What do women want?
While Irish men are not that practised in the art of romance, and while they might not chat you up in the supermarket or take you out on a date without there being a dozen other people present too, apparently they are not without their special merits. Joanna Kiernan gets together Irish women of dating age to find out what they really think of Irish men, and what they imagine men make of them. Photography by Sarah Doyle
From an early age, women are bombarded with messages about how to behave, especially towards men. As little girls, we are expected to exude sugar and spice and all things nice, and then, as we grow up, to be "a lady in the street, but a freak in the bed".
It is confusing. We are advised to act available, but not overly so, because then we are slappers. Consequently, we give off mixed signals.
But what about the men? Irish men are not like the Americans, who seem to express almost every thought in their heads and who have the confidence to go chatting women up in the local supermarket. And Irish men are not as practised in the art of romance as the French. Nor are they as forward as the Italians. But they aren't completely without their merits.
Irish women like Irish men's coyness, and can cope with the pack approach that they tend to apply to dating, even if it does take a while longer to then read what they are thinking.
"We always tend to go out in groups with, like, guys and girls that we know. Then it's really difficult to actually get a date out of it," says singleton and business analyst Rachel Corrigan, 28, from Mullingar. "They'll always invite you to a party or say: 'We're going out tonight, do you want to come along?' But they won't specifically say: 'Do you want to go for a drink?' or, 'Do you want to go for dinner?' They don't want to put themselves in that situation. They'd rather buy you a drink in a group scenario than invite you out specifically."
But in applying such cautious methods, Irish men can find themselves relegated to the 'friend' category -- tantamount to castration, most of the time. "Game over," as a male friend of mine puts it.
"I was in a situation where, like, I'd been texting a person, just as friends, and one night, drunkenly, that person texted me and said: 'Oh, I've really liked you for ages and I really want to take you out.' I was just, like, 'But I'm your friend!' He shouldn't have maybe done the friend thing, because it was weird then," says teacher Riadhain McBride, 24, from Kildare, who has been single for the past two years. "They kind of have to decide, 'Right, do I want to be friends with this person or do I want to take her out on a date?' and once they make that decision then there won't be any mixed signals."
"Then you can have a flirt here and there, thinking nothing of it, you're just messing around and nothing's ever going to happen, because they haven't made any advances."
It seems that Irish women like to know where they stand.
Dee Ellis, 27, an assistant TV producer from Stillorgan, Co Dublin, has little time for men who cannot be direct. "I hate ditherers." she says. "Like, 'Would you like to go out on a date?' Yeah, great! But, 'Where do you want to go?' Have some sort of bloody suggestion!
"I hate that when they just ring up and they're, like, 'So what do you want to do?' and there's this big long silence on the phone."
But while Dee says that she wouldn't be averse to making the first move, not many Irish women are of the same opinion.
"I would never ask a guy out," says Naomi Gough, 29, a teacher from Blackrock, Co Dublin. "I would never approach a guy, because if they're into me, they'll approach me and if not, what is the point in chasing them?"
Rachel giggles nervously, before gasping, "No. Oh, my God! No way, never!"
Maybe modern women like to exude a sort of proactive, 'go get 'em' attitude when it comes to dating -- at least that is what is suggested to us. And maybe books, advertising and TV shows encourage us to be aggressive in claiming what we want, including our men. But the tendency towards the traditional passive role -- making no obvious moves, aside from slight eye contact and twiddling a lock of hair around one's fingers -- is still very much there.
Dee explains an increasing reluctance to do the running. "I used to be really bad for, like, checking my phone all the time and interpreting things in text messages," she says. "And now I'm like, 'He's just not that into me.' I'm a lot more ruthless about it. 'OK, he said he was going to call me and he hasn't and it's now three or four days later; he's just not into me.' Whereas before, I'd be, like, 'Hmm, maybe I should text him; maybe he lost his phone.'''
Despite all our talk of equality, we await our Mr Darcy. "I know it's going to happen. I can feel it," says Rachel.
If there is a chasm of understanding between the sexes about how to go about dating, Rachel puts this solely down to the men. "I just think that they don't get it," she explains. "Guys are just really slow on the uptake. They don't think the way girls do."
But perhaps much gets lost in translation between the sexes. Take, for example, Naomi's ex, who climbed up to her balcony in the middle of the night, in an homage to Romeo.
"He was very drunk and he couldn't get into the house, so he climbed up the balcony. I didn't think it was romantic, actually," she scoffs.
Maybe Irish women are a bit harsh on our men, most of whom are well intentioned -- apart from the 'players' (who, if karma has anything to do with it, will end up lonely, balding old men with erectile dysfunction). Say what you will, Irish men are well regarded by women the world over. In a recent poll of 15,000 women in 20 different countries, Irish men were voted fifth-best lovers in the world, behind the French, the Italians, the Brazilians and, in first place, the Spanish.
And, yes, Irish women do have a soft spot for the wit and personality of an Irish man.
"They're great crack and, like, if you do go on a date with them you're guaranteed -- nine out of 10 times -- you're going to have a little bit of fun," says Riadhain.
"They're more serious abroad, I think," adds Naomi and I take from her slightly scrunched facial expression that this is a negative.
"But foreign guys will ask you for dinner or coffee or something on a one-to-one basis," Dee offers.
"I hate that 'coffee date'. Oh, I think it's awful! 'Do you want to meet for coffee?' No! It's awful. What do you wear, like?" giggles Naomi.
So does this mean a first date should always involve alcohol?
"Yeah, definitely, and lots of it!" Rachel exclaims with a grin. "I wouldn't date a guy that didn't drink. It'd be a massive thing. You don't want to have a few drinks and then feel like he's judging you. Genuinely, I would think there was something wrong with a guy that doesn't drink. What is his issue for not drinking, like? Does he have a drink problem? Like, say if he's really sporty and he can't drink because he's training or whatever that's fine, but people who are sporty still drink though; like I'm sure Brian O'Driscoll isn't a teetotaller!"
But Riadhain takes a different view. "That's what's really frustrating, because you can't really get to know somebody then, unless there's drink involved. I think that it's a crutch for people as well, because, for the first couple of dates they might feel like, 'Oh, God, I need a drink to relax a little bit and not feel as nervous', but you don't truly get to know somebody unless you're sober. Like, everything is kind of disorientating; like, you could have had a great night with them and then wake up the next day going, 'Oh, my God!'''
Many of the single women I know are quite reluctant when it comes to the advances of random punters in bars -- so much so, that at times it seems as though their defensiveness could ward off possible suitors.
Rachel Corrigan certainly won't be wasting her time on idle dates. "From first impressions, if someone asks me on a date, only if I'm interested and I think I'd really like him would I bother. I wouldn't just go on a date just to figure it out. I wouldn't give him a chance. I genuinely think that I kind of know from first impressions whether it's going to be something or nothing.
"Maybe I'm really cheesy," she says. "But I have this idea that I'm going to meet someone at a petrol station and they're going to come up and help me with something."
Perhaps Rachel has learned from the bad dating experiences of others such as Dee, who recalls a disastrous evening when her date got very drunk and started mimicking Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat, while stroking her arm. "In a pretty much empty bar, going, 'I like you'!" she says.
Or Riadhain, who had a first date become so "touchy-feely" and aggressive that she pretended to go to the ladies and left him sitting in the restaurant, while she promptly flagged a taxi.
So what is it exactly that Irish women want in a man? And does the 'nice guy' ever win?
"Yeah, but not a walkover at the same time. There's a fine line," Dee clarifies.
"I don't want to sound shallow, but I would kind of go for the physical attraction first, but like, obviously there's more to it than that," says Riadhain. "If it's not there, then there's no real kind of spark."
But Rachel disagrees, arguing that looks "grow old" and emphasising the importance of being made to "feel like a princess".
"Someone who's going to bring something to your life," she continues. "I always feel like I'm dictating in relationships, like, I'd introduce my boyfriend to stuff that I like. I feel like I'm always the one doing the introducing, whereas I want to meet someone that kind of inspires me to do something new."
Ambition is a strong requirement in a man for each of the women I spoke to, though all were sympathetic to all those men who have lost their jobs throughout Ireland in the past year or so.
"Definitely they need to be motivated career-wise, ambitious and want to succeed," Riadhain elaborates with searing honesty. "Like, it's a huge turn-off not to have ambition. You want a man to throw a hand at anything and say, 'Well, right, I can't do that, but I can try this.' Nobody wants to go out with a bum! Nobody wants that. They could be the best thing since sliced bread, but you need stability. I don't think money rules, I think love rules all, but money would be good too, you know?"
With the recession weighing heavily on the nation's psyche, is 'going Dutch', or even the woman paying on a first date, still very much a faux pas?
"I'd always offer, but I'd expect them to say no," says Naomi.
"You just want someone to kind of take control and make you feel special," Rachel adds.
However, control is a contentious issue between the sexes, from the suffragette movement to the modern-day argument that women have taken positive discrimination too far and are now emasculating men. In many relationships it is said the woman wears the trousers, but not many women appear to want to do so.
"Women do try to control everything," admits Riadhain, "but I think men need to stand up for themselves as well. If you get to control the situation the whole time, you're going to be so bored! Where's the excitement? Where's the little arguments, the sparks?"
Naomi is all too aware of this issue. "In my last relationship, I organised everything and that drove me mad. I even organised his life, you know? Because he was so lazy. I would prefer a guy to guide me. From my previous boyfriends, I don't think I'm very fussy at all. Of course I'm going to start being fussy," she continues plainly. "I always ended up with the arrogant ones. I've now discovered a pattern. I'm trying to change."
In April 2009, a survey by Innofact found that Irish women were in fact the fussiest in Europe when it came to potential boyfriends.
"I think you're better off to be fussy," says Rachel. "If you weren't as fussy and jumped into a relationship, then it could end up in divorce, because you kind of settled, when you shouldn't have."
Whether or not one subscribes to the theory that Irish women are fussy, certainly these women have strict stipulations on many issues. Take, for example, dating older men.
"I think five years older is the limit. I'd say probably 35 -- with no baggage," Rachel announces, before launching a brief debate on 'the baggage factor'. The fact is, the older a woman gets, the more chance there is of meeting a man with baggage -- ex-wives, or children, or both -- or indeed of picking up a few little parcels of her own along the way.
"I really don't think that I could do the whole stepmom thing," Naomi says. "The only chance they get to see them is at the weekend, so you're stuck in at the weekend. If it was to go any further and you do get married and have kids, like, it wouldn't be as special for him, because he's already done it."
Yet, surely experience of a serious relationship is considered a positive in a potential partner?
Naomi considers this for a moment before concluding, "Well, yeah, they've had a certain amount of training."
Other stipulations are a little more understandable, such as tall Dee's longing for a man who doesn't suffer from 'small-man syndrome'.
"I've been out with several guys who were shorter than me and it's an issue," she tells me.
"It's like, a bit of a wardrobe disaster. I'm just under 5ft 9in, and a couple of my boyfriends have been my height when I'm in flats. It's just constantly having this issue over what the hell you're going to wear and then getting phone calls going, 'What are you wearing?' and 'Can you wear low ones please?' Then, as soon as you're single, you rock out the five inches!"
Valentine's Day itself is an unpopular topic with some of this group of women.
"I hate it; it's a stupid day. Even when you're in a relationship," says Naomi.
"You never want to go out on Valentine's Day," says Rachel, "because it's absolutely mortifying. You have all these 17-, 18-, 19-year-old couples having dinner and, like, balloons everywhere, and you're sitting with a set menu."
Despite this, the romance and the allure of the occasion do not escape them completely. Quite the contrary, they all agree on one thing -- the goal is love, albeit eventually.
"There are so many different definitions of love," concludes Riadhain, "but there's only one feeling. Now, I don't think you could have that butterfly feeling every day, you know, 'Oh, my God! I can't wait to wake up and be beside you!', like, 30 years later, but obviously there are moments in relationships when you fall back in love with them. Something or other will happen and you'll go, 'Oh, my God! I am in love with you! I was only messing yesterday!'''
Photography by Sarah Doyle
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