Every autumn, hordes of singles flock to a tiny Irish town in search of love.
Matchmaking is one of Ireland's oldest traditions, and for the last 150 years, it has taken place in Lisdoonvarna, a West Coast village near the iconic Cliffs of Moher. For the month of September, this tiny spa town of 800 residents hosts the popular Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival - a month-long celebration uniting hopeful romantics from around the world.
The festival is notorious for its lively all-day, all-night dancing and impromptu marriage proposals (often triggered after a few pints at the pub). It's evolved into Europe's largest singles' event, drawing up to 60,000 unattached persons from near and far looking for a mate.
"Everyone deserves to find love," says Willie Daly, one of Ireland's last traditional matchmakers.
A third-generation matchmaker, Daly is best known for presiding over the festival. During the festivities, he holds appointments in his "office" (aka The Matchmaker Bar), recording details of those seeking partners in his tattered book, which overflows with love-seeking profiles.
Matchmaking in Lisdoonvarna dates back generations and flourished with the rise of spa tourism in the 1800s. As the story goes, the town's rich mineral springs brought visitors from all over Ireland who wanted to "take to the waters." It also attracted bachelor farmers in search of wives and spa-cationing gentry who wanted to arrange appropriate marriages for their sons and daughters. Back in the day, singletons couldn't just turn to dating websites or Tinder for help. So instead, they consulted Lisdoonvarna's respected "basadoiri" - love-savvy locals who had the 411 on eligible men and women around the country.
Today, this tradition continues with the Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival, but it's evolving with the times, especially with Ireland legalizing same-sex marriage in 2015. Most recently, a gay, bisexual and transgender weekend, called "The Outing," has been added to the program - the world's first-ever LGBT matchmaking festival.
"Since the referendum, Ireland has shown the world that its doors are open to the LGBT market," says Eddie McGuinness, Director of The Outing Festival. "More and more people from the gay, lesbian, bi and trans community come to Ireland not only to visit, but to find love and even marry here."
The weekend is not just about the quest for love either - it's about celebrating fun and friendship, regardless of your relationship status. Entering the Hydro Hotel, the epi-centre for the festivities, I'm greeted by a stream of rainbow flags and colourful decorations, as well as giant bulletin boards jam-packed with endless events. Scanning the program, the first evening brings a slew of film screenings, art shows, dance parties, and non-stop performances by drag artists, ceilí bands, international DJs, and live musicians. Some people are gearing up for the speed dating session or "Blind Date" games, while others chatter excitedly about grand plans to go surfing or take a "Love Boat" cruise to see the stunning Cliffs of Moher. It's hard to know where to start.
For this overwhelmed writer, I join the traditional céilí, a fun-filled hour of dancing to live Irish folk music. The dance floor is flooded with spirited party-goers, step-dancing and twirling their dance partners, some decked out in sparkly bling. One tall, graceful gentleman sports a pair of red hot pumps, and gracefully keeps up with the caller's rapid-fire instructions. Other onlookers can't bear to abandon their foamy pints, preferring instead to clap and cheer from the bar. It is, indeed, a "good craic" - one that stretches into the wee hours of the morning.
The next day, we drag our weary butts out of bed and traipse into town for a lookie-loo. The first stop is the Roadside Tavern for a bite and beer tasting, teeming with fatigued festival-goers. Here on the second floor of the pub, Brewmaster Peter Curtin makes a handful of malty ales - none of which are bottled.
"You can't get these brews anywhere else but here," Curtin says. "It's difficult enough to keep up with the local demand."
To fill our bellies with more than beer, we order a tasting board of hot and cold smoked salmon, fresh from Ireland's west coast and marinated with flavours like whiskey and fennel, or mustard seed and paprika. We're munching away, when one patron steals the piano and starts playing show tunes. Within minutes, a sing-along erupts in the pub.
A pint or two later, my sweet tooth is acting up, so I mosey over to Hazel Mountain Chocolates, a bean to bar artisanal chocolate factory located in the foothills of the Burren. Nestled amongst craggy hills and emerald green fields, the scenery here is sublime - but the heavenly aroma of roasted beans and sweet chocolate equally entices visitors.
"I just bought 80 Euros of chocolate," says one shopper, savouring a truffle. "And I regret nothing."
I pop a sample into my mouth and taste the velvety dark chocolate melt on my tongue - pure bliss. Surrounded by trays of handmade truffles and bars flavoured with fixings like elderberry, hazelnuts, green gooseberry and smoked salt, I'm already pulling out my wallet.
It's comforting to know that even if you can't find love in Lisdoonvarna, there's always chocolate and a "good craic."
IF YOU GO:
The Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival runs from early September to early October. Now in its fifth year, The Outing LGBT Music & Matchmaking Festival usually takes place for one weekend in October. Make sure to buy tickets in advance!
Lisdoonvarna is a small village on the West Coast of Ireland, about 10 minute drive from the famous Wild Atlantic Way. It's a 3-hour drive from Dublin, and your best bet is to rent a car and drive yourself there.