, bling-loving gypsy girls — many as young as 16 — subjected themselves to draconian courtship rituals to fulfil their ‘dreams’ of getting married.
The gaudy — some might say comical — excesses of the ensuing wedding days made for unmissable television.
'It was my dream dress. It's a shame I didn't feel the same about my husband,' said Joan of her groom Patrick Ward. The marriage lasted just eight months
The series also showed the darker side of gypsy life: a scant regard for formal education combined with the nomadic lifestyle leaves many youngsters barely literate.
This means girls have little option but to enter into an early marriage and a life of servitude, where the needs of the man always come first. Domestic violence is often accepted, but divorce most definitely isn’t.
All of which makes Joan’s status of traveller divorcee and single mum rather fascinating.
When the third series of My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding airs on February 14, Joan may well make an appearance. She has filmed an update with the documentary team, but doesn’t know yet if she’s made the final edit.
So what went wrong for the series’ blingiest bride and her rather rough-around-the-edges beau
‘The wedding should not have gone ahead,’ she says with brutal honesty today.
‘I didn’t love Patrick. I had my doubts during the whole six months of our engagement, and that was evident on the show.
‘I thought I loved him, but looking back I just convinced myself because he loved me so obsessively and had pursued me so persistently.
'I thought anyone who loves you that much has to be worth a chance, but he was not the nice boy I thought he was. He turned into something else, something nasty, jealous and controlling.’
Unbeknown to viewers of that first show in February 2010, Joan had called the wedding off five weeks before the day, only to be talked round by Patrick.
Even the night before, she was having serious doubts.
‘I’d told my parents and they were very supportive, saying it was my life and my decision,’ says Joan.
‘I also told the programme producer. She knew what was going on, and didn’t try to persuade me one way or the other, but I felt under enormous pressure.
'If I’d broken off the engagement at that point, it would have been a huge scandal. No gypsy woman ever does that.
‘Also the whole build-up to the wedding had been filmed and was due to be broadcast. Not only would I be humiliated within my community, but also on national television.
'I’d signed a contract, and although I could ask to be cut out of the show as a favour, the TV company were within their rights to do what they wanted.
‘In the end I just didn’t have the guts to call it off. It was easier to go ahead with it and hope for the best. I woke the next morning, had my hair and make-up done, pushed all my fears to the back of my mind, and just let it happen.’
Her wedding day, on October 29, 2009 at St Thomas of Canterbury Roman Catholic Church, in Manchester, was everything Joan and the other girls in her second-generation Irish travelling community had ever dreamed of.
‘Your wedding day is all you talk about as a child,’ says Joan. ‘You’re always dressing up, planning your gown and discussing who your bridesmaids will be.’
Unbeknown to viewers of that first show of My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding in February 2010, Joan had called the wedding off five weeks before the day, only to be talked round by Patrick
She describes her upbringing as fairly progressive compared to many other traveller families.
Growing up with older sisters Ellen, 36, and Maureen, 29, brother John, 32, stay-at-home mum Maggie, 56, and dad Jack, 57, a retired labourer, she spent her early childhood living in Ireland and Manchester.
‘We spent winter in England and the summer travelling in Ireland. It disrupted my education and it was difficult to catch up back at school, but I got used to it.’
When Joan was 13, her family broke with tradition and settled permanently in Manchester in a council house. Nevertheless, she left school without sitting a single GCSE and then found work, aged 15, in telesales and waitressing.
Clearly, she will have earned very little money. Yet, as the programme revealed in eye-popping detail, lavish gypsy weddings like hers — taking into account the dresses, carriages, multi-tiered wedding cakes and accessories — can cost up to 150,000.
So who paid for Joan’s wedding Was the money honestly earned and taxed
Joan won’t discuss her family’s financial arrangements, what benefits they claim or taxes they do — or don’t — pay. Money, like divorce, is strictly taboo in the gypsy community. But she vehemently defends herself and other travellers against accusations of scrounging.
‘In our community, the woman stays at home and the man goes to work,’ she says.
‘That’s how it is. All the travelling lads I know work incredibly hard. When I worked, I paid taxes and saved for years for my wedding, which didn’t cost as much as everyone thinks.’
She was allowed certain freedoms, she says, but nothing like those enjoyed by friends ‘on the outside’.
Around 6.4million people watched, transfixed, as two burly bystanders sweated with the effort of shoe-horning Joan into the horse-drawn Cinderella wedding carriage that would take her to church
‘I know some families where girls aren’t even allowed to walk to the shop without a brother accompanying them.
‘My parents were never like that, but having boyfriends was impossible. Travellers simply don’t date or live together before marriage. I know a lot of my non-traveller friends find that very difficult to understand.’
Her own mother married at 17, and her sisters at the relatively ripe old ages of 20 and 25. As her 20s loomed, Joan wanted to hear wedding bells of her own.
‘It’s not like I feared I’d be left on the shelf, but I did start to think I’d better find someone,’ she says.
She met Patrick at a funeral in Ireland in 2006.
‘He was persistent, following me around all night. I was flattered, thinking it was a good thing, but looking back it wasn’t.’
Patrick ‘wooed’ Joan within the strict boundaries established and patrolled by their families for the next three years. Patrick visited Manchester a number of times, and the couple went out to the cinema or socialised with friends — but always with a chaperone.
Finally, in 2009, Joan accepted Patrick’s proposal of marriage over the telephone, and he travelled to the UK to officially ask for her hand in marriage. Joan’s father readily agreed.
Like most traveller brides worth their salt, her dress was made by Liverpool-based designer Thelma Madine at her shop, Nico, which became the backdrop for many an entertaining scene in the TV series.
For the next six months, the dress and the wedding became Joan’s sole focus — but doubts started to creep in about her choice of groom.
‘He was incredibly jealous about what I wore and did, and he hated me having a social networking account. He didn’t seem to have much drive and didn’t seem to want to work much, which made me lose respect for him. We had numerous, furious rows.’
The arguments grew worse after the wedding, says Joan. The couple moved into a two-bedroom flat, which Joan had secured through the council on her own.
Used to her own life, with friends both within and outside the traveller community, she struggled to adapt to Patrick’s more old-fashioned values.
His tea had to be on the table at a certain time and his wife where he wanted her, and he never socialised outside their close-knit, traveller circle.
‘I’m an outgoing, fun person but he was always so serious,’ she says. ‘It was like treading on egg-shells with him.’
Another bone of contention was the fact that Patrick wanted to move back to Ireland to live in a caravan park in County Offaly, near his family.
‘It wasn’t the thought of living in a caravan that bothered me — I’d done that plenty of times — it was living with him,’ she says. ‘I said I would go if he changed his behaviour, but he didn’t.’
Joan is understandably coy about the private side of their marriage. Having her courtship so closely guarded, one can only assume her marriage was her first and only experience of a physical relationship. The secrets of that side of the marriage, and whether or not it contributed to its failure, will stay forever with Joan and Patrick.
In May 2010, Joan found out she was pregnant.
‘I think he saw that as a chance to have more control over me, but I wasn’t going to bring my child up around a man like that. The rows were getting more serious.’
The rows intensified, and one huge argument in June resulted in Joan moving out of their council flat and back in with her parents, while Patrick headed back to Ireland.
Less than a year after declaring on national television that her marriage was for ever, Joan initiated divorce proceedings.
‘There was no shame — everyone understood what I’d been through,’ she says.
‘My parents were supportive and I’ve since found out through various Facebook groups that divorce isn’t as unusual and frowned upon as I feared in travelling communities.
‘I’m not unique. I feared for a long time that I would be considered “damaged goods” within our community, and I had ruined my life, but that’s not the case.
'I did everything I could to make our marriage work and it wasn’t my fault that it failed. I am seen now like a single woman.’
Joan gave birth to her son on January 22 last year, two months after a final telephone call from Patrick, who was then living back in Ireland, trying in vain to win her back. He didn’t call to find out the sex, or even the name, of his child.
Today, she is still living with her parents, her financial arrangements, as always, shrouded in mystery.
Joan insists she wants to go back to work, however, once she has secured a nursery place for Roman.
Today, although not dating anyone, Joan hasn’t given up on love.
‘I wouldn’t do anything differently,’ she says.
‘I don’t think I knew Patrick well enough before I married him, but I still wouldn’t live with a man before marriage.
‘The vast majority of traveller marriages work — when you think about it, I’m the only one out of both series of the programme whose marriage failed. You both want the same thing, and come from the same background. I was just unlucky.’
And she insists no blame should be laid at the door of the TV documentary for the demise of her marriage. The cameras, she said, played no part in the debacle.
‘If anything, it gives me something to look back on, I can see how unhappy I was, and how wrong it was. Yes, it provided an extra pressure, but it would have gone wrong whether they were there or not.’
Joan is now investigating whether she can get the marriage annulled by the Catholic Church, opening the way for her to marry in church a second time.
There’s one thing she is absolutely certain about: her next wedding will be just as Big, Fat and Gypsy as the last.
‘In fact I’m going to go even bigger next time,’ she says, without a trace of irony.