LISDOONVARNA, Ireland — The Matchmaking Festival that is celebrated in this little town in the west of Ireland may have its roots in the 19th century, but it has evolved into what could only be considered the largest, longest singles event in the modern world.
With the town festooned with banners and flags, the month of September here is devoted to any and all ages who are looking for love in Lisdoonvarna, be it a farmer from Offally or a city girl from Boston. The local population barely reaches 800 during the rest of the year, but there are at least 20,000 visitors who swing through this town perched between the west coast and the lunar landscape of the Burren to the east in September. Scattered on a block-long stretch, there are a half-dozen venues, including a disco on weekends (especially popular with the younger set), where crowds dance, drink, flirt, and have fun all day and all night until the wee hours. It is said that most of the marriage proposals occur between 3 and 6 a.m.
Much of the tradition can be traced to Willie Daly, 72, the so-called Last Matchmaker of Ireland, a local horseman and musician who carries with him a 160-year-old leather bound logbook of handwritten entries and scraps of names and addresses tied together with a cord. Just like his father and grandfather before him, the lovelorn seek him out to make matches and advise them on all matters of love during the month when the harvest is over and the farmers are freed up to find wives. “It’s a lonely time for people. There are a huge amount of bachelors in the west of Ireland. The daughters head off to London, or New York, or Dublin, and the men are left behind on the farms,” says Daly. “It’s lovely in a sense — all ages, and there’s a very, very big link of young American girls meeting young Irish men. . . . And a certain amount of American men come and are successful as well. Irish girls are fantastic — full of fun and great characters and traditionally they get on like a cow in a cock of hay.”
Daly was 15 when he made his first match between his 19-year-old friend and a girl whose father had to be convinced of his friend’s husbandly qualifications before she could become his wife. The couple went on to have nine children. And since then, there have been scores of other matches. One red-haired, middle-aged woman, Mary Crowley, sat in the kitchen of Daly’s horse ranch explaining that all she wanted was a man who could dance. “I just want to dance my heart out. I wouldn’t care what he looks like as long as he can dance and be a nice person, as well. How could your life ever be fulfilled being in a dance hall with a man who can’t dance?” Later that night, Daly introduced her to several men he knew who were masters of the quickstep and foxtrot.
There are a variety of attractions in the area surrounding Lisdoonvarna — perhaps even places for second dates. It’s a quick trip to Doolin, a town renowned for its traditional music, and the Cliffs of Moher are 15-minute drive. There are caves to explore, the Burren to hike, and bikes for rental. But at the heart of Lisdoonvarna is love. Daly is not exaggerating: There are a lot of lonely farmers in Lisdoonvarna, and they’re not just hunting for sex. They want conversation — or craic — and mostly, they want company. “They drink a lot, sing a lot, dance a lot. Their quality of life affords them a lot of time to make a woman feel special,” says Daly.
But women, be prepared. As Daly explains, “He might rush over and might say, not, ‘How are you?’ but, ‘Will you marry me?’ Here the fellas, as the night goes on, they lose a lot of their inhibitions. They see a woman and it’s like a red rag to a bull.”
These are not boy-men. They are rugged, robust men who work hard but also have the time to shower a woman with flattery and attention. And since so many live alone, they appreciate women — their warmth, companionship, and care. They are romantic, if singing to you while they whirl you around the dance floor is your idea of romance. Some can be coarse and clumsy in an endearing way. Others are philosopher poets who just happen to be working as farmers. They live so close the land, they are of it. Yes, they are hardy, but hearty, as well.