Think matchmaking is old-fashioned? Well, think again. Amanda Phelan meets the woman who is dragging Cupid into the 21st century and helping on man to repopulate Sherkin Island in the process.
Ask Claire Daly to meddle in your life and it could lead to love, romance — even marriage and children. The dark-haired, green-eyed woman from Co Clare is finally ready to step up to the matchmaking role that’s been part of her family tradition for 120 years.
This year, as the Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival attracted hundreds of lovelorn singletons looking for a partner for life, or even just one night, Claire, 37, joined her father, Willie Daly, to help carry out the matchmaking services started by his grandfather.
In fact, her own matchmaking skills were so effective she almost paired off the man who was to become her husband with another woman. But, thankfully, Cupid intervened.
Lisdoonvarna wasn’t a place to find a love partner when it first became popular as a spa town in the early 20th century. But the Dalys helped to change that, and the town now draws hundreds of Irish and international hopefuls in September to the country’s largest matchmaking festival.
Claire is the only one of Willie’s eight children willing or able to don the romance mantle full-time. Willie had almost given up on producing an heir for the business, so much so that his new autobiography — which is ghost-written but with plenty of true Daly wisdom — is titled ‘The Last Matchmaker’.
But Claire has breathed new life into the profession and she’s proud of her newly launched website, The Matchmaker’s Daughter. So far, she says, the majority of customers are Irish males, with the occasional overseas hopeful, such as “a hunk over in Australia who is 49 and wants to meet an Irishwoman”.
Claire’s decision is a welcome turn of events for her Da, a man with a salt-andpepper beard, furled trousers and the turn of phrase only an Irish matchmaker could carry off.
Daughter and father acknowledge that things have changed a lot in the romance stakes, even in Lisdoonvarna, where not so long ago courting a woman might mean you’d only need to show her father you had a few head of cattle and a willingness to marry.
“It can be harder to meet up with someone in this day and age, although I think people are moving back to the simpler things,” Claire says, speaking at the long wooden table in her kitchen where we are chatting over a cup of tea, and pausing every so often to welcome the stream of friends, neighbours or relatives who pop by.
“I’m contacted by all kinds — educated people, business types, farmers, beautiful young women — and they all want someone to share their life with. There are a lot of shy people out there.”
She advises lonely hearts to “get out there” if they want to meet a soulmate, warning of the folly of leaving your chance of a kiss to kismet.
“Nobody’s going to come knocking at your door unless they know where it is.”
Willie, who has been responsible for hundreds of successful matches over the years and has not a few babies named after him, agrees, but with a word of caution: “All the factors can be in place, but there has to be magic. When I make a match, I like romance to be involved,” he says, dismissing the new internet, mass-production style of dating as being “more about business than love”.
Willie is pleased one of his children is keen to carry on his art, and says Claire has a good handle on what can be an unpredictable formula.
“It’s awful simple, you know, traditional matchmaking. If you get the magic right, most other things sort themselves out. You have to introduce magic into the relationship.”
Willie’s successes include John Smith, 67, from Finglas and Francis Kelly, 59.
“Willie introduced us back in 2003, and we’re now engaged,” says Francis. “ John is a real gentleman, and loves dancing like myself. It’s nice to have someone to go to dances with, and in the city, it’s hard to meet a decent fella.”
John says he paid Willie €20 for helping him over his shyness and introducing a likely match. “I’ve known Willie for years, and you can trust him. He’s certainly done something wonderful for me.”
Claire says she hopes to follow her father’s style. And although a filing system she tried to implement failed, the instant camera she’s introduced to the business is a big success. Pictures of love-sick hopefuls are now neatly clipped to the application forms, which are piled carefully on a dresser in the front room of the Ennistymon cottage Claire shares with her pilot husband, Brian, and their two children, Finn (eight) and Saoirse (two).
Claire deals with each letter and often replies by hand. She charges ¤190 to process each application, a lot more than her father’s fee but with more work and administration involved.
“We’re still much cheaper than the big internet sites up in Dublin,” she says.
The applicants span a huge cross-cultural and generational divide, and Claire says that on a busy day she gets inquiries from up to 10 people.
There’s the rural farmer who, when asked to list his requirements of a prospective mate, said with humble honesty: “Not too picky.”
The English women get a pile all to themselves, and one demands that her man be “clean, and able to look after himself”. All the female contenders express the hope that they might find a nice Irishman, and some yearn to land a partner who will accept and welcome the fact they have a child or children.
A growing number of Asian women are applying, and Willie mischievously nicknames Lisdoonvarna “little Bangkok” because of this trend.
Many of the people contacting Claire are young and attractive. Others are too shy to meet someone or worried they are too overweight, or they are rural men who find themselves suddenly alone after the death of a wife or their parents.
The pub is still the main meet-up venue, says Claire, although she’s hoping to help change this. Willie is more old-fashioned: Lisdoonvarna is “a total town of drinking, always was and still is”, he says, and an Irishman “doesn’t even have a notion of an emotion until after 12 o’clock at night and he has 20 pints of Guinness drunk”.
Claire is helping shift things out of the bar and club scene by setting up “romance trails” — horse-trekking tours around the beautiful Clare coast, using the Daly stables.
She’s started running theme dances out of the matchmaking season, and the first sold out this month. But she admits that even if a couple seems ideally suited, things might not work out.
“As a matchmaker, you become very aware of people’s feelings and emotions, and it can be hard because they build their hopes up and sometimes there’s just no chemistry, even though on paper they seem perfect,” she says.
Her own husband, Brian, is from Limerick, and the pair did plenty of world travelling before settling in to their lovingly renovated cottage.
She hopes they’ll have a long and happy marriage, although she admits her own parents separated a few years back. “I suppose that’s not great publicity, but they have remained friends.”
Claire tells how, as children, one of her favourite tasks was sorting the hopeful love letters from candidates hoping to use her father’s skills.
Like her father, Claire made her first match unofficially and later there were more. Some, like that of New Zealand woman Mel Whiteman, 38, whom Claire paired off with a shy local lad, have already resulted in marriage.
Mel says Claire seemed to know her fate before she knew it herself. “If it wasn’t for Claire, I wouldn’t be married with a lovely baby,” she explains. “She told me I might end up marrying an Irish farmer and I laughed at her, but I'm glad she was right.”
John (Jack) Richardson, 42, from Ennis, and his girlfriend Justine Janczak, 35, originally from Poland, say they are together thanks to the instinctive ability of the matchmaker’s daughter.
“Claire Daly really understands personalities,” says Jack. “I’ve had people try and fix me up with dates loads of times in the past, and I’ve ended up sitting there thinking, ‘Are they mad? This just isn’t going to work’.”
Jack and Justine, a bar worker, say they hit it off straight away: he likes outgoing, fun women; she enjoys his easygoing approach to life.
“Claire really has a knack of knowing which people might click,” say the happy couple. “But she didn’t have to mother us along. Once she made the introductions a few weeks back, we took it from there.”
The couple say they are “mature enough” not to be getting too ahead of themselves, but they are both quietly confident they have a future.
And Claire says watching love blossom, and being able to help it along, is a pretty good calling.
She casts an apprising eye over me: “I could probably help you out if you wanted,” she offers.
Just then, I get an invitation to do the Siege of Ennis. A little later, a toothless and enthusiastic elderly local asks, “Would you like to book in somewhere?” as he whisks me round the floor during a typical matchmaking event.
Many who meet through these events find true love. But if it's not too much to ask, please could I have a partner with teeth?