150 years of Matchmaking in Lisdoonvarna
Matchmaking is one of Ireland’s oldest traditions and, for the last couple of hundred years, a good deal of it has taken place in Lisdoonvarna during September and early October. The name Lisdoonvarna comes from ‘Lios Duin Bhearna’, which means the lios or enclosure of the fort in the gap.
The town developed into a tourist centre as early as the middle of the 18th-century when a top Limerick surgeon discovered the beneficial effects of its mineral waters. People travelled from near and far to bathe in, and drink, the mineral waters.
Rich in iron, sulphur and magnesium, the waters gave relief from the symptoms of certain diseases including rheumatism and glandular fever. The Spa Hotel was the centre around which the village developed.
The opening of the West Clare Railway contributed towards that development, although the nearest railway station was seven miles away at Ennistymon. This station opened in l887 and from that time onwards, until the advent of the motorcar, tourists travelled from the train in pony and trap to ”The Spa”. It was due to the popularity of these mineral springs and the huge amount of people going there that led to the Lisdoonvarna “matchmaking tradition”. September became the peak month of the holiday season and with the harvest safely in, bachelor farmers flocked to Lisdoonvarna in search of a wife.
By the 1920s, matchmaking was still in vogue and people continued to come and “take the waters”, including many of Ireland’s clergy. It was around this time that one of Lisdoonvarna’s most famous sayings was coined, describing the town as a place “where parish priests pretend to be sober and bank clerks pretend to be drunk” .
Today, the only true Matchmaker left is Willie Daly, who runs a pub in Ennistymon, and also has a riding school.
He thinks he was born on 1 April 1943, though he can’t be sure because the priest who recorded the date was ‘very fond of the drink’. He has lived in Ballingaddy all of his life, and still lives next door to the 300-year-old cottage where he was born. During the festivities you’ll find him, and his precious notebook of love-seeking profiles, in his ‘office’ (aka the snug of The Matchmaker bar). Queuing behind his table is a line of hopeful singles, all ages and nationalities, crossing their fingers and entrusting the man in charge to find them a mate.
You may even find the fourth generation of this matchmaking dynasty, Willie’s daughter, Claire, also in attendance, ready to fix you up and get you chatted up.
Nowdays, Lisdoonvarna’s annual festival has evolved into Europe’s largest single’s event. People don’t necessarily come to look for a spouse – they come by the thousands in search of a good time. For the month of September, dances run from 12.00 noon each day and carry on into the small hours of the next morning. Set dancing exhibitions are also a feature of the event and there’s live Irish music in most pubs, although getting to the bar can be quite a task, but don’t worry or hurry, because the music carries on until the early hours!