A wild, wet winter wind blows in from the Atlantic Ocean, settling in squalls over the Cliffs of Moher. Three hundred metres below, waves crash into this limestone buttress on the west coast of Ireland.
Out here, on the heather that covers the hinterland, on the Burren of County Clare, there’s an enchanting landscape that has entranced visitors for thousands of years. Crude drumlin graves and remains of ancient settlements dot the hills at the top of the cliffs. It’s almost magical, a kingdom onto its own where elves and fairies might live, where shaman and charlatan might prosper side by side, where streams cut through solid fields and disappear down spout holes without warning into Middle Earth below.
And somewhere, on this mist-soaked gorse-topped bogland, Willie Daly is searching for his straying horses.
If you’re looking to get married, all you have to do is close your eyes for seven seconds and then place both hands upon the book. You’ll be married within six months.
- Willie Daly
“Sure,” he says down a shaky mobile phone connection. “I might have to cut you off if I see a pony. But for now, I can talk.”
And boy, can Daly talk.
Daly is a third-generation matchmaker. And as far as everyone here, west of the River Shannon is concerned, Daly is the matchmaker. The only one. There is none other.
When people talk about the romance of Ireland, Daly is the face of it, his wisps of forty shades of grey hair tossed in the dampness, eyes that dance a jig in a twinkle, and a full beard that stands in good stead chasing down his stray ponies.
“They were up here a while ago and we’re just trying to bring them in,” he tells Weekend Review in a lilting Clare accent. “We keep horses and some other stock, but sure matchmaking is my business, and my father before me, and my grandfather before him.”
And right now, Daly is the keeper of the book.
Well, it’s really a book, not like anything you’ve seen. Instead, it’s more of a folder, hundreds of fading handwritten ink and pencilled pages bound together with bailing twine and string. If ever there was a book that had magical properties, or could cast a spell, this — the book — is surely it.
“Ah sure,” Daly says, “the book goes back to my grandfather’s time. He died in 1901 and he was matchmaking for some 40 years before that. So, you can say the book goes back to the 1860s anyway.”
And just how special is it?
“Well,” says Daly, “if you’re looking to get married, all you have to do is close your eyes for seven seconds and then place both hands upon the book. You’ll be married within six months.
“And if you’re looking for love, sure close your eyes for seven seconds and place one hand on the book. You’ll be in love within three months.”
Err, pardon the scepticism, Daly, but isn’t it all a bit of a stretch?
Daly with country singer Nathan Carter. ©Eamon Ward
“No, not at all,” he says, and enters into many tales of people from all across Ireland and America and as far away as Australia who have touched the book and have been married and found love within weeks.
“It really is a magical book,” Daly says. “Sure, it speaks for itself.”
And indeed, there’s more than a little history to back up the success of Willie Daly the Matchmaker and his magical book of love.
Every year, for four in September onwards, Daly’s local village of Lisdoonvarna plays host to the International Matchmaking Festival. This little village, population of 739, swells by the thousands as lonely hearts and single souls descend on the hotels and bars looking for love. And Daly is there to match them and have them close their eyes and touch the book.
Last year, 60,000 visitors came to the festival that featured country music artists from across Ireland and the United states. And for Daly, it’s peak-matchmaking time.
“I couldn’t tell you exactly how many matches I’ve made,” Daly says. “But it’s more than 3,700.”
* * *
Albert Lawlor is on the other end of the phone from the outskirts of Limerick city. And he’s swearing by the magic of Lisdoonvarna, the book, and the festival.
“Meself and a couple of other lads said we’d go to Lisdoonvarna for a dance,” he tells Weekend Review. “We ended up at the Hydro Hotel.” That was 51 years ago, when he was just 20.
“I saw Cecily on the dance floor. She was a good dancer. I went over and asked her for a dance, it was a jive, and we chatted. She was 23,” he almost blushes down the line, then laughs: “Yes, I suppose you could say I did like older women.”
A year later, they were married, and have three sons now and six grandchildren.
It took six months of courting and romancing before the bar manager plucked up the courage to pop the question to the bookkeeper who held him to account.
“She said yes. But then I had to go and ask her father. He was a farmer, and only wanted to know how much land I had. Things were different back in Ireland then. If you were getting married, a girl’s father wanted to know that you would be able to look after their daughter. That was important. Now, there’s people having reared children and all before the marriage is ever thought of.”
And what about love?
“Oh,” says Lawlor, “Love is very important. I tell Cecily every day I love her. I kiss her before I go out in the morning, and kiss her when I come home in the evening. That’s very important. It’s all about the little things.”
Is that the secret to married life?
“You have to keep working at it,” Lawlor says. “It has its ups and downs, but you have to keep working at it.” Like now, Cecily is in isolation in the regional hospital, recovering from radiation treatment for bowel cancer that was diagnosed in mid-December.
“You just have to keep on going,” Lawlor says, his voice beginning to break.
* * *
For the tens of thousands who come to the Lisdoonvarna festival, Daly and his book are the centre of attraction. The village is on Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way, a drive that winds its way from north to south along the rugged west coast of Ireland. The nearby Cliffs of Moher remain the most popular tourist attraction outside of Dublin. In 2016, 10.3 million tourists visited Ireland, bringing in more than €5.3 billion (Dh23.7 billion) into the Irish economy. About 75,000 of those visitors came from the Middle East and North Africa region alone.
Lisdoonvarna has long been associated with matchmaking, love and arranged marriages. The village is home to Ireland’s only natural hot springs, and once the harvest had been gathered, landowners would traditionally travel there to “take the waters.” There, they met others from the same social strata, and matchmaking naturally became part of the social gatherings in local hotels.
“My grandfather was doing it for a good 40 years,” Daly says. “That’s how the book started. People would write to him and he would keep notes. It picked up its own magic as the years went on, but there’s definitely something very special about it.”
Times have changed too.
“When I started out making matches, very often you’d have to write up a contract of sorts to make sure the parents of either party weren’t left out or put out by the arrival of a new woman into the household. That meant writing in things like peat cutting rights, making sure there was milk and potatoes for all when they were in season. That was all very important. Now? No.”
Life in rural Ireland four decades ago was hard, farmers laboured and often had little time for socialising or finding a woman to share their homes and farms with.
Last year, Daly took the book on a matchmaking Caribbean cruise, and in March, it’s going with him to set up some matches for the lonely in South Africa.
“There are lonely people all over the world,” Daly says. He still hasn’t tracked down his stray horses. “Social media doesn’t make things any easier. In my mind, it’s a very cold thing. When contact is cut off, there’s no getting back together again. It’s remote. It’s not personal. You can’t look a person in the eye. I think that’s a sad thing.”
* * *
The horses are still on the loose
“Sure, they’ll turn up,” Daly says.
He’s a bit of a horse whisperer as well as a matchmaker. Any coincidence there, Daly?
He’s off, launching into a soliloquy on the importance of love.
“Maybe I am a romantic, but I do believe in love at first sight. There’s no better feeling than seeing that spark of attraction between two people and I believe that goes a long way towards keeping people together. Very often people come to me with a long list of things they want in a partner, and a list too of things they don’t want in a partner. There’s nothing better than introducing two people who might not be exactly as what they want, but there’s that spark of attraction there, and off they go.”
So, what is love?
“Love is a need. We all have a need to be loved, to be cherished, appreciated and made feel special. And the secret to a happy married life is making sure that you tell your partner you love them, make them feel special, cherished and wanted. We all have a right to be loved and all I do is make sure that I can bring two people together who feel the same way about each other.”
This love and romance thing all sounds very simple coming from the 70-something Daly. How old is he anyway?
“I honestly couldn’t tell you my age,” he says with a laugh and a twinkle from somewhere on the bog on the Burren where the horses are running wild.
“Some say I’m 71 but I’m older than that. Others say I’m 80 but I know I’m not as old as that.”
Hang on a minute. How can you not know your age?
Daly chuckles, and launches into another story that only he could get away with.
“Well, the priest at the time of my christening loved a tipple. And the church was next to a pub. So, there are eight or nine of us in the parish that don’t know the exact day of our birth. The docket went into the priest’s pocket and that’s as far as it got. The births were never written up and registered.”
Ah Daly, come on now. That’s a bit of a stretch.
Paul Duggan and Daly at the Matchmaking Festival in Lisdoonvarna. ©Eamon Ward
“No. About 30 years ago I got a letter from a woman in England. She said she went to the same school as me and was in a similar position. She didn’t know her birth date. She wrote and said she met a nice man called Richard, who was a few years younger than her. She asked me if I could gather five friends and get them to write affidavits that indeed, she was a particular age more suited to marrying Richard. I spent a small fortune over three nights buying drink and getting five fellows to swear she was a particular age. Anyway, we did it, sent it off, and she was happy.”
“Well,” says Daly, “Not exactly. About 10 years ago I get another letter from the lady. Poor Richard had died, and she figured out she was close to getting a pension.”
Daly laughs. “She wrote wondering if I could get the lads back together and come up with a new age for her, one that would give her the pension sooner rather than later.”
Is he serious?
“Sure, I was in hospital there last year for an operation on my shoulder. The nurse says to me that they have four different dates of birth for me. ‘What are they?’ I asked her. When she said the first one I said, Yep. That’s it.”
Yep, Daly, as they say in Ireland, a story never loses in its telling. The horses are still running wild. And there’s lots of fixing and matchmaking to be done as well!
Mick O’Reilly is the Foreign Correspondent for Gulf News, based in Madrid.