Love is in the air

The sap is stirring in the men of County Clare, where this week's matchmaking festival awaits hordes of single women

Tomorrow, this small spa town in County Clare is going to be transfigured. The first coaches will roll in, the boats will dock and the planes will roar down the runway at Shannon airport, with a thousand Irish ears attuned to the sounds of their engines. Because tomorrow will bring women, by the coach-, plane- and boat-load, and they will all be looking for love among the lucky menfolk of Lisdoonvarna.

The town's 150-year-old matchmaking festival is the subject of folklore. It inspired Christy Moore to sing about "hairy chests and milk-white thighs", and Brendan Shine to write a song called "Catch Me If You Can". "I'm awful shifty," he said, "for a man of 50. I'm off for the craic, the women and the beer". Things have changed in the world of dating since landowners used to bring their daughters into town and haggle over dowries of cows. Speed-dating and chatrooms have replaced the annual ceilidh for maids looking for a partner. But Lisdoonvarna's matchmaker, Willie Daly, is still doing things the traditional way.

"I've been a matchmaker for close on 40 years now," he says. "My father and grandfather had done it before me, and I wasn't planning on doing it, but I could see there was a need for it in the area." The lot of men has not been an easy one of late. "Women in the last 20 years have become considerably more independent. Psychologically, their mind dwells in other places. The grass is always greener. Women travel to the cities and men stay at home. It is very difficult for them."

This year, though, the bachelors can afford to be optimistic. "There has been quite a lot of interest in Irish men from women in eastern countries: Thailand, the Philippines and the like," says Daly. "These are sensitive women and very, very beautiful. They do make marvellous wives." He does not mean to be controversial. But Willie Daly is a champion of the Irish male. "These women were trained from the day they were born to totally love a man. When he gets up in the morning they would be happy to put his shoes on for him. But Irish girls with careers can buy their own homes and some feel they don't need a man at all."

He is also an admirer of the colleen, of course: "Irish girls are very winsome and very beautiful, and they've got a lovely charm," he insists with a faraway look in his eye. But his latest successes have been with Asian women. "Three of them have married fellas around here and people have realised these girls have such a very nice, gentle, sweet nature. Now we have had lots of bachelors actually coming forward and specifically asking for Asian girls."

Much else has changed since Daly matched his first couple. He has been invited to weddings and christenings, and disinvited from others because the couple don't want everyone to know how they met. When he started, "nearly 100 per cent" of the people on his books were young single men and women, with a few people who had buried a spouse. "There are much more separated and widowed now," he observes. "Nearly a third each way."

The Americans, too, have come to Lisdoonvarna. "American women get on very well with Irish men. Many of them might have been married a couple of times, well a few times, and they're looking for a bit of a character. They'll be well-off financially and they seem to fall in love very quickly. English women get on very well here, too. They might have to drink a few extra drinks to get into the Irish ways, but if you don't, well you might as well not come, eh?"

Daly is sure that Irish men are "the most romantic in the world". He is, himself, a charmer. With snow-white hair and forget-me-not eyes, he gives the impression he could butter up three women at once and still have time to write a book on the subject. But his efforts are entirely on behalf of his clients. "A woman came last year who had only one leg, and she said she'd been to lots of dances and nobody had even asked her to dance," he says, shaking his head. "By the end of the festival, she had four proposals of marriage." He later admits that one of the betrothed had to be run to ground in another pub, after leaving his new sweetheart with the information that he had a cow to calf back at the farm, and slipping next door for a post-engagement pint of Guinness.

There are some locals who suspect that the young folk are hijacking the festival, using it as an excuse for drinking in the street with not a thought for marriage or a long-term, mutually satisfactory, match. "There are four sisters who come to the festival every year from England, says Pat O'Connor, who lives in Limerick. "They're all married. But then I have a cousin in Cork who's in her forties and she's not married. She'll be coming again. I think she might find someone this time."

They believe in magic around here. That's why they diverted the dual carriageway from the airport to avoid disturbing the fairy fort. It is why they have founded a pub dedicated to Biddy Early, a local witch who was run out of town for putting a curse on the entire hurling team. And maybe it is why they claim Guinness is an aphrodisiac, an aid to fertility and a cure for insomnia, too. Whatever, it certainly keeps them coming back.

As well as the happy convergence of Ireland and eastern Asia, the festival has received another unexpected fillip in recent years. "Some of the men who were coming in the Sixties were saying they were getting too old for it all," explains Mr Daly. "And then they made this Viagra, and they're all back again. A couple of years ago there was a man from the village selling blue Smarties to the men. And the men were coming back saying: 'This Viagra is the best, you'd better sell me some more.' He bought all the Smarties they had, because you only get one or two blue ones in each packet, you see. It was all right because I have lots of grandchildren and they all lived on Smarties for the rest of that summer."

Lisdoonvarna is moving with the times. A Lisdoonvarna matchmaking festival website, matchmakerireland.com, even offers speed-dating to modern farmers. It calls it "the latest craze" with "the possibility of meeting 50 dates for three minutes!"

But Daly still does things the old-fashioned way. "My matchmaking business is better than ever," he confirms. "There is a lot of madness out there and people can't be themselves too easily. Girls want to be introduced to somebody to know he's an OK kind of fella and he's not married." With modern computer dating, he says, women have to be a bit careful. "I charge a fee to the men and very little to the women. That helps to get rid of the messers." And, it is true, the matchmaker's book is bulging with hopeful singles. "Get the pretty ones at the top," he says as he poses in the window of The Matchmaker pub for a photograph, the Polaroids spilling out from the pages of names and particulars.

To bring his service up to date, Daly has introduced one new innovation: horseback "love trails" around the rocky local land they call the Burren. He runs them with his daughter Marie, and a mass of grandchildren scamper around the horses and beguile the American ladies who swear they have only come to admire the view.

"You can go for three days or for six days on the love trails, and 'tis a very romantic landscape," says Daly, wistfully. "If there is love in you, you can guarantee Lisdoonvarna will ignite it."

They met at the festival: one couple's romantic success

Lily Mahon (40) is a kitchen assistant in a hotel and her husband John (46) is a maintenance man in an abattoir. They live in Deer Park, Galway.

LILY

"We've been married a year now. Before, I was working nursing an old lady who lived in a house in County Clare with her husband. They told me about the matchmaking festival and I was curious. We went to the festival on a day trip and afterwards I contacted Willie Daly. I got loads of phone calls - I didn't expect so many people to call - but no one was like John. He was honest and a gentlemen. It was refreshing.

John kept ringing and ringing. He was persistent but genuine. He wasn't arrogant at all - a really down-to-earth person. He bought me presents and he romanced me. The first time we met it was just the two of us talking all night. Then we met John's friend and his Filipino wife and they confirmed to me how nice he was. He wanted to include me in his life and I was interested in him. Six months later we were married. He is so sweet. I never thought it would work out this way."

JOHN

"Friends of mine, some of them couples, have been to the festival just for the craic and the music. Willie's a well-known character in Ireland. He has invited us down this year so I hope we will be attending again. I am just so thankful to Willie.

I'm partly disabled. Many women look at you queerly and go away from you when you're a bit deformed but Lily never judged me. The second time we met I asked what she wanted in the relationship and she said to settle down with someone to love and have a baby with. I wanted the same. She was so warm and good-natured. I met up with another girl three or four times through the festival but Lily wanted the same things as me in life - so it came through for us. Our relationship is getting stronger all the time. We have a healthy seven-week-old baby now, thanks to God."

Sara Newman

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