Saddle up and find your perfect match

Horse-riding by day, looking for love by night... Jasper Winn joins the lonely hearts at the Lisdoonvarna matchmaking festival

"ARE YOU married?" It was a professional, enquiry. Just as a doctor might ask about a nasty rash, Marie Daly, a fourth generation matchmaker, was leading a small group of singles into the darkness of County Clare to go drinking and dancing.

Some were looking for partners, others weren't, but to Marie it was all the same. "Ah, love can happen anytime - it's like looking for one of your socks out of a pair, if you're searching away you won't find it, then another day you'll be going along looking for something else and up pops the sock."

In rural Ireland's past, matchmakers brought about the first introductions, then brokered the complicated deals between families - "plucking the goose", it was called, trading land and dowries for beauty and skills. Now the modern desperation for "introductions with a view to marriage" means that Marie and her father, Willy Daly, two of only a handful of matchmakers are enjoying a renaissance. "We get hundreds of enquiries each year," says Marie. "We've had clients from Australia, America, every country in Europe, from Saudi Arabia. And all because they know there's a fair chance we can find somebody for them."

While keeping up their traditional role, Marie and Willy also use their handed-down skills to meet the demands of tourists looking for romance with the "love trail", week-long horse trekking holidays combined with the attentions of a matchmaker. Treks lead into the startling landscape of the Burren with its Narnia rock formations, and the yellow, green and blue stripes of sand, sea and sky. In the evening, romance is brewed from the matchmaker's ingredients - hopeful strangers simmered in talk, drink, songs and dancing.

I arrived in Clare for the final days of a "love trail". As eight of us fitted into the pub's snug, Willy made full use of the crowded bar, meeting as many people as possible. "It's getting very busy," he muttered, settling down on a bench, "Lisdoonvarna is upon us." The annual matchmaking festival, Lisdoonvarna, starts in September, and runs for a month. "The place is just oozing with a kind of love aroma," enthuses Willy, "with fun and happiness, and the women laughing, and everybody is drinking and letting their hair down. Drinking and dancing and carousing, that's what it's all about."

For Marie and Willy it is rather like their annual trade fair and they busy themselves making introductions, keeping conversations flowing, smoothing over differences and searching their memories and huge leather-bound contacts book for possible pairings.

The next morning, revived by an Irish fry, we set off on the horses - a motley mix of beginners and others who knew their snaffles from their pasterns. The steeds were handed out on a can-ride basis. As we galloped along the beach overlooking the Aran islands, I tried in vain to spy "love trail" behaviour among the riders.

The exhilaration of pounding along the sand seemed to have wiped away all thoughts of romance. But as Deidre, whom I met in Ennistymon later, can testify, love has a way of galloping up on you when you are not looking. She booked her holiday with the Dalys to ride horses, nothing else. "But Willy and Marie are always working for you, so it was horse trekking to start with and then I ended up being matched up." Deidre still looked happily surprised. "It was to someone else on the trail. He had no intention of anything happening either but the Dalys were very right about us. From the beginning they were trying to set us up, and we were, 'No, no, we're not interested', but it just worked in the end, and we've been together for months now."

Willy and I dropped into the nightly ceilidh at the Falls Hotel late that night. The dancers were having a wild time. As the music slowed couples paired off to spin around the floor clasped in each other's arms. Willy looked over the dance floor with a proprietorial eye. "There are men who'd contact me and they'd love to meet a woman, but it would take them a while to get into the hang of talking to a woman again - they'd be like an old tractor that wasn't used for a while, hard to get started. But when they meet the right woman they might have 20 or 30 years of unused love to lavish on her."

I had a feeling that I too had been entered into their mental ledger, and that in the unlikely event of a client demanding introductions to barely solvent, chronically unreliable writers with a penchant for guitars and horses, I might get a call.

FACT FILE

the love trail

Getting there

Aer Lingus (tel: 0181-899 4747) flies from the UK to Shannon airport. Murray's Car Hire has airport desks and offers good deals.

Where to stay

Accommodation is at a premium during the Lisdoonvarna festival, especially on the last weekend. Local tourist offices might be able to arrange b&bs, but be prepared to drive further out. The Hydro Hotel in Lisdoonvarna is right in the thick of things.

What to do

The Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival takes place from the last weekend in August to the first weekend in October. There are dances and live music daily in the town and surrounding villages. The climax of the festival is the last weekend (2-4 October). Events include art displays and horse racing, and the town has a famous spa.

Willy and Marie Daly run the Love Trail from September to mid-October. Trails take six days and include accommodation. Evenings include dances, pubs and meals out. Shorter rides and day rides are also available. Willy Daly, Ballingaddy, Ennistymon, County Clare, Ireland (tel: 00 353 657 1385).

Further information

The Irish Tourist Office, 150 New Bond Street, London W1 (tel: 0171-493 3201).

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