Where the lonely go for a grope or a wife: Marriages are still made in Lisdoonvarna, but Esther Oxford finds that the Irish matchmaking festival is not quite what it used to be

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Leaning back with a pint of bitter propped high on his stomach and a film of froth on his upper lip, Bill Hogan, a beef farmer from just outside Lisdoonvarna, in Ireland, surveyed the stock. 'Healthy teeth are always a point to look out for and clear eyes, too. A nice firm body wouldn't go amiss, but I do prefer them short and fat: when they are ugly they succumb more easily. Buy them a drink, have a bit of a jig and they're all over you.'

The stock under discussion was wearing dresses. Flowery dresses. Frilly dresses. Low-cut dresses. It was also heavily made-up and smelt clean. Some had numbers stamped on their hands, to prove they had paid their cover charge.

The surveying farmers stood admiringly, hands on their stomachs, legs slightly bent; they carried an odour of sour milk and sheep dip. If they spotted 'a bit of cotton' that looked momentarily abandoned and flustered, they would saunter over, fast. 'Feel like a dance? You wanna dance?'

Mr Hogan, 54, has been coming to the matchmaking festival in Lisdoonvarna for five successive years. He was looking for a wife. No. He corrected himself: he really wants someone who can cook, look after his beloved dog and tend to him when he gets old. He likes the festival because it allows him to cut corners in courting. If a woman doesn't respond to a quick grab, she is obviously not interested. But at least she is not angry and there are plenty of other rumps in the room.

'I haven't had much luck this year. The first fling wanted marriage. I wouldn't have it: I'd be bored stiff after six months. The second one wouldn't go further than a kiss.

'In the olden days I used to hold a girl's hand for a month before I made a move on her. I haven't got that kind of time anymore. It gets expensive. What I'm looking for is a woman who feels the same frustrations as myself. Someone who will, you know . . . (here he gives a wink) Are you

familiar?'

A glamorous woman in her fifties sidled by. Real class. Plonking down his beer mug, Mr Hogan said: 'I'll be knocking her off tonight. Mark my words.' Gallantly, forcefully, he swept her into his arms.

In the month of September, just after the harvest and a month before the livestock need extra feeding, this small town on the west coast plays host to 'the biggest singles event in Europe'. Overnight, family houses metamorphose into bed and breakfasts as a monthly total of 7,000 visitors - mostly Irish, some English - roll into town.

A day on the matchmaking circuit starts at 11am: square dancing at the Spa Wells dancing centre is known as 'the first chance of the day'. Then back to town, where smoke- and violin-filled bars exhale strains of an Irish jig. Then on to the second formal dance of the day: 4pm at Ballinalackin Castle. After the dance it is back to town for a drinking and bottom-pinching binge that can last until 8 o'clock the next morning.

The tradition started in the last century, when farmers and their wives would come to Lisdoonvarna to enjoy the town's sulphur springs. While dabbling in the baths, they would discuss their sons and daughters with landowners whose offspring were deemed suitable. An agreement would be reached about the number of cows on offer and the quality of the land put up for the dowry. Once settled, the couple in question would be introduced.

If romance was not forthcoming, the services of a matchmaker were employed and the process would start again.

The matchmaker was usually a man with an expansive local knowledge, an eye for a good partnership and a fast tongue. He would 'sell' families to one another and negotiate the dowry. His fee would be pounds 1 for each cow the farmer owned and pounds 2 for each horse. In a lifetime a matchmaker might bring together 400 couples.

The tradition of matchmaking died out in the Forties but was revived by James White, a former MP from County Donegal, who gave up politics 14 years ago, bought the Hydro Hotel in Lisdoonvarna and started a computerised matchmaking service. But the locals didn't seem to take to it.

Now Mr White concentrates his energy on herding visitors in and out of his hotels (he owns four) and bars.

'My services as a matchmaker are no longer needed. Punters stand a better chance of finding a partner if they follow the circuit of pubs and square dances. Rejection is not so painful when there are plenty of other opportunities to be had: if one person doesn't fancy you, there is always the chance that the next one will.' Mr White omitted to mention that the ratio of men to women was 3:1.

Four years ago, Eileen and Patrick Murphy met on the dancefloor at the Ritz pub. It was love on the spot. No games, no mucking about. She noticed his legs; he noticed her standing 'looking lovely, above the crowd'. Within three days Mr Murphy proposed marriage. Mrs Murphy accepted. After three months they were officially engaged. Six months later they were married.

'I told him I would marry but I wouldn't give up working. Having said that, I had to give up my job teaching to move to the farm. We opened a bed and breakfast and Patrick taught me how to help with the cows. He was a wise teacher: he introduced me to beef farming slowly and made sure that I was never left by myself with a cow.'

Mr and Mrs Murphy return to Lisdoonvarna every year to celebrate. They look happy. Mrs Murphy, a small woman with rosy cheeks, hangs in his protective arms. Around them, groomed loners look on with envy, twisting their caps with gnarled hands.

Madame Rosalita Elvera is the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter. Outside her caravan there is a poster of her: gorgeous, with sparkling dark eyes, luscious lashes and big, loopy ear-rings. She is 39 now (but looks older), overweight, with a failed marriage and several children. Around her head a plastic antenna flashes red and yellow bulbs against the darkness. Her dress is of black and silver sequins.

'Lisdoonvarna is full of loneliness. I've travelled the world and I've never met so many lonely people. They come in here biting their nails, crying. They say they have nothing to live for. We look in their palms and tell them: 'Don't do anything foolish - you have everything to live for. It is a question of mind over matter. Follow your heart, not your mind. Don't try to live up to the Joneses.'

She took away the mug of sugary tea and put a plastic red rose in its place. 'We act as counsellors to them. We try to make their burden easier. We do not dabble in the work of the devil.'

Outside the caravan, a group of lads was gathered round the Muscle Buster. Rolling up their sleeves, they would pick up the mallet and proceed to smash it down on the buster with all the force they could muster. Some scored full points: the bell rang, the women clapped. Some only half made it; they took off quickly, leaving their mates rolling around with mirth.

In the Matchmaker Bar a man in his early fifties gathered the courage to approach two girls with the offer of a drink. A row of single men looked on, waiting to see what would happen. The girls exchanged smirks and nodded their acceptance. Triumphant, the man started chatting: how his wife died three years ago, how he was hoping to find someone to replace her.

The lasses sat in a conspiratorial silence. He took this to mean they understood and sympathised with his predicament. Excusing himself for moment, he disappeared into the gents to straighten his toupee. When he returned a guy in his twenties with rosy cheeks and endearingly scruffed hair was standing in his place. The girls were giggling, smiling, flicking their hair.

The older man looked stung by the betrayal: he had found them, he had bought them drinks. Without a word he retreated once more to his corner, all eyes upon him.

The daily routine of the festival is set out like a circuit to minimise such pain, says Mr White, owner of the Matchmaker Bar. 'The secret of the festival's success is to keep people moving - that way there isn't the time for them to register failure.'

But some people who have lived in Lisdoonvarna all their lives say that the focus on 'circuiting' rather than organised matchmaking has lowered the tone of the event.

'Fifty years ago this was a genuine festival for matchmaking. People came here to meet their prospective husband or wife,' said Brendon Hillary, the owner of the Town House Hotel. 'Nowadays it is just a free-for-all. You see them doing it in cars, up against walls, under hedges. I'm not for that at all - with all these diseases around, it is a dangerous thing

to do.

'We had a group of married women here last week. They would call their husbands every night before they went out. In the early hours of the morning they would be back with a different guy each time. On Wednesday they weren't back here until 8.15 in the morning. Three guys for two women. I wouldn't let them in.'

Mr Hillary sat in the hotel reception, stone-cold sober, watching the goings-on of the festival. From the lounge came the shrills and shrieks of vivacious American females. Outside, the pavements were wet with fresh rain. It must have been about three or four in the morning. A drunk was lying flat on his stomach, a row of beer cans lined up around his head. Older couples were saying goodbye: passionate embraces, lingering looks, arms stretched out, fingers touching the last touch.

The next morning in the Hydro Hotel, Mr White's breakfast room was half empty. Bodies slept in the reception, in front of the television, halfway up the stairs. Fag- ends lay smouldering on the rolled-up Persian carpets. Smells, hangovers and sick.

Just down the road, Sunday morning mass was in full swing. The church was so packed that the congregation was oozing on to the pavement. Among the worshippers in the front pew all traces of the night before had been wiped away: suits and hats had been donned, teeth had been cleaned. But the farther back you looked, the more dishevelled the congregation became. By the time you got to the door, worshippers were leaning up against anti-abortion posters and reading copies of the News of the World.

Twelve o'clock down at the spa: couples are lining up to pay their pounds 2 entry fee to the Square Dance. Inside, the spectacle is charming: flowered ladies, wedding rings heavy and big on their skinny fingers, are waltzing with their partners, blissful smiles all over their faces. Frail bodies and half- blinded eyes are forgotten. The gazes are tender, full of memories from the days of courting. In time to the music, trembling lips mouth the words of the song: 'It is hard to say goodbye to yesterday, so this is where the cowboy rides away . . .'

Just there, some beauty could be found.

(Photograph omitted)

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