Lifestyle

Heartbreak and loneliness – what happened when Covid cancelled Europe’s biggest matchmaking festival


‘It makes me very sad that we can’t go this year. We never miss it,’ explains Albert Lawlor over the phone from his home in Limerick, Ireland.

He lives there with his wife, Cecily and the couple, both in their mid-seventies, are celebrating their 53rd wedding anniversary.

Although they have much to rejoice in, they admit to feeling a little low. For the first time since their wedding day on September 21, 1968, they aren’t spending their anniversary in the town of Lisdoonvarna.

Pocketed between Ireland’s most popular tourist attraction, the Cliffs of Moher, and the Burren, a national park teeming with rare wildlife and limestone rocks, Lisdoonvarna (Lisdoon to locals) is about an hour’s drive north-west from Limerick, in County Clare. 

But the surrounding region’s landscape isn’t the reason why Albert and Cecily continue to visit the rural town each year: their return is fuelled solely by a music and matchmaking festival, which has been held in Lisdoon every September for 164 years.

This year, it has been cancelled due to the coronavirus.

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The festival usually welcomes up to 80,000 people over the course of four weeks. Its success has been sung about by Irish musician Christy Moore, broadcasted by comedian John Bishop in a programme for ITV in 2019, and even imitated by Paris-based Dubliner Patricia Killeen, who organised her own mini Lisdoonvarna festival in the French capital last year.

For the first time since their wedding day Albert and Cecily aren’t spending their anniversary in Lisdoonvarna. (Picture: Albert Lawlor)

It was at the matchmaking festival, in a ball room in one of the town’s many hotels, that Albert and Cecily first met.

‘I was down with a few lads, just for a day out really,’ explains Albert. ‘One of the boys said to me, “there’s a good jiver over there”. So, I went and asked her to dance, and Cecily replied, “but are you able to dance?”.’

Cecily laughs. ‘We then arranged to meet, and a year after that we got married.’

Albert was 21 at the time and it was his first Lisdoonvarna experience, whereas Cecily was two years his senior and had been to the festival multiple times before with her father, who worked in farming.

During its early years, farmers were the only people to attend the festival. Indeed, it came into being by them and for them – especially those looking for a wife.

Every September, they would descend from the mountains to the town to dance, sing and celebrate the end of the harvest, while women would visit from nearby cities.

Thousands of single people from both Ireland and abroad travel to the festival each year hoping to meet their soulmate. (Picture Mared Gruffydd)

And why congregate here of all places? Because Lisdoonvarna is home to multiple wells, whose sacred waters contain high levels of sulphur and magnesium, which, if drank, are said to have aphrodisiac properties.

These waters, as well as the beauty of the wild Atlantic coast, the myths and legends of the nearby Aran islands, and the melodic tones of the Irish language and its songs, all contributed to making Lisdoonvarna one of the most romantic places on earth.

At first, the men and women were left to their own devices, until a local young man called William Daly decided to play Cupid and actively introduce prospective partners to each other.

Since his services proved popular, the tradition of matchmaking remains to this day – held in place by William’s grandson and Lisdoonvarna’s current matchmaker, seventy-six-year-old Willie Daly.

Thanks to these three generations, thousands of single people from both Ireland and abroad – particularly the United States – travel to the festival each year hoping to meet their soulmate.

Unlike Albert and Cecily, not everyone meets their potential partner organically – they instead visit Willie in his temporary office in one of the town’s bars.

Willie Daly with his matcmaking book (Picture: Don Moloney)

‘I started matchmaking when I was about 24,’ says Willie proudly. ‘I think I’ve created more than 3,000 marriages.’

During the rest of the year, he spends time on his farm – situated within two miles of Lisdoonvarna – but the matchmaking doesn’t stop. People of all ages still contact him via email, phone, or even post to tell him a little about themselves, hoping that he can find them a perfect match. 

Although the festival is cancelled this year, Willie is still as busy as ever.

‘People are feeling very lonely at the moment, so they want to find companionship or someone to talk to,’ he says. ‘Love is a wonderful thing and it gets people through the most difficult times. Nothing can stop love, not even Covid-19.’

Although sceptical of his matchmaking service at first, Katriona Kinsella, 26, from County Wexford on the east coast of Ireland, went to see Willie Daly in 2016. It was her first time at the festival.

‘I genuinely could not believe the craic,’ she says. ‘I wasn’t expecting anything, but Willie actually found me a match and we went on a date. He was a really nice fella, but unfortunately we lived far away from each other.’

Katriona pauses, before adding: ‘If we had lived in the same part of the country then maybe things would have been different.’

The festival usually welcomes up to 80,000 people over the course of four weeks (Picture: Doug Kerr/Flickr)

Katriona has returned to the festival every year since, and for the past two years, has taken her current boyfriend with her. Although they didn’t meet at the festival, they enjoy going for the music, as well as to meet up with friends that they know only from Lisdoonvarna.

‘We never see those people at any other time of the year, but we’re great friends,’ says Katriona. ‘We’ll really miss them this year.’

Another individual missing out on the festival this year is Austin Donnelly.

A writer and vet from County Wicklow, just to the south of Dublin, Austin would have visited Lisdoonvarna as research for a novel he’s currently writing about an Irish father and son who attend the festival together.

Single and in his early thirties, Austin would have also liked to see the matchmaker.

‘I think it would be quite fun,’ he admits. ‘I am certainly aware that people travel great distances to try out Willie’s service, so I would too.’

Single and in his early thirties, Austin would have also liked to see the matchmaker. (Picture: Austin Donnelly)

Although Austin is disappointed about the festival’s cancellation, it hasn’t impacted his mental health.

However, in his job he visited farmers in rural Ireland throughout lockdown and discovered that many hadn’t seen another person in days, or even weeks, so Austin can only imagine the impact the cancellation might have on the wellbeing of others.  

‘Lisdoonvarna was founded on bringing people together – people who wouldn’t normally socialise outside of the festival,’ he explains. ‘It’s some people’s lifeline.’

‘I’m really concerned about those people losing the festival.’

Indeed, Austin has cause for concern as a lack of social interaction can lead farmers to feel lonely, depressed, and even suicidal.

According to figures from the Office for National Statistics, in 2018, 83 male and female suicides were registered among people working in agricultural trades in England and Wales.

In Ireland, a survey conducted in 2019 by AgriLand and Empathy Research found that, of the 3,000 farmer participants, 46% stated that they felt depressed, while 57% responded that they felt anxious.

‘Farming is a lonely experience,’ says Finola Colgan. (Picture: Finola Colgan)

After the pandemic announcement in March this year, Finola Colgan, Development Officer for Mental Health Ireland, launched Farming Resilience, a campaign to help farmers struggling with mental health issues. She believes that loneliness among farmers is one of the main causes of poor mental health.

‘Farming is a lonely experience, and you can end up ruminating and things can get to you,’ she says. ‘Now, the cancellation of events such as Lisdoonvarna has added to that.’

However, the festival hopes to return bigger and better next year, with dates and a music line-up already announced on its website.

Albert and Cecily Lawlor are already looking forward to it.

‘We miss it so much because the atmosphere is absolutely fantastic, and the people that go there are fantastic as well,’ says Albert. ‘We’d be talking to everyone and meeting new people right now, wouldn’t we Cecily?’

Cecily chuckles. ‘And dancing and drinking of course.’

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