Is Ireland’s old-fashioned matchmaking the best alternative to apps and algorithms?
Ireland has a rich and renowned history of matchmaking, but what has this old custom got to give in the age of dating apps?
You might expect Europe’s biggest singles festival to take place in Paris, the City of Love, where, according to novelist Henry Miller, the “humblest mortal alive must feel that he dwells in paradise”. Or Milan, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Venice, Copenhagen – pick your own picturesque favorite, and you’d still be wrong. In fact, the festival that bills itself as the largest gathering of the unattached and eligible takes place in the small village of Lisdoonvarna, County Clare.
The Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival takes place every September. Country music performances, trad sessions and other events are rolled into a month-long carnival of mingling singles. The tradition is said to go back 165 years, when the area’s mineral spa attracted the upper classes. While there, parents would try to match their children with partners deemed suitable. But as Lisdoonvarna grew as a tourist destination, people from beyond the privileged gentry were being pulled towards the area in search of a mate.
The main man these days is Willie Daly, said to be both a third-generation matchmaker and the last of his kind. Daly has been in the game for half a century and claims to have matched 3,000 couples in his lifetime. That’s more than one a week.
Ireland is particularly associated with the image of a matchmaking patriarch using his wisdom or wizardry to connect singles well-suited to each other. These notions were further codified in the 1997 Hollywood movie The Matchmaker, starring Milo O’Shea.
During the festival month, Daly can usually be found in a pub conveniently named The Matchmaker. Those seeking his services have their details jotted down in his “lucky book”, a sprawling volume held together with tape and a shoestring, passed down to Daly by his elders and possessed, he says, with supernatural romantic powers. “Touch it with both hands, close your eyes for eight seconds and think of love, and you will be in love and married within six months,” he tells pilgrims. Then, as the stars do their cosmic dance and the planet warms imperceptibly, Daly might get hit with a bolt of inspiration and introduce two people.
All this can seem rather quaint, and the Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival certainly trades on a sense of nostalgia, like a month-long historical costuming group meet-up. Some might find this Quiet Man vision of Irish life worn out, even offensive – a Vice article, unartfully headlined ’The Drunken Matchmaking Festival That’s Like an IRL Tinder’ quotes Daly as saying, “Half the people in Ireland wouldn’t be married if it wasn’t for whiskey and Guinness,” and, “They say there’s nobody as romantic as an Irish man with a good few drinks in him.” I can’t say I’ve heard of that particular witticism, but in a dating world that’s become increasingly app and algorithm-driven, and the reports of users suffering burnout and low levels of satisfaction with the mobile products, are the core tenets of old-fashioned matchmaking becoming relevant again? Is there something to the idea of simply being set up by someone who thinks you and another person are compatible that deserves fresh consideration?
There are always innovations in fostering connections: singles nights, agencies, speed dating. But few have felt like such a redrawing of the rulebook as the development of dating apps. One UK survey found that 63% of single adults use them. This move to mobile-phone courtship wasn’t without precedent. The advent of texting made it possible for two people to get to know each other from a distance. But early texting was costly and limited in comparison to modern person-to-person messaging.
As a tool, old Nokia phones complemented in-person dialogue. Today, dating apps can feel like a vast world, giving people access to hundreds of strangers to examine and unlimited characters in which to do so. And these services are becoming increasingly sophisticated, moving beyond simple swiping. An app like Hinge claims to use a variation on the Gale-Shapley matching algorithm to show users the profiles that they are most likely to be interested in, and who are also most likely to go on a date with them. Even a powerhouse like Tinder is integrating AI into its existing products.
“It’s been a 360-degree turn, everybody’s on the apps now,” says Frances Kelleher, a dating coach who says that, of her current clients, only one has refused to use apps. Frances encourages the use of technology to ensure singles seeking love are using every outlet available to them, but stresses that these tools should be used as a means to meet people in person. “They need to use online right, but also know you can also meet people in real life. That’s a thing I see, they’re getting a block that they can’t meet people in real life because of the apps.”
She adds: “You can’t use all of your emotional intelligence when you’re on an app. You can’t use your instinct. You can’t use your five senses to say, ‘Hmm, am I feeling something off about this person?’”
The expansion of dating apps, their user base, and, perhaps, the social change that has made singles feel they are necessary, has led to a sense of jadedness. A 2023 Pew Research study found nearly half of users say their online dating experience has been negative. Reported frustrations include empty conversations, women being overwhelmed by messages, swipe fatigue, and distrust of who is actually on the other side of the screen. This dissatisfaction was summed up in a scene in the Netflix series Master of None when, after another bad date, protagonist Dev joylessly sends his pre-cooked first message to a handful of new app matches.
In this cold world, maybe there is still something to matchmaking. They don’t all use magical books, but there are professionals who’ve made it their business to find compatible clients. Or maybe the most effective method, if possible, is simply through peer circles. Set-ups can occur within groups of friends, making them safe and social. They eliminate the choice paralysis that can occur when there’s too many options available. And matchmaking through friends can be effective, says Frances, because “our friends know us well, they know our values”.
Willie Daly may be the last of his kind, but if Ireland’s traditional matchmakers leave a legacy, it may be in championing the benefits of de-digitalising romance. “The best part of it is when I introduce a couple for the first time,” Daly said in 2015. “I’ll sit down with them, introduce them and maybe have a cup of tea. I’m there to stop any awkward moments and I can usually see straight away if there’s a spark there and if it’s going to work out.
“There isn’t a computer that could do that.”