Dancers at the month long Lisdoonvarna Match-Making Festival     (Andrew Downes)

Sunday Tribune, 18th September 2005

Up for the match in cupid country

Scoff if you will, but the crowd keep coming to the Lisdoonvarna Match-Making Festival. Not all visitors are single, not all are looking for love, but if you’re under 50, ‘sure they’ll be lining up’

by Helen Murray

When your ex-boyfriends begin suggesting you have had bad taste in men it’s time to take stock. This particular missive was delivered around the same time my editor suggested I attend the Lisdoonvarna Match-Making Festival. At first I thought my mother had been on the phone again but as it turned out it was the powers that be who thought it amusing to send this single young woman in search of the perfect match.
Usually the prospect of stage-managed encounters fill me with dread but this time I hesitated before muttering my usual excuses of broken down vehicles and stomach bugs. Perhaps I should give this particular festival a chance. It couldn’t be any worse than being the prey of fellow colleagues playing Cupid and, after 150 years, they must be doing something right.
I decided I take the bull by the horns and telephone the Matchmaker himself, Willie Daly. “What age are you?” he bellows. “Actually, women don’t need to be accurate about their age so just tell me this, are you under 50?” I hasten to tell him that indeed I am and he assures me that the men “will be lining up for such a young one.”
A line of eligible bachelors is a fine prospect and Willie Daly says he has men and women from Fiji to Finland, from doctors to candlestick makers, and everything else in between. I immediately begin mentally packing my suitcase and wonder why on earth I hadn’t thought of this before.
I ignore the sniggers in the office and the murmurs of the geriatric farmer in want of a wife, safe in the knowledge that Willie will come up trumps. Friday morning eventually comes around and my spirits are only somewhat dampened by the torrential rain and the subsequent traffic jams from the Red Cow roundabout onwards. As I enter my sixth hour behind the wheel I become increasingly unsure of my route and it occurs to me that perhaps I am going to extreme lengths to locate my perfect match. As I wind my way along the narrow roads of the Burren with my windscreen wipers on full pelt, I begin to ask myself, is he worth it?
Hydro heaven
I eventually arrive at the Hydro Hotel and the managing director Marcus White greets me with a big smile. He loves this time of year; the people, the atmosphere and probably the € 3.5m that the hopeful matchees spend during the month-long festival. He is wearing a bright yellow t-shirt emblazoned with the message ‘Choose Love’. “Are you married?” I ask, getting straight to the point (I’m not doing the drive again next weekend). “Er, no, but I have a partner and six children,” he says hurriedly before being suddenly called away.
Mark Flannigan is Willie Daly’s right-hand man and according to Willie “he turns into a bachelor after midnight. Mark is originally from Memphis, and moved to the wilds of Co Clare almost 25 years ago. “The reason the festival is so popular with young folk is because it is actually very hard to meet new people these days,” says Mark bluntly. “People your age are quite shy but when they come to the festival it’s as if the ice has already been broken because everyone here is hoping to be introduced to someone else.”
I meet three sisters from Strabane; one is married, one is separated, the other is single. Their mother is upstairs. They are all very tanned and wearing lip gloss and sparkly leather sandals. They look as if they’ve just had their hair done and I immediately feel very under-dressed. “We’ve been here only 45 minutes and already a fella in the bar has bought us all a drink,” chirps Catherine. Her sister Jackie isn’t here for the men – she says that she comes for the peace and quiet. I thing her house must be very noisy because if there is one word you would not use to describe Lisdoonvarna it is tranquil. “I have children,” she explains.
The Strabane sisters head back up to their rooms to get dressed for the evening ahead and I cast my eyes across the hotel foyer. There are several grey-haired gentlemen watching a television in the corner, a couple of them mod in my direction and smile but most are engrossed in Coronation Street.
There is a sign on the door of the hotel restaurant which reads “No Room Charges, Cash Only”. I wander in through the tidy rows of square tables and come across four young men from Donegal. They devouring large steaks and creamed potatoes which are accompanied by even larger silver side dishes of dark green vegetables that have yet to be touched. In between taking slugs from their bottles of beer and gnawing their steaks they tell me that this is not their first trip to Lisdoonvarna. They come for the craic and the women and when I ask them have they ever met someone nice they look at me quizzically.
“Nice?” asks Pat in between chomps. “Oh aye, I always meet someone nice. Sure, they’re are all nice here. What about you? Have you a fella?”
I’m surprised by the question because I was under the impression that single status is a prerequisite for all hopeful matchers so I ask if any of them have girlfriends.
Pat immediately says ‘no’ and gives his friend Gerry a meaningful look across the table. I’m not entirely convinced so I decide to follow the sound of music into the bar and to my delight there are a number of couples already dancing. They all look very proficient as they glide along the floor as if their feet were introduced long before they were.
Come dancing
Eileen and Michael White tell me they have been married for 33 years. In between dances they sit side by side holding hands. They have three grown-up children and they both love dancing. Eileen is wearing a pretty black dress and pink shoes that match the trim of her skirt perfectly.
“We love it here,” says Michael. “Where else would you get music and dancing 24 hours a day?” I ask them if they find the festival romantic and Eileen laughs and shrugs, “Yes, I suppose it is romantic but you don’t have to come here for romance.”
Our conversation is interrupted by a man wearing a mustard waistcoat who asks me to dance. I happily agree only to discover that his idea of dancing is to hold me very tight against his chest and walk around the floor not particularly in time with the music. Once the music ends I take a seat beside two ladies at the edge of the dance floor.
“What did you think of him, then?” asks one with tidy blonde hair sipping a large glass of brandy and coke. I tell her he seemed very polite but that I am not much of a dancer.
“Probably just as well”, she says through pursed lips. “Half of them don’t wash.” She tells me that her husband died 15 years ago of a massive heart attack and that she has no interest in meeting anyone. “We come here for the craic,” she says firmly.
Strabane sisters
The atmosphere in the Hydro Hotel is relaxed and everyone seems to be having a great time. The Strabane sisters have emerged in all their finery and are attracting quite a lot of attention at the bar. Conversation is easy and a Scottish man with a moustache and dressed in a kilt tells me that there is nowhere like Lisdoonvarna on earth.
“I was in Berlin last weekend and although it’s one of the best cities in the world it’s not a patch on here. You’ll never have as much fun in all your life as you will here.”
His words are cheering despite the fact that pairs of elderly women have begun dancing together. The night is young so I decide to move on to the Matchmaker bar further down the town.
Larry Tighe is enjoying a breath of fresh air outside the Matchmaker. He’s from Virginaia in Co Cavan but adds that his mother is originally from Navan and is a cousin of Pierce Brosnan. “James Bond is in my blood, girl.” I wonder about this as he rests his pint on his Aran sweater-clad torso.
I meet up with Marie Daly, daughter of the Matchmaker Willie. She tells me all about the history of the festival and assures me that she has a number of eligible young men in her files. She lets me glance through her father’s matchmaker book which is leather bound and falling apart with age. The book is also filled with letters from happy couples who found love in Lisdoonvarna. Some have even sent photographs and there are a number of beautiful young Filipino women smiling out among the torn pages.
“As you can see, my father has been matchmaking for a long time and although we have a lot of people in the book he keeps most of the details in his head.”
Meeting people
Marie Daly is very tall and good-looking and it’s obvious she has inherited her father’s charm and spirited personality. She is also single and runs a bar in the nearby Ennistymon.
“It can be hard to meet people these days. I’m probably a bit too independent. Some of the Thai and Filipina girls that we have on the books make very good partners because all they want is a husband.”
Back in the Hydro Hotel the bar is packed and people are spilling out into the foyer. I meet one happy couple who have just got engaged. They say they are both over 50 years old and neither of them have been married before. “It took a long time to find love but find it I did eventually and it was worth the wait,” says Frances Kelly, her eyes beaming with pride as she shows off a lovely diamond set in a gold ring.
She met her betrothed at the festival in 2002 and he proposed a fortnight ago. “How romantic,” I gush, “Yes it was,” says John Smith proudly. “He did it in the jeweller’s in front of his sister,” explains Frances. “So he’ll be doing it again tonight.” This appears to be news to John but he soon nods his head and says to me while looking at Frances, “I’ll put a request in, I think.” “You will”, replies Frances firmly. They are both drinking lager; John has a full pint while Frances sips from a glass. They seem very relaxed together and Frances often finishes John’s sentences. I ask them when they plan to get married and John says quickly that they aren’t in any hurry. “But we won’t leave it too long,” says Frances with a confident smile.

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