Once a tranquil backwater a few miles off the rugged Atlantic coast, Lisdoonvarna landed on the map thanks to its mineral springs, which drew visitors seeking the curative powers of these sulfur- and iron-rich waters. Lisdoon – as it's known locally – sprouted up from the karst limestone landscape in County Clare to become one of Ireland's earliest tourism hot spots.
But water wasn't the only reason people flocked to this spa town. At the end of the harvest in September, farmers descended on the thriving village in search of an alternative tonic: a cure for their lonely hearts. They arrived single and, if all went well, left with a woman who'd be their wife.
The meet-a-mate tradition – or at least the general gist of it – continues more than 150 years later with the Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival, Sept. 1 through Oct. 8. Billed as Europe's largest singles event, the annual shindig draws tens of thousands to this tiny town (pop: 739) for music, drinking, dancing and the hopes of getting pierced by cupid's arrow.
The star of the show: Willie Daly, Ireland's most famous matchmaker.
"Matchmaking is all magic, that's what I believe," said Daly, who's in his 70s. "A lot of my pairings are by instinct, once I know what a person wants. It may be physical attraction or a roof over their heads."
During the festival, Daly commandeers a nook at the Imperial Hotel's Matchmaker Bar, where he waits for patrons to seek out his services.
"I'm there most of the time, but sometimes I'm wandering about the town," said Daly, who comes from a long line of matchmakers. "People just have to ask at the pub, and they'll know where to find me."
His method of remuneration is similarly laid back.
"When it comes to paying, I often ask them how did they travel here?" Daly said. "If it was by Mercedes, then I'll charge that person a bit more than someone who arrives on a bike."
His daughter Elsha, who's developing a website to bring the matchmaking process into the 21st century, is more pragmatic.
"There's a lot of work going into the matchmaking process," she said, "so a charge of around $100 would be the norm."
Daly brings the family heirloom to the festival: a shabby, dog-eared book that contains the personal details of couples matched over the past century. The tome has magical qualities, according to Daly. He says anyone who touches the cover of his lucky book will be partnered within six months.
While Daly is credited with playing a role in roughly 3,000 marriages, his "magic" doesn't always work.
"A man in his 60s came to me from Chicago looking for four qualities in a wife," Daly recalled. "He wanted red hair, blue eyes, nonsmoker and nondrinker. I matched him with a lovely young woman who was interested in him, but as it turned out she liked to take a drink, so nothing came of it. It's hard to find people who don't take a drink these days."
Festival organizers estimate as many as 60,000 people will come to this corner of southwest Ireland for the singles soiree, whose scope broadened a few years ago with the addition of The Outing (Oct. 6-8), a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender-focused offshoot of the fest.
Some will travel from as far away as California and Krakow, Poland, to be a part of the action. One woman in particular is pulling out all the stops. Marleze Kruger, a 46-year-old widow from Johannesburg, South Africa, reportedly sold her home and is headed to the festival with the hopes of finding a tall Irishman with whom she can settle down in the home of her ancestors.
While the fest features dances and concerts held in various venues around town, the alcohol-free tea dances that take place from 12 to 2 p.m. every day in September are an especially big draw, according to festival spokeswoman Julie Carr. These get-togethers are held in the Victorian Spa Wells complex, home to the pump that once dispersed the town's therapeutic water from underground streams. It's also the site of the town's earliest matchmaking festival.
"During the week, there's a much older crowd who comes to the festival," Carr said. "At the weekends, the crowd gets younger, with more modern music."
Tourist-friendly Lisdoonvarna's vernacular streetscape is crammed with hotels and guesthouses. Predictably, occupancy goes through the roof during the five-week festival, exacerbated by visitors who are coming to town just for the music and people-watching. Extra beds may be found in the neighboring towns of Kilfenora, Ennistymon, Lahinch, Liscannor, Fanore and Miltown Malbay.
Lisdoonvarna's market square features bronze statues of a fiddler and bodhran player performing for dancers about to take their first tentative step in a waltz. It's a fitting nod to the town's melodious matchmaking heritage.
Daly reckoned the festival has kept the essence of its traditional origins over the years.
"It has retained the lovely oldness to it, which you'll see on the afternoon and morning weekday dancing," he said. "You see these fellas coming to the early dances combing their hair and checking themselves for the last time in the glass of the car to see how they're looking, and then it's off to meet a girl.
"There's great opportunities," he added. "I'm there, but they can do their own thing as well."
(Vic O'Sullivan is a freelance writer.)