Thursday 24 May 2018

The Evolution of Dating - Irish women on searching for love

The way we connect with other singles has changed considerably since the days of meeting under the Clery's clock.
The way we connect with other singles has changed considerably since the days of meeting under the Clery's clock.
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

From being chaperoned to the local hop to swiping right on Tinder, Irish women talk about their experiences of looking for love through the decades.

Dear Mary,

We are two girls of 20, and our problem is that we cannot get a nice lad. We have been with lots of boys but all they want is a good time and if you do not give in to them they won't ask you for another date.

We are getting worried that we will be left on the shelf if we won't give in to them. What should we do? Does a boy like you if he carries on like this?

(Worried girls)

So reads a letter that was sent to agony aunt Mary Dillon of New Spotlight Magazine in 1968 (and saved for posterity by the good folks at

Almost 50 years later, a young man in his mid-20s is showing me how he uses the dating app, Tinder. He is not ashamed to admit that he is looking for a good time and his approach involves 'liking' anything female within a six-mile radius.

As soon as he clicks with a 'match', he sends her a message with two questions: The first is 'how are you doing?' and the second you can work out for yourself...

While differing expectations is a time-worn phenomenon, the way we connect with other singles has changed considerably since the days of meeting under the Clery's clock.

From the sexual revolution to the digital revolution, dating in Ireland has evolved - for better or for worse…

Dublin-born opera singer Dr Veronica Dunne, who is in her 80s, harks back to an age of innocence. She remembers the hops in her local tennis club in the 1940s.

"They finished at 10.30pm or 11.30pm and then you went straight home. Because of the war, everyone cycled home. So at the last dance the man asked you where you lived and if you lived too far away they wouldn't cycle home with you!"

What does she think of the Tinder Generation? "Young women have less respect for themselves these days," she says at once. "Mystique is always more interesting."

Former rally driver and Driving Academy owner Rosemary Smith, who is in her 70s, agrees that women are much more forward these days.

"I've seen women walk up to men in pubs and hotels. I have never in my life asked a young man out for a date."

Rosemary remembers rugby club hops at Old Belvedere Rugby Club in Dublin during the 1950s and '60s. If a young man wanted to see her afterwards, he had to come to the front door to meet her parents. Once deemed suitable, the pair were "chaperoned" on their date by her older brother.

"To have a young, pimply man come to the front door with hot, sweaty hands... it was totally off-putting for him, and it was off-putting for me too."

In later years, Rosemary remembers going out with "this gorgeous young man" without her brother in tow.

"I should have been home at 10pm and I eventually arrived home at 11.15pm to find my mother, father, aunt, brother and a Garda outside the front door. As you can imagine, I never saw that young man again..."

Ireland was a theocratic state when Veronica and Rosemary were "courting", and weekly confession was as important as a monthly manicure is for some women today.

Another problem sent to agony aunt Angela Mac Namara's Help Page in Woman's Way in 1967 captures the prevailing attitude at the turn of the decade.

"Please tell me what people mean when they talk of a trial marriage," asks a reader.

"Trial marriage means trying out sexual relations before marriage," explains Angela. "This is really only an excuse for sexual indulgence, though the people who go in for such 'trial marriages' say they are trying to find out if they 'suit each other sexually'." She concludes by pointing out the "great risk" of contracting venereal disease.

The Swinging Sixties it was not - Ireland was a late starter in that regard.

The woman who spoke to me about dating in the 1970s wishes to remain anonymous, probably because she's one of the few women who will admit that she didn't belong to a generation of virginal brides.

"My recollection is that there were 'bourgeois' couples in Ireland who still did things rather sedately - formal dances still existed, run by banks and businesses.

"But the disco had come in and I think sex began to get pretty rampant pretty quickly - after all, (though not legally available in Ireland at the time) the Pill transmitted the idea that there would be no consequence. As for sex, I think the old rules were simply breaking down, and no new rules were really in place. This made some of my generation very promiscuous."

The disco soon made room for the slow set movement of the 1980s. DJs would change the tempo with a romantic ballad and men would use the opportunity to ask a woman to dance.

Jennifer Haskins, the co-owner of exclusive introduction agency Two's Company (, remembers them well: "If you stayed dancing after the first slow dance the guy knew you were interested at least. If you weren't, it was usual to just say 'thanks'. Everyone's interest - or lack of it - was quite clear."

Jennifer, who is in her late 40s, says roles have changed since her first forays into the world of dating. "Men are no longer the hunters. The roles have become less defined and women are taking more initiative." She recalls an elderly aunt turning to her recently and asking, "Since when have men become the prize?"

Gender roles began to shift in the 1990s and Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider published a best-selling book called The Rules which advocated a return to more traditional values: never phone a man; only accept weekend invitations after Wednesday and never have sex on the first date.

Author and columnist Anne Marie Scanlon, who left Ireland for New York in the mid-90s, was a Sex and the City-style columnist during this period.

She says the difference between the dating cultures was staggering. "In the US, men would ask for dates, which was refreshing… In Ireland, a man would never ask you out; relationships began with a drunken fumble and, if he called, you were most likely 'going out', but it was never discussed, and barely acknowledged.

"It was almost as if there was something shameful to desire," she continues. "In that way I think Tinder is a mixed blessing - at least it acknowledges the fact that healthy young (and not so young) men and women want to have sex, to have a connection and that there is nothing shameful in either."

Anne Marie later wrote It's Not Me ... It's You! A Girl's Guide to Dating in Ireland, in which she recommended the emerging field of online dating, which has since become the rule rather than the exception.

Patricia Lohan (34) of the Soulmate Attraction Formula ( was a self-proclaimed "early adopter".

"At 17 I met a guy in a chat room for a date and he was great. We hit it off immediately in real life. When I went on 'the market' to attract my soulmate eight years ago, the first thing I did was go online as a result of that positive experience when I was 17.

"I met my husband at a real-life event, but we were both online dating at the time. And while I prefer other dating sites, I have friends who met their partners on Tinder and husbands on Plenty of Fish."

Some say that dating is dead and Tinder killed it. Others argue that Ireland didn't even have a dating culture to begin with. "It's never really dating in Ireland," says journalist and photographer Barbara McCarthy (40). "It's meeting someone and hanging out with them all the time after meeting them. I was invited on a bona fide 'date' once and the guy ordered a Bacardi Breezer and asked me what I got in my Leaving Cert…"

Beauty columnist Triona McCarthy also had a few unfortunate experiences: "In my day, going to clubs and pubs was how I hoped to bump into the love of my life but it was like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

"Actually, when I think about it now, there were plenty of needles and not so much hay, as I found nothing but pricks!"

Dating in pre-Tinder Ireland was very often a matter of proximity, as artist and DJ Mo Kelly points out:

"My husband Mark and I have been together since we were kids really, but I do remember the dating scene vividly. We met through a big group of friends that are still tight to this day. A lot of couples met through this group - that was kind of the main way we all hooked up… word of mouth, so to speak.

"I think perhaps then people (men and women alike) had to work a bit to get a date… now it all seems a bit too instant."

Blogger Suzanne Jackson (31) of So Sue Me agrees: "I'm very lucky that I'm in a happy four-year relationship, but going by the troubles that some of my single friends have come up against in the past, I can see that dating in Ireland is pretty tough these days.

"I don't think romance in general is dead because I know a lot of couples who have a healthy level of romance in their relationship, but in my opinion, apps like Tinder kill the romance."

Again, it all comes back to expectations, as Tony Moore of Relationships Ireland points out. "Many question if apps like Tinder are just an electronic sex contact 'magazine'. For some it may be just that, but for others it's a genuine way of meeting new people to hopefully start a relationship with.

"Finding someone is now, and always will be, a gamble, and we have to kiss a few frogs, even electronic/virtual ones, to find our dream prince or princess..."

For the record, the aforementioned agony aunt Mary Dillon advised the two readers that wrote her that letter in 1968 to hold tight. "There are some nice boys around," she assured them, "who wait until you're doing a line before making demands of this kind."

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