Anne and Aine at the Lisdoonvarnan Matchmaking Festival earlier this month Picture: Mike Cowhey
The Limerick Leader recently sent reporters Aine Fitzgerald and Anne Sheridan to the world-renowned Lisdoonvarna matchmaking festival to find out how the event measured up in the modern era – and who knows what else...
I have to be honest.
On checking into my room and throwing my bag on the flowery bedspread, all I wanted to do was get back into my Peugeot, push that gearstick into reverse and head for home.
It was only a simple thing but it had driven me over the edge, already. No, it wasn’t a cross word or a strong country whiff. Just a simple song.
The Blanket on the Ground.
Here’s the thing, I’m 32, my colleague Anne is 30, and at our age we really we should know better. We went with an open mind but once I walked through the lobby of the Hydro Hotel and heard that guitar chord, I wanted the wooden floor holding up all the old dears to swallow me up, right there and then.
“Remember back when love first found us, We’d go slipping out of town, And we’ love beneath the moonlight, On the blanket on the ground.” Dear God. And on it went.
Somehow, I managed to put it behind me, didn’t let on a thing to Anne and looked ahead to what we had dubbed: ‘One night only in Lisdoonvarna’.
After five minutes of debate – I settled on what to wear - a white top, black leggings and the obligatory skyscraper heels.
“Is this OK, do you think, Anne?”
“Well,” she says, “it’s Little House on the Prairie meets Madonna. But once you’re comfortable Aine, that’s the main thing!”
Perfect. Just the look I was going for. And off we went, out the door.
After a good feed of Irish beef stew in The Royal Spa Hotel we find ourselves perched at the counter of The Roadside Tavern where bacon and cabbage is going for a tenner and a picture of a good-looking lady in a bikini takes pride of place by the window.
Kieran O’Halloran, who runs the pub’s kitchen, is only mad for the chat.
Sensing I’m green behind the ears when it comes to ‘the’ matchmaking festival, he tells me what to expect.
“You will see tonight yourself,” he starts off, then moves in closer over the counter, “you are going to be chatted up by 60, 70 and 80-year-old men and they are going to be deadly serious!”
Sean Griffin from Galway city has the ear cocked beside us. A singleton, Sean’s heading to the Matchmaker Bar shortly to add his name to Willie Daly’s legendary book of love.
“I’ve been coming down a few weekends. I’m open-minded,” he says.
At 40, with a nice head of brown hair, a sensible striped blue shirt and not carrying too much inside it by way of excess luggage, Sean is a long way off the mushy mash and Bovril. Yet, he finds himself single in Lisdoonvarna?
“My last girlfriend was off an internet dating site but I don’t know,” he says, “I think I’ve been there, done that! I’m prepared to try other things now.”
Local lads Tom Dooley and Gerard Woods are over in the corner inside the door, watching the goings-on from what they perceive to be a comfortable distance. Growing a bit cheeky from the home-brewed beer, over I go.
“Are ye married men?” I ask. “We are,” they answer, half scared, half endeared, but mostly a bit peeved that their cover has been blown.
What brings them out from under their wives’ feet on this Saturday evening? “We come out to keep sanity,” jokes Gerard.
“We come out for the view,” adds Tom, smiling wryly, “It is a great festival. We have a few pints.”
Back up at the counter and word has reached The Roadside that Mick Lacey is on his way.
“Now he’d be a right good man to talk to,” says the unidentified fisherman beside me, from under his flat cap.
“Here he is,” he follows-up, eyeing up the doorway.
Swivelling around on my bar stool, I’m transported back to 1965 and to Mick Flanagan’s public house. With his snowy beard, and black fender hat, Mick Lacey is, at first glance, a dead ringer for the bould Bull McCabe.
The sixty-something non-drinker has lived in Lisdoon for the past 12 years having spent much time in Dublin. He had been married “a few times”, so he says, but at the moment is stepping out on his ownsome.
“So what’s he looking for in a woman?” I venture, feeling very Paddy O’Gorman in myself.
“Someone like you,” he smiles, “with a few bob and a bad cough!”
The lads at the bar are lapping it up. Fresh pints are ordered.
Last year, Mick got caught rotten. “I was told there was a fella here who was me long lost son that I knew nothing about,” he says with a Brendan Grace lilt. “Two of the lads said he is in the pub waiting for you. When I came in, there was this fella - a character, he was 78 - a physiological impossibility.”
With enough done by way of research, Anne and I inhale a deep helping of the whest Clare air and plod on towards the Matchmaker Bar.
It’s a lively spot, is the Matchmaker once you hit it at the right time. We gave a gawk in the door earlier when it was fairly flat but now the young ones are arriving all make-up and mini-skirts and the ould fellas are only mad for a proper gander.
“Will you have a dance,” comes the offer and we only crossed over the lath at the door.
“I won’t,” says I, “I’m fine.”
Well lads, whatever move I made wasn’t I being twirled around the dance floor to the chimes of Galway Girl barely able to catch me breath. Beatles fan Padraic Beirne from Castlerea - his house is called Penny Lane - leads the way for the next dance.
With feet the size of a schoolboy’s, Padraic is a nifty little dancer and I can sense a mile away he’s only made for me to remove my heels. “They’re some height, those shoes,” he says - code for ‘take ‘em off!’ Not even the prospect of being outshone by our friends Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire (Anne and her dancing partner John ‘trip the light fantastic’ Sharkey) is going to make that happen!
With the clock creeping towards the wee hours, we decide to head back to the hotel. It’s a five minute walk but paved with countless faces, some fresh, some wrinkled, and each with their own tale to tell. There’s the bride-to-be on her last night of freedom posing with the gardai at the door of the barracks and then the two blondes from up north, rueing the absence of a hairdressers in this windswept spa town.
“If you only opened up for the Saturday, and had a beautician with you – think of the money you’d make,” one says to the other, both puffing away on their fags.
Still breathless from our own escapades on the dance floor, Anne and I find ourselves back on the steps of the Hydro where it all began some 12 hours ago now. The matchmakers must be smiling down on us because just inside the door Motown king and soul sensation Buck Taylor is belting out the hits. Al Green, James Brown, The Blues Brother, Stevie Wonder - you name it, he’s got it!
Around the corner the old couples, as if time stood still, are sailing as neat as ever across the dance floor. There’s no Blanket on the Ground – this time it’s Kris Kristofferson’s Help me Make it Through the Night.
Needless to say, I turn on my heels, because – for one night only, Buck Taylor, my friend – Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours!
London. Tokyo. Sydney, and eh, Lisdoonvarna.
The clocks in the reception in the town’s Hydro hotel give the illusion that it belongs to a glory age of international prestige; among the great metropolises of the world. The clock for New York, however, appeared to have fallen down.
It was only 12.30pm, but the Hydro was already in full swing. A makeshift table was set up in the lobby, lined with sandwiches in plastic boxes and flasks of tea and coffee, presumably to serve as fast replenishment for those determined not to miss a beat – or a step.
“Take the ribbon from your hair, shake it loose and let it ...” was a song that would later come to haunt us, closely followed by another classic, “Stop the world and let me off ...”
As we learned at 11am the following morning, regardless of hangovers and sore heads, the dancing starts promptly, and dancers arise from their beds akin to actors out of Michael Jackson’s Thriller and make their way downstairs.
Pink feather boas were strewn over chandeliers, and rainbow flags for gay pride, a nod to The Outing, the first gay festival, hung in the lobby. There was no shortage of colour, in any manner of speaking, in this hotel.
After getting a measure of what lay in store for us, we approached the desk.
“Are you the dancer for tonight?” asked the receptionist to my friend in the vertiginous heels. We knew we were in for a good night.
The spas which once made Lisdoonvarna famous are now closed, so we decided it would be wise to get some sustenance for the long day and night ahead of us. Inside the door of the cafe in the Imperial Hotel was a group of four men, young by Lisdoon standards, with the unnerving look of excited cheetahs eyeing new prey.
We kept our jackets on, and tried to keep our eyes firmly on our stew.
At the far end of town, the Irish Arms pub beckoned. I had a hunch we were on to a good thing. It was virtually empty. “It’s fierce quiet this weekend. The Outing was on last weekend, but they stayed up the town,” said the barman.
The middle two weekends in the six-week festival are the busiest, he explained, and it appeared we had arrived before the festival reached its climax.
“But if ye want to get a real feel for Lisdoonvarna, the man ye should meet is Peter Curtin down in the Roadside Tavern.”
Off we set, undeterred by a slow start. Down in the Roadside, barman Kieran O’Halloran handed us a nice taster of the beers brewed upstairs by Peter - Burren Gold, Burren Black and Red Ale. As I examined the beers, my colleague had suddenly become enswarmed by a gaggle of fisherman, with weather beaten faces, thick jumpers and an unquenchable thirst for the craic.
David Attenborough wouldn’t have known where to start here.
Locals have their own legendary tales of farmers, traditionally, coming to Lisdoonvarna for love, and in some cases finding it. But survey other scenes, and your heartstrings will be pulled in a different way. For others, it’s achingly obvious that their experience is tinged with loneliness and unfulfilled pursuits to find someone who might dance their final dance with them.
The fisherman recalls a man from north Tipperary who used to come down here, and hand over £3,000 to the receptionist in the hotel on the first day.
“He’d eat, drink and dance in the hotel. He’d tell her to summons him when the money ran out and then he’d be gone. He was one of those real down from the mountain men. It’s a religion to some to them.
“But the minute the first week of October comes it’s pure tumbleweed. Not a soul here. You’d expect to see shotguns coming out of windows when you walk by.”
Over at the other (quieter) end of the bar was Gerry Leahy – “sixty-four-and-a-half” – from Brosna in north Kerry, who was perhaps better off that he wasn’t looking for love. Supping a pint of Guinness, he was on a break after dancing three or four dances already. A married “retired farmer”, he has been coming here for 28 years “without a break” and doesn’t do things by halves.
“I’ll come every weekend for the six weeks, from Friday to Monday morning. I dance more than I drink. We’re just sitting back now because of the rain. I often finish up about 5.30am and when I hear the music I’m up again.”
Like many regulars to Lisdoonvarna, he has his own routine of sorts.
“I go to the Rathbaun hotel to dance, and I come here to relax,” he explains. He’s not a major fan of dancing in the Hydro, but low and behold there he is at 2am, when the night was still young.
Down comes the famous Peter Curtin, in a large beer stained white t-shirt, a shock of blond hair, with the voice of an orator. Married to Birgitta, who runs the nearby Burren Smokehouse, he was born upstairs in the pub in 1953, and today has his finger on every pulse going.
Without the match-making festival, he says, “Lisdoonvarna would struggle to survive or even exist without this boost.” In a small town in the west of Ireland, you need to be inventive and he certainly is.
In addition to running the Burren Brewery, he organised a ska and reggae festival at the pub, a craft beer brewers’ festival and is also the organiser of the inaugural Tolkien Burren Festival.
A former officer in the merchant Navy, he said the cyclical nature of farming is well suited to the timing of the festival.
“The crops are brought in in August, they have the revenue for it, and then September is a suitable time for farmers to take a holiday. Lisdoonvarna hasn’t really changed. The formula is the same.”
In a world of speed dating and internet dating, Lisdoonvarna is stuck in its own lovely time capsule.
“It’s hard to predict the future, but for the foreseeable future I think we’re okay. The Outing has the potential to quadruple in size.
“It clashed with Electric Picnic this year, but we might change the date next year and broaden its scope to Europe, with Ryanair flights to those destinations.”
Closer to home, John Sharkey, from Castlerea in Roscommon, made the journey on the bus with 12 colleagues from the post office. John, 48, another married man let out by the wife, was kicking up his heels in the Matchmaker bar, wearing “turbo boots” as if his dancing wasn’t impressive enough on its own without the added thud off the dancefloor. “We’re absolutely enjoying it. The rain was bad today, but this evening was good and better it’s getting. We’re here for the craic, but who says what you can find? I asked the lady of the house would she come down but she said ‘No, work away yourself’.”
Back in the snug, Willie Daly, the legendary matchmaker, was holding court with his big book of potential mates, though the formula for matching them remains the most elusive mistress of all.
The band broke into Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire, the turbo boots were under a fire of their own, and surely, there would be a ‘few ribbons shaken loose and let fall’ to the floor before the night was done.