Ireland: Romance tourism booms in matchmaking month

Ireland's tourism industry shrunk 10 percent this year. But the matchmaking festival annually draws some 40,000 singles – and millions of dollars.

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    A musician strolls past The Matchmaker in Lisdoonvarna.
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• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor corresondent.

Like many villages on Ireland’s west coast, Lisdoonvarna (pop. 800) is a quiet, low-key sort of place – except in September.

That’s when some 40,000 revelers descend on the village from all over Ireland and farther afield with one thing on their minds: romance.

The village’s 150-year-old Matchmaking Festival is the largest of its kind in Europe, and it utterly transforms this sleepy place.

In Lisdoonvarna in September, love is a religion and its messiah is Willy Daly, Ireland’s last remaining matchmaker. “Matchmaking would be a kind of a magical thing,” he says, stroking his beard in the sun outside his house on a recent weekend.

Matchmaking has its roots in the business aspect of marriage that was pervasive in rural Irish society until the mid-1900s. A matchmaker was often a horse or livestock broker – someone with a bird’s-eye view of the assets and fortunes of farmers from a wide area – and therefore equipped to match young men and women from similar socioeconomic backgrounds. Lisdoonvarna began as a horse fair, but the horses soon gave way to dancing.

Mr. Daly, a third-generation matchmaker, gets calls and e-mails all year round from men and women looking for love, and he records every detail in his “bible” – a tattered and torn notebook more than a hundred years old.

“People say if you touch it, you’re going to get married inside of six months. It’s the center of what I do,” he says.

Ireland’s $9 billion annual tourism industry has shrunk 10 percent this year. Lisdoonvarna, though, takes in $4.5 million in September alone, thanks to an unusual natural resource that, for one month at least, is recession-proof.

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