Farm Ireland

Monday 19 February 2018

'Farmers still look for love at 90'

The big interview: Willie Daly

Willie Daly at home on his farm near Ennistymon, Co Clare. Photo: Eamon Ward
Willie Daly at home on his farm near Ennistymon, Co Clare. Photo: Eamon Ward

Claire McCormack

Matchmaking has been in Willie Daly's family for generations, handed down from his grandfather and he hopes it will be passed on to the generations after him.

As children, Willie Daly, along with his brothers and sisters, loved nothing more than curling up with their old pye radio in the parlour to listen to some tunes, but matchmaking was a tradition in his familyBut around 8pm, they'd hear the patter of footsteps coming up the lane to their farmhouse in Kilshanny, Co Clare.

His mother, Kathleen, would peer in the door and say "come out now children, a woman and her son are here to see your father".

Matchmaking has been in Willie Daly's family for generations. It was handed down from his grandfather, Henry, to his father William, to him, and he hopes it will be passed on to his own children and grandchildren.

Sitting in his kitchen, surrounded by newspaper articles, letters, photographs of Pope John Paul II next to images of a scantily clad Marilyn Monroe, large statues of the Child of Prague, festival posters and his iconic "book of love", Willie Daly reminisced over the family tradition and his 50 years of service.

"I grew up with it so it was a natural progression. People would arrive to see my grandfather on jaunting cars and horse and traps from Tipperary, Cork and Galway. There were no telephones or electricity in my father's time, so mothers regularly brought their sons over to the house," he said.

"The service was very parochial back then, it was nearly always farmers. The mother would say how good a worker her son is, how he is great in the bog at cutting turf so his wife-to-be wouldn't go cold. She would talk about how good he is in the garden and that he's great at making a moot wall with a spade and that he has four cows with potential for more if the girl came with a dowry," he said.

He vividly remembers observing the young men, generally around the 30 mark, sitting in silence. "They were always a bit embarrassed, some were terribly shy about the whole thing but they were okay in accepting it," he said.

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Willie distinctly recollects a time when his sister, Delia, piped up to ask one young man "do you want a girl with dark hair or blonde hair?". His mother sternly replied: "He doesn't need a good-looking girl, he needs someone who will help him with the lambing, feeding the calves and with the milking."

As most families were large, generally with between 9-16 children, Willie said the dowry was always very important.

"It was a rare, isolated situation where a girl would inherit the farm. If they couldn't find a husband to provide for them, they emigrated," he said.

A widow was the Holy Grail.

"A widow woman was highly sought after, their husband might have been attacked by a bull and they took on the farm which meant they were very hard workers. Widows often dressed in black which was very intriguing to men too, there was a lot of mystification about them," he said.

Willie added that widows often remarried a man 20 or 30 years her junior. Male farmers in their 60s, 70s and even 80s often desired a wife half their age too. However, this trend died out with the passing of generations.

"For young girls, it was all about need. The need for her to have a roof over her head, her own home, so that she didn't have to emigrate to England or America," he said.

Dealing with a new mother-in-law was always a big challenge for young girls marrying into a farming family.

"The houses would have been very small with no running water so the young bride would gingerly tip about the house. Granny flats didn't exists back them so it was a very difficult time for young brides, the mother-in-law was very threatening to them.

"Bacon, cabbage and potatoes was the life-long menu, mother-in-laws wouldn't hear tell of a modern steak dinner. Most women endured, their parents would say 'you've made your bed'," Willie added.

Over the last 50 years, Willie, a dry stock beef farmer, who also has 30 horses on his 60acre holding, has paired up more than 2,000 couples.

Although mass media and technology has brought new avenues for farmers to pursue a partner, the father of eight says their fundamental desires haven't changed.

"A woman still wants to be loved and protected and the man still wants to meet a lovely, genuine person who will work with him on the farm," said willie who charges €5-€20 for his services.

Farmers in their 70s, 80s and 90s still write to Willie in pursuit of a wife and children.

His matchmaking ability has gone global with American women particularly interested in Irish farmers. Singletons from the Philippines, Africa and the UK also regularly attend the annual Lisdoonvarna Matching-making Festival which celebrated its 150th birthday last month. "We introduce people at the festival, love is a magical thing and for those who respect it, love will never disappear," he said.

'My marriage is over but we still have a close friendship'

His father's final match was the most special of all for Willie Daly. A young woman, named Marie, had recently moved to Ennistymon, Co Clare to work in a bank.

One October afternoon, Marie and friends arrived at the Daly farmhouse where the family had a horse-riding school. His father, who used to work as a copper at the Guinness brewery in Dublin and owned properties around Stephen's Green and Baggot Street, moved his young family back to Co Clare to take over his family farm. However, just before heading off on a hack around the moors and ancient fairy forts of Kilshanny, Co Clare, dark clouds gathered and the rain poured down.

Willie's father invited the group into the house for tea, while his son, in his mid twenties at the time, fixed an old plough in the shed. Inside, Marie noticed Willie's elderly father struggling to fill his pipe with tobacco and offered to help - a tricky job his son usually tended to.

"Marie went in gingerly to fill his pipe and give him a cup of tea. He thought she was a marvellous girl and he just asked 'will you marry my son?' She had only just seen me in the yard but she said 'yes', Willie told the Farming Independent.

"I had a great social life at the time but I knew I wanted to settle down. My father wasn't hugely involved in match-making throughout his life, he was an older man. It was the last match my father ever made and it was a very significant one for me," he said. Willie married Marie four months later.

"We had a wonderful relationship and went on to have six girls and two boys. We had a very special, happy life together and they all enjoyed the match-making chats around the kitchen table," he said. However, a few years ago their 25 years marriage came to an end.

"We are still great friends and remain very close. Sometimes people who come to see me ask about it or say 'but how do you know about marriage when you're not married yourself?' I just tell them I was married for a quarter of a century so I know a thing or two about it," he jests.

Looking ahead, Willie is confident some of his children, or grandchildren, will take up the match-making mantle.

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