Matchmaking in County Clare: What happens in Lisdoonvarna, stays in Lisdoonvarna
Small, grey, and of meditative aspect, the donkey stood upon a near-empty street. Beside it sat donkey cart and donkey owner, the former small and red, and with a license plate saying ‘SLAINTE’; the latter sun-browned, smiling vaguely and pretending to be occupied with an accordion.
A window, its frame decorated with hearts, informed us via handwritten note of the ‘MATCHMAKING ON NOW’; alongside, two printed cupids stood entwined in naked embrace.
Hung from buildings proudly named ‘The Ritz’, ‘The Imperial Hotel’ and ‘The Matchmaker Bar’, bunting drifted gently in the breeze. Solitary men wandered up and down the main drag, each locked in frantic scrutiny of his iPhone; urged on by my guffawing uncle, I laid a friendly hand upon her hind and earnestly wondered if there had been some sort of basic confusion in my understanding of the weekend.
My trip to Europe’s largest matchmaking festival began on the kind of early morning flight experience that seems specifically designed to ruin any urge towards an amorous endeavour — long hours spent in the depersonalized glow of a departure lounge, gazing with red eyes at departure times and attempting to avoid the ‘lads on tour’ getting in drinks early. Landing at Dublin, I made my way down to Kilkenny and so to the home of my wingman for the coming weekend, my uncle John — a man of exuberant humour and one long persuaded that ‘it isn’t a midlife crisis if you are enjoying it’.
As a peacocking strategy ours was unorthodox; a camper van, one specially modified for purpose. Spray-painting out in the yard, John emblazoned three medic’s crosses upon the begrimed white of the camper chassis; here and there he scattered stickers designed to look like bullet holes. It was, we agreed, sure to be a hit with ladies. We headed west to Lisdoonvarna, rattling our way down the sleek asphalt motorways of EU largesse and trundling among the hedgerows until we reached the village itself.
Over 150 years old, the Lisdoonvarna festival grew as a way for lonely farmers to find a wife during the dark Tinderless days of the 19th and 20th centuries. With the harvest over each year, thousands of lonely bachelors and young women would descend upon this County Clare spa village in the hopes of finding a mate, inaugurating a month of drinking, dances, and consultations with matchmakers..
Matchmaking here is a tradition with deep cultural roots, and once formed a crucial resource in an age of limited mobility, poor communications, and deeply conservative social morality. Ireland, especially the Ireland of the Gaelic and impoverished west, has been until very recently a society marked by the mass emigration of its youth. Left behind would be the eldest sons, tied to the family land and with little means of finding a mate. Matchmakers and from the 1950s onwards, the ‘big dances’ of country life, provided a crucial means of finding romance. Alongside copious waves of Guinness, the matchmakers of Lisdoonvarna provided the essential social lubricant of the festival, fixing the young and the not-so-young up with, if not romance, then certainly a useful pair of hands about the farm.
Today the tradition continues today in the form of a month long party — and with no patrolling clergy other than drinkers in the guise of Father Ted or bawdy nuns, and a much advertised LGBTQ weekend promoted as part of the festivities, Lisdoonvarna has been updated for the modern Irish era.
It proudly advertises itself as:
Europe’s largest matchmaking event!
The village claims to see some 60,000 visitors each year for the festival alone.
Leaving the placid form of my equine friend behind John and I moved on to the Matchmakers bar, the great central point of much of the weekend. Seeking a professional assessment John and I entered the matchmaking booths where Willie Daly, last of the traditional matchmakers, sat holding court, his beautiful daughters at his side. Central to his work is the great bulging tome we saw upon his desk, huge and leather bound; within it has been written decades of romantic assessments, proposed matches, and the solid details forming the bedrock of romance — age, height, occupation, income, land.
Alas, we arrived with company, an older lady of many dinners and many, many pints. Cross eyed and leering, she drooled upon John and rubbed his thighs, trapping him helplessly with her bulk into a corner and muttering insensate nothings as, red faced and even crying with combined amusement and horror, he implored me to let him out. I tried to distract her, only for her friendly ardour to fix upon me. ‘You’, she lunged, ‘are fair springy’.
We escaped into the heaving crowd. Mottled flesh whirled smiling to the strains of country and western; 50 year old men, their potbellies proud and protuberant beneath checked shirts, stood leering at people line-dancing, or trying to grab the attention of wandering bands of women. Sweating bodies of all ages crammed the bar in varying states of inebriation, chatting up all who would listen.
The evening waxed and waned in banter with hen parties, and concluded with cheesy chips.
Love is of course a partly spiritual phenomenon; a protean, mysterious, even magical force. During our trip to Lisdoonvarna the supernatural was to be found parked with the Ford Transit van of one Madam Eleanor, fortune teller.
Proudly her van declared ‘I can see into your past, present & future’. Refreshed from bit of morning surfing and intrigued, we entered. Inside could be found rotating crystal balls, shaggy carpets, and incense. Madam Eleanor spoke of the ‘the Gift’ — the attribute of some Tinker girls, passed from mother to daughter, of spiritual insight; how she had it, and how it enabled her communication with the spirit world.
The auguries were mixed; a future foretold of career success, three children, but rather less indication of romantic happiness. Oddly I was asked both if I ‘lit a candle’ for my father and later, if my parents were still together; the spiritualism notwithstanding, death tends to preclude cohabitation. I cheered myself up by entering a lottery for the red ‘1960 Ferguson 35’ vintage tractor parked in the village square.
John and I made our assault upon the evening once more, he clad in a novelty bobble ear headband, me inhabiting the role of ‘Butch’ Kingston, Kansas agribusiness man looking for an honest Irish wife. Equipped with check shirt, Stetson hat, cowboy boots and cod American accent, I proudly told whoever would listen of my 42,000 acre ranch.
Difficult enquires about the road frontage of my landholding aside, the gambit met with a degree of success at ‘The Hydro’ nightclub, a large and sweaty meat market of a venue mixing both commercial dance tracks and solid cheese. The evening passed in a blur of dancing, meaningful enquiries on whether Butch could ‘provide me with a good life’ and rebel songs of which I knew not a word.
Beyond that, what happens in Lisdoonvarna must stay in Lisdoonvarna!
Travel tip shared by James Kingston