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The Irish Matchmaker

Willie Daly is the last of the traditional Irish 'matchmakers', matching lonely couples from around the world at the Lisdoonvarna matchmaking festival. Now his daughters are taking over the business, run from his farm in County Clare, in the west of Ireland.

Next to the wedding invitation, sitting under the light with a crucifix filament, is a letter just arrived from England. It reads something like this:

"Dear Sir, I am a 68 year old widow, devout Roman Catholic, with property and pension worth 40,000. I am looking for companionship in a respectable and responsible husband. Age and looks are of no particular concern, only that he must be a gentleman. Please can you help? I shall be visiting Lahinch in October."

The pink paper enfolds a grainy colour photo of a grey-haired woman, standing in front of a fountain.

"And that," says Willie Daly, "is just one of the hundreds of sad letters I have sitting in my files."

We sip warm, sweet tea in Daly's bungalow, overlooking the rugged patchwork of fields leading down to the Atlantic Ocean. The land grows dark as I speak to the last of the Irish matchmakers.

For 27 years Daly has been matching couples. Twenty seven years on a 63 acre farm, living with his wife, seven children and 30 head of cattle, surrounded on all sides by the bachelor farmers of County Clare.

The phone hardly ever stops ringing as we sit and talk in the casual squalor of his kitchen. Daly launches into Gaelic upon answering each and every call. Everyone wants, it seems, to speak to "The Matchmaker".

In the massive ledgers and files scattered around his house, under the beds, tables, and on the floor, are contained the names of thousands of men and women, lonely, looking for a spouse. The names come not only from Ireland but from America, Australia, New Zealand, Europe and, of course, from "across the water."

The west of Ireland is traditional matchmaking country. With the recent death of Dan Paddy Andy O'Sullivan in County Kerry, said to be the greatest matchmaker and accredited with putting together 399 marriages in his lifetime, Willie Daly is the only traditional matchmaker left in Ireland. It has brought him fame. Yet he is not the driving force behind matchmaking.

The real problem facing many of those living in rural Ireland, particularly men holding to the land, is that the younger generation have by and large departed for the city. The farmers are left behind, living alone with their parents - living in a pre-1950s era. These rural men can grow up lacking the social skills necessary to court a partner, leaving city women to refer to them as "mammy's boys".

For example, Daly has a neighbour on the next farm, in his seventies and still living with his 96 year old mother. A potential match appeared to be going well until the neighbour came up to him one day with a sour look on his face. Daly asked what was wrong: "Willie," the man replied, "she's grand but me mother doesn't approve." And the match ended there and then.

The famous Irish playwright John B Keane once summed up this blighted life, saying: "There are thousands of elderly bachelors in Kerry and hereabouts who have never once lain with a woman." Daly says that there are 28 men to every one woman living in the county, many like his neighbour.

In earlier times these bachelor farmers would have relied on the services of an uncle, brother-in-law or some other male relative to arrange a marriage with a local girl. However, farmers who were dependent on the death of their parents for the inheritance of a small farm were often unable to marry young. This gave rise to the adage: "Protestants marry early for love, Catholics marry late for land". In addition, many small holdings were too isolated for the men and women to meet members of the opposite sex.

Hence the matchmaker would be called in. Each county would support perhaps three or four of these individuals. The matchmaker would be a knowledgeable man (almost never a woman) perhaps poorly-educated, but nonetheless well-versed in local lore and traditions. He would certainly know each and every family within a 15 mile radius.

"He would have a charm for the job," says Daly, pronouncing "charm" as "chairm" in his soft-spoken Clare accent, "like you'd have someone with a charm for working tin and another with a charm for curing ringworm or sick cows."

Armed with his knowledge, the matchmaker would suggest a 'match' between the daughter of one family and the son of another. Negotiations would take place to settle the size of a dowry, whether one set of parents or a brother or sister would still live with the newly weds, the amount of land thrown into the deal and the cut or fee taken by the matchmaker.

The resulting marriage would be very similar to the arranged marriages of the Hindu or Jewish religions, and to those taking place in Korea, where a professional matchmaker can charge thousands of pounds for his services. The couple might only have met once or twice before.

Matchmaking is, and was, a male oriented business and it would not have been uncommon for a match to be made between a 60 or 70 year old man and woman in her late teens or early twenties. One of the locals on Daly's books, 72, had not slept with a woman since he was 12!

(It once transpired, remarks Daly, that a young man of 20 married a woman in her sixties, purely for her land and her money. Unfortunately for him, she lived until well into her nineties!).

True matchmaking was felt to have died out during the 1950s. Only the 'tinkers', or traditional travellers, really carried on the practice. This was an attempt to keep their bloodline pure. However, it often meant being paired up with a first cousin or other relative!.

When the era of the "big dances" arrived, Nature was allowed to take its own course. Young people were able to meet one another and the need for a matchmaker fell away. This was during the mid-1950s, when Ireland underwent mass emigration.

However, a brief glance through the "matchmaking" columns in Dublin's Evening Herald, the Evening Press., or in Ireland's Own and The Farmer's Journal, will tell you that the matchmaking process is undergoing a revival. The advertisements may lack the lusty nature of many of our "personal" columns, but there are hundreds upon hundreds of them in each paper. Many are from bachelor farmers, a smaller number from city folk or women. A typical ad reads: "Unwanted male, 25, needs lady to give back the joys of life and love."

In addition, there is a massive matchmaking festival held after the harvest every September, in the spa town of Lisdoonvarna. This is Daly's home territory. Although more of a tourist spectacle now, it still draws thousands from across Ireland, some in search of a spouse, as it has done for the past 150 years. Daly says he goes mainly for the "craic", the Gaelic word for fun and conversation.

He also explains, with a casual shrug of his thick farmer's arms, that besides himself, a priest has recently opened a "marriage bureau" in Knock, County Mayo. It is apparently doing a roaring trade. He expresses great admiration for the priest, Father Michael Keen, and the two often communicate. Indeed, Daly appears to be on good terms with all the local parish priests, and it's not uncommon to spot him chatting away with one or another, discussing the season's hurling.

He is a man with a dreamer's eyes and manners - probably the sort of boy who was constantly told off at school for looking out of the window. His handsome, weathered face is covered by a thick beard, black, turning silver, and he constantly smoothes the unruly white locks which fall down to his shoulders. He stares out, past the Bronze Age ring fort sitting on his land, to the ramshackle farmhouse where he was born 50 years ago. He tells me his story:

"My father was an old man when I grew up, me with my two sisters," he states softly, mournfully, "and I was never able to get close to him. But he could have been a matchmaker himself, he knew most of the people aroundabouts and had been born here, on the farm, himself. Once or twice he did suggest that this a-one or that-a-one might marry someone he had in mind. So I did have a bit of a feel for the matchmaking from him."

The sorrow apparent in Daly's voice when talking about his father may give a clue to his matchmaking drive. He seems to have an empathy with the lonely and old farmers dotted around the countryside, continually singing their praises:

"I saw my neighbours, good, fine people, dying off, alone, and the farmhouses and way of life going to ruin," he says. "There was no-one for them, and without a real knowledge of what I was doing, I started introducing people to one another."

Since that time, during which he himself got married to his wife Marie (without the need for a match), Daly has brought together hundreds of couples. There have been over one hundred marriages - including doctors, carpenters, teachers, farmers and farmhands. And only one divorce, so he tells me, has resulted.

The process by which he operates is simple: "Word has spread about me over the years and people often as not approach me, saying, 'Willie, can you help?' So I try and match them with an opposite. Always an opposite if I can; I think opposites complement each other."

It isn't really quite as easy as that. Each individual must be carefully interviewed, details taken of their age (approximate for women - he never asks, just guesses), physical appearance, personality and career. Photos are never used, as Daly likes to preserve "a little anticipation" for the first meet. The details are entered by hand into a ledger. One of his daughters, Marie, now helps with the interviewing, because of the huge demand for his time.

The various names are cross-checked to see if a suitable partner can be found. Daly's only rule at this stage is that he will never introduce a "mean man" to any woman. Nor does he think he should help young men find a match - at their age they should easily be able to do it themselves (the youngest man he has dealt with is 27).

However, he says he has helped several men to get an extra bedfellow - extra marital, that is: "The fellas I see doin' it always seem to have control of it," he remarks without a touch of irony: "A legitimate affair can enhance a marriage, I believe." A few 'temporary' arrangements have also been made for single men and women.

In a serious match the nervous couple will be introduced to each other in a pub, possibly under Daly's watchful gaze. Conversation, and possibly a bit of "craic", will take place. If all goes well, they will agree to see each other again, at which time Daly may or may not be present.

He charges nothing for his services, but will often receive gifts worth up to 100 for a successful match (one leading to a marriage). His wife was once sent a tumble drier by an elderly, rich American man whom Daly had failed to match - but who had been grateful for the effort made to dry his wet clothes in front of their fire!

There have been problems and some failures, however. Five times during their life, the Daly's have sailed close to financial ruin. Matchmaking is a non-profit making pursuit, and financial security has only recently been achieved with the acquisition of a pub and restaurant in nearby Ennistymon town.

In addition, Daly doesn't seem to hold too much truck with the opinions of modern, educated women. He says that it is they, and not men, who have changed most in attitude over the past 27 years: "If they're too educated, it damages their appetite for romance and that kind of thing," he states earnestly.

And he reacts with surprise when a woman turns down a prospective match with a farmer 20 or even 30 years her senior. The problem is that every 60 or 70 year old male is described as "a fine looking man, big, with a full head of hair." But Daly insists that: "A young girl would take the stress out of an old fella's life."

He was once threatened with legal action by a lady calling up at one in the morning. She complained that her match "had touched her" on their first date. Daly wrote off the incident, saying that she was a social worker and was upset at his refusal to allow her to help with the matchmaking.

He also managed to insult a long standing female friend when he recently suggested he make a match for her. Another woman, standing in his pub, called him "a right dick head" as he sang a Gaelic folk song only afew feet away. Judging by the letters, phone calls, and visits, however, there are plenty of women willing to stand by his judgement. Only last month he was visited by four English ladies, searching for husbands.

But there are others who are dubious about the existence of any "real" matchmaking. Many of the local teenagers laugh at the idea, accustomed as they are to a world of Sky TV, grunge music and discos. The priest in Castlebar, County Mayo, where I first met Daly, believed that matchmakers were a throwback to a past better forgotten.

Decklan Hassett, who runs the Kilshanny B&B near to Daly's farm, thinks that matchmaking is put on purely for the tourists' benefit. Dick Lynch, a local hotelier in Lisdoonvarna, calls modern matchmaking "a gimmick" and John Petty, who lives in the same town, says: "There's no such thing as matchmaking. It's all down to Nature, same as if you were any place else."

All of which is strange, seeing as these people only live a few miles down the road from Daly. A sensitive man, he is stung by such criticism - and seems to genuinely believe that he is helping others less fortunate than himself. But Clare is a poor county, with close communities, where you can live for 20 years as a "blowin" (an outsider). Apparent success and attention can cause resentment.

It is true that Daly has expanded his efforts nationwide over the past year, talking to the old folk at the Dublin dances, placing the odd ad (on someone else's behalf) into a matchmaking column and introducing couples living in Ireland's other cities. On his sister's advice, he says. But you could hardly call it a commercial enterprise. He doesn't charge a fee, has no assistant or computer, nor does he advertise In short, he has none of the trappings commonly associated with a professional dating agency.

Everything that looks vaguely modern, in the house or outside of it, is, you realise, second hand or falling apart. Material possessions don't appear to matter to the man. He seems to have a sketchy understanding of the modern world, but his feet are firmly planted in the old - the old world of the wandering folk lore teachers known as "shenachie". He speaks fluent Gaelic, for example, yet misspells a sign written in English which advertises his new restaurant.

As the last spool on the interview tape comes to an end, I ask Daly about the future. He makes a casual reply referring to "his clients". We both laugh, acknowledging his slip of the tongue. I could be cynical and say that the man was after some form of recognition and commercial success. I could, had I not met so many locals such as "Ikey" and Eamonn, heavy set, well-dressed farmers sitting in the pubs of Ennistymon, prepared to swear by him and call him "a real gentleman".

And, of course, for the latest wedding invitation, sitting under the light with the crucifix filament.

This article originally appeared in The Sunday Post Magazine © Oct 93

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