There's something about online dating. . . as so many of us are now finding out
We've all had bad dates, just ask the Donegal woman who sued her dating agency. Mark Hilliard reports
'I met a girl over the internet once. I drove all the way to Dublin from Galway to meet her. We went to the pub but apparently she had been banned from the place the night before for drinking 12 pints of Guinness and stabbing a bouncer."
Welcome to Ireland's dating game, where hundreds of thousands of people rely on third-party services to deliver 'the one'.
Reactions are mixed; arranged meetings can lead to matrimony or acrimony, especially if they turn out like the anonymous story above -- bitter and aired on internet forums where people dissect their experiences.
In Donegal last Monday, Annemarie McBrearty (35) spoke of her own ill-fated experience during a failed civil action against a dating agency, claiming she was "groped, assaulted and battered" by prospective suitors.
McBrearty, from Oldtown in Letterkenny, was introduced to four men through the Happy Matchmaker company but told Donegal District Court that they were shy, rejecting and even desperate. One, when she gave him a peck on the cheek goodbye, tried to stick his tongue down her throat, she claimed. Her case was dismissed.
As in other countries, internet dating has exploded here since it first arrived in the 1990s.
It is unclear how many sites service Irish clients but the numbers are constantly growing in the wake of markets like the UK where some 1,400 sites cater to 15 million single people.
What started out as a novel way to meet people is quickly becoming the norm, and nowadays virtually everyone knows somebody taking part.
The biggest surge of new online subscribers comes in the New Year, and it is estimated that some 400,000 singles visit sites here every month.
There are two distinct groups -- those in their late twenties to early thirties looking to settle down, and those in their fifties and over seeking a second chance at love.
According to the online service Parship.ie, women in their forties and fifties seeking younger men quadrupled in number between 2005 and 2009 alone.
Their survey of the scene in Ireland and the UK during that period found that 40% of Irish men are seeking women at least five years their junior while one-fifth of men in their twenties and thirties are open to dating older women.
More substantial research has yet to be carried out in Ireland but the country is commonly seen as a "key market" by international services hoping to secure subscribers here.
The American born 'It's Just Lunch' agency in Dublin's Dawson Street is one such company.
Its director Anne-Marie Cussen believes two factors are at hand in the rise of the the modern day match-maker.
"Firstly, there is less familiarity in communities, and secondly, the easier communication becomes through technology, the less people communicate personally," she said.
With the growing popularity of online dating, come the stories -- good and bad.
Where romance lingers, so often does disappointment; in the Irish dating world there are the 'lungers', there are the eternally boring, the crude, the obnoxious, there are even scam artists looking to cash in.
Alan, in north County Dublin, insists on a pseudonym to recount his experiences, as do the majority of users still affected, by a stigma that accompanies online dating.
"You know when a date isn't right within 10 seconds of meeting them," he says.
"Except then you are stuck with someone who doesn't want to be there but who wants you to buy them dinner."
Some time ago Alan met a girl and things seemed to be going well before her flatmate told him she was sleeping with about four other guys at the same time.
Of another ill-fated rendezvous he said: "It was perfectly normal conversation but then, because when people drink too much they will say things they normally wouldn't, she started talking about 9/11 conspiracy theories.
"I was sitting there trying not to be dismissive so that I didn't end up having a fight with someone I wasn't even going out with yet."
While it is readily accepted that successful outcomes are common, many feel that dating, particularly online, can be a tiresome trawl through predictable waters.
Deception, while tightly controlled in agency meetings, is more common on websites.
One industry insider recalls: "I knew one guy who was communicating for three or four months on the internet and he fell for her and then she began looking for money. It was (somebody in) Uganda and it may not even have been a woman."
Poor manners and desperation are also in plentiful supply -- ask Jane from Dublin (not her real name) who recalls her date "lunging at her" at 9pm, just two hours into the ordeal.
"I was very careful about my body language and he just came at me," she said.
"A year and a half later I was out with a friend in a bar and the same guy was chatting her up; it's just too small a country."
Indeed it's this 'small-nation syndrome' that Bianca Mercer, director of Parship UK and Ireland, says could be to blame for the continued stigma felt by many in the game.
"In some senses it's probably got a lot to do with the size of Ireland, that people want to have more anonymity (but) there isn't the stigma there was five to eight years ago," she said.
It is a paradox; while increasing numbers of people embrace the virtual and agency dating scenes, there is still a reluctance to discuss doing so, at least not too openly. This is something that many in the industry believe is quickly changing.
Parship is a specialised German dating agency which puts the science into romance.
There are no photographs and candidates fill out a comprehensive compatibility test with over 80 questions; the product of years of research at the University of Hamburg.
The system compares 30 "essential" personality characteristics to find people who balance and complement each other. Then, after a period of contact, subscribers can exchange photos and meet.
Aine Ni Giolla Chonnaigh (29), a PhD researcher at UCD, and Alex Biesman (31) are one of the company's many success stories.
The couple had used online dating services without success before joining Parship, but now Aine plans to move to Limerick where Alex lives.
"The chances of meeting Alex in a pub were pretty slim as he lives two hours away -- one of the advantages of online matchmaking," said Aine.
"We started emailing each other through Parship in August 2009 and finally met up in October 2009 and the rest is history.
"Alex drives up nearly every weekend and we hope to move in together. Fingers crossed that will happen soon!
"What I really liked about Parship is the anonymity of not having my photograph for just anyone to view especially as Ireland is a small place where everyone knows everyone."
David Merren, director of Top Match Ireland, insists that while some stigma remains, internet and agency dating has established itself as a major player in relationship building.
"It's slowly changing. I went to two weddings last year and both of them were from the internet," he said.
"They both said if that it wasn't for the company we wouldn't be here today."