As marriages go, it was a small, unfussy affair: Molly Gibney and Paul Sterry tied the knot on December 15 at a registry office in the English city of Bristol. Just two close friends attended the actual ceremony, while post-vow celebrations consisted of nothing more extravagant than meeting family and friends for a low-key party. Afterwards, the couple simply went home to the flat where they already lived. Two months on, they are only just starting to plan a honeymoon.
‘I’m just not someone who’s ever been into the whole fairy-tale wedding thing,’ explains Molly, 26, a festival assistant.
Yet when the pair tied the knot they joined a very exclusive – and wonderfully romantic – little club. They are one of a microscopic minority of couples anywhere in the world who wed after the woman proposed to the man on a leap day. Molly took advantage of this ancient Irish tradition and popped the question to Paul, a 33-year-old illustrator, on February 29 last year.
According to a poll conducted by Associated Press in 2014, that means they are among just 5 per cent of all married couples in the Western world. That’s how many are thought to have wed after the wife proposed. Indeed, three quarters of people questioned during the same poll said they actually believed it was unacceptable for the woman to ask.
‘I know there’s that view out there,’ says Molly. ‘But it’s quite old-fashioned. I’ve never once regretted that we did it this way. It gives us an unusual story to tell. And, as a couple, it’s very us.’
When we spoke to Molly recently, weeks before the one-year anniversary of her moment of bravery, she told us the full story of how she took things (and rings) into her own hands: ‘It’s funny because, up until last year, I’d never actually heard of the tradition of women proposing to men on a leap year day. I was having lunch with a few friends – I guess it must have been early January – and one of them said he knew someone who was thinking of doing it, and I had to ask what he was talking about. I’d just never heard of the tradition.
‘He had to explain the whole thing to me. He was saying, ‘‘How have you never heard of this? Everyone knows it.’’
‘But I honestly hadn’t. That was that, really. I didn’t leave that lunch thinking about it and I certainly never applied it to me and Paul. It was just something I’d learned.
‘Paul and I had met a couple of years earlier, in 2014. It was a street carnival in our home city of Bristol. I was walking down a road when I saw a friend outside a house. He called me over and invited me in for a drink; and it turned out that was Paul’s place.
‘We got on from the moment we met. He became my best mate. We’re always laughing. He’s got a grumpy face, which makes him look intimidating, but he’s a real gentleman. We get very silly around each other and I think that’s why it works.
‘We became pretty inseparable pretty quickly. We enjoy the same things – live music, walks, socialising – and we’d hang out with both his friends and mine. We moved in together after about six months and as soon as we did, it felt like the most natural thing in the world.
‘All that said, though, marriage just wasn’t on the cards. I’m not one of those people who had dreamed of getting wed, and neither is Paul. We’d spoken about spending our lives together – it was something we both wanted – but I don’t think either of us necessarily felt that meant marriage.
So, what happened to change that? ‘I’m still not sure exactly.
‘It was a morning a couple of weeks after that lunch with my friend, and Paul and I were talking about how it was a leap year. It was early morning and we were getting ready for work, and he just sort of said, “Well, leap year – that means it’s your time to shine.”
‘He was talking about that tradition and my instant response was surprise – even he knew about it. I felt like the only person in the world who hadn’t heard of it.
‘Then that same morning – he worked close to where I did at the time – I popped into his office to see him and we had a cup of tea and we were just talking, and as I left I very clearly remember thinking how much I loved him and I thought, “I’m going to do it – I’m going to propose”.
‘I called my mum and asked what she thought, and she was totally for it. Then I did the same with Paul’s best friend – just asked him how he thought Paul would take it, and he was saying I should absolutely do it. I told a few of my friends too and not one of them said, ‘“Molly, are you sure?” and obviously I took that as a positive.
‘So I got planning. I looked online for ideas and there were quite a lot of negative comments about women proposing. A lot of people – a lot of women, actually – were saying it was forcing a man into something he should do himself or that it was inappropriate, but those comments were like water off a duck’s back to me.
I wanted to make it special and I spent some time thinking of the best way. There’s a big trend for public proposals these days but neither of us are into that kind of thing – I wanted it to be more personal but still memorable.
‘Around the same time I was looking to develop some photos I’d taken while we were on holiday in New York a few months earlier, and I noticed there were 10 pictures left on the film. And that’s when the idea came to me. I’d use those 10 pictures to take photos of me holding up five signs in five places in Bristol that were special to us. The five signs would say ‘Will’ ‘You’ ‘Marry’ ‘Me’ and ‘?’
‘I arranged everything, made the placards and got a friend to take the photos. At this time, Paul and I would quite often meet for lunch on work days. So, on February 29, I arranged for his two colleagues to pretend they had a meeting out of the office, so that I could go there and we’d be alone. I took round the New York photos with the proposal ones at the bottom of the pile.
‘We sat down to look at them and he seemed to take forever going through all the holiday snaps. He was studying every picture, and I felt so nervous. I just wanted to tell him to hurry up.
‘Then when he saw the first one – “Will’ – he kind of looked at me strange, like “What’s this?” Then he saw the second – “you” – and he realised what was coming. He was pretty surprised, obviously but he had a huge smile and he just said, “Of course I will”. By that time I was crying and we were hugging, and it was pretty perfect.
‘I’d had an old family engagement ring melted down and the gold put into a bracelet for Paul and a ring for me, and I gave him his and showed him mine. He couldn’t get over it all – although the main thing he seem bemused about was the fact that his colleagues had lied about going to a meeting!
‘He said, “Well, I guess I’m not working today,” and we went for a walk along the harbour. I’d arranged for his parents, who live about 160km away, to come down and stay with us, and so we met them for food, and then I’d organised all our friends to meet us at a local venue and it was a lovely, surreal day.
‘We set the date to marry for just before Christmas. It was small; just us and a couple of friends at a registry office, and then a little celebration. We’re having a big wedding party in the summer but we liked the idea of the actual marriage being simple.
‘In the year since, I’ve never regretted proposing. And I think Paul likes that it turned out that way. I do think it’s romantic.
‘My advice to other women thinking of doing the same? Go for it! I’d say, if it’s right for you both and you want to do it, why not? Why even wait for a leap year day? Just ask the question when the moment is good.’