Every year for the entire month of September, the town of Lisdoonvarna welcomes up to 80,000 in for its world-famous matchmaking festival. This weekend Geraldine Carton ventured down to west Clare to see what all the hype is about.
From the get-go, I’ll admit that myself and my friends’ combined knowledge of the Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking festival is minimal. We know that people go there in the hope of finding love, and that the golden rule is to pick a suitor who has “good road frontage”, but apart from that, we know virtually nothing.
Kicking off, we were very lucky with our accommodation, booking an AirBnB rental that had only recently become free due to a last-minute cancellation. The property owners Melanie and John take great delight in our Lisdoonvarna excitement and kindly offer us a lift into the town that night. Along the way they tell us their own love story; the young Aussie girl getting whisked off her feet by the young Clare man back in the 1980’s. We all agree that this story is a definite good omen for a night of romance that is sure to follow...
To kick the evening off we head to The Matchmakers Bar, the infamous Lisdoonvarna location where we hear matchmaker Willie Daly is to be found.
When we arrive “Maniac 2000” is booming out over the loudspeakers. This is a song that’s usually reserved for the end of the night at teenage discos, and yet hasn’t even hit 8pm in west Clare. Looking around it’s clear many people have that I’ve-been-out-drinking- since-midday look about them, and many are already letting it rip on the dancefloor. The place is absolutely heaving with people, the majority of whom are middle-aged men.
As we wait in the queue we watch Willie in action; he is warm and friendly and knows how to make people feel at ease. At one point my friend Dee spots him making a note on one woman’s sheet. “VERY ATTRACTIVE WOMAN” it says.
The Matchmaker Bar
Willie Daly is a third generation matchmaker and is pretty much the king of this entire festival. What does Willie do, exactly? Well, he charges you €20 to fill in a form about yourself and then puts your form into his giant book aptly named his “Love Ledger”. The book looks like it was acquired during in the Viking times, but the legend goes that if you touch it you’ll be married “within six months”.
Such is Willie’s reputation that many people come from far and wide to see him. As we wait in the queue outside his “office” (a corner snug in The Matchmaker Bar), we meet such two girls. They have travelled all the way from Utah to meet Willie, and their eyes shine brightly with a mixture of hope and nerves. They talk with conviction about being matched with the “Irishman of their dreams” tonight and I can't help but feel they've been sold a dream that won't live up to reality.
As we wait in the queue we watch Willie in action; he is warm and friendly and knows how to make people feel at ease. At one point my friend Dee spots him making a note on one woman’s sheet. “VERY ATTRACTIVE WOMAN” it says. We chuckle and roll our eyes; he clearly writes this on every woman’s sheet. Ho ho ho, we know your game, Willie!
Eventually, our turn comes and we hand over our completed forms, giggling like school girls. Willie winks and wishes us luck, before popping the forms into his leger. He seems to have forgotten to write “VERY ATTRACTIVE WOMAN” on them, I note.
When we leave we all feel a little dubious about whether or not Willie will actually do anything with these forms. Nonetheless we agree that his business model of charging people €20 to simply fill out a form, is nothing short of genius.
Maybe there's something in the water, but as far as I can see they don't even need Willie Daly here - the crowd at Lisdoonvarna are well able to match themselves up with whoever they fancy.
Jiving the night away
Next we head out to The Ritz hotel, after a local instructed that this is where we’d find “some fierce dancin’ action”. There are so many people here that we have to squirm our way through the crowds to reach the dancefloor. Here twirling, jostling jivers of all ages jive away to the diddly-eyed twang of country music booming overhead. Many have been dancing all day and will continue into the early hours of the night. “I’VE BEEN HERE SINCE 11AM, WOULD YOU BELIEVE?!” shouts a man beside me who looks like he could be anywhere between 90 and 200 years old.
Lisdoonvarna acts like a time travelling machine, transporting us back to the days when guys ask girls for a dance, and everyone claps when the song finishes. Myself and my friends stick out like sore thumbs, taking continuous photos and squealing with delight each time one of us is asked to dance. This is clearly our first rodeo.
Everywhere we go, people strike up conversation and invite us to join in their good-natured banter. Maybe there's something in the water, but as far as I can see they don't even need Willie Daly here - the crowd at Lisdoonvarna are well able to match themselves up with whoever they fancy.
Like something from a different lifetime
The night finishes with some more “modern” dancing at Hydro bar, which makes the set dancing we enjoyed a few hours before seem like something from a different lifetime. At 2am we leave, exhausted but delighted with how the experience panned out. Not only did we experience one of the country’s oldest and most eclectic festivals, but we each managed to achieve our two key goals; getting up to set dance with complete strangers, and even successfully exchanging phone numbers with a hunky countryman (or two)!
Maybe Willie’s powers are more far-ranging than we thought… Here’s hoping those two girls from Utah reached similar success.
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