This article appeared in the North Clare Local in September.
The month of September means only one thing for the people of Lisdoonvarna: the annual matchmaking festival. Throughout the month, more than 20,000 people descend on the town to enjoy the ceol agus craic, and maybe, just maybe, find their true love. Continuing last month’s romantic theme, this time I will be looking at superstitions about love, romance and matchmaking.
You might remember last month I mentioned that until relatively recently (the 19th century at a conservative estimate) that marriage was a contract, a business arrangement. A good marriage could set up a family with land and prosperity for generations. The couple were not allowed to make their own match, and often nor were the family; this was where the matchmaker came in.
He would negotiate the terms of the dowry and set the conditions of living arrangements. Traditionally, this was men’s business. It was incredibly unlucky for a woman to walk in on the crunch talks.
The matchmaker is a stock character in Irish literature, for example John B Keane’s The Matchmaker. While today’s dating scene might be far more casual, less romantic and more internet-based, there are some lovely superstitions around finding your one true love.
Girls of old often appeased to the fates to find out who they would marry. We all remember the childhood game of ‘he loves me, he loves me not’ (and the disappointment on the last petal to find that Leonardo di Caprio did not think you were his true love!) Many of these superstitions were not solely Irish, and followed the same pattern.
They all involved the girl performing some elaborate ritual to find out who she would marry. I can’t find one where a man wonders who he would marry. Make of that what you will.
A sample include: brushing your hair in front of the mirror on Halloween (your husband would appear in the mirror, which sounds like the plot of a horror), pulling a wishbone (the girl who gets the shortest piece will marry first), and peeling apples (the skin should reveal the initials of your future husband).
These rituals reach their complicated height with this particular belief. On a leap year, count 100 white horses. When you’ve reached 100, the first man you shake hands with you’ll marry. I wonder did a woman ever carry out this ritual, only for her father to shake her hand, congratulating her for finding 100 white horses?
Even the barm brack has a meaning concerned with love and marriage. Traditionally, the items baked into the brack were: a pea, a stick, a piece of cloth, a silver sixpence and the ring. Finding the pea meant you would not marry that year, the stick represented an unhappy marriage, the cloth meant poverty, the sixpence meant wealth and the ring meant the finder would marry within the year. Nowadays, just the ring remains.
What of Lisdoonvarna itself? It is a relatively young town by Irish standards, largely growing up around its spa in the Victorian era. Lisdoonvarna is lucky to possess a mineral springs, which led to its popularity. The Victorians were obsessed with spas, leading to towns like Lisdoonvarna expanding greatly in the 19th century. Presently, it is the only active spa centre in Ireland.
Lisdoonvarna Castle was built in the 17th century. The resident O’Davoren family were remembered for setting up the Brehon Law School and for being ‘haughty’.
The matchmaking festival grew up organically around the town as many bachelor farmers flocked to Lisdoonvarna in search of a wife. Why September? Well, the harvest was in and there was a long lonely winter ahead. What better time?
A modern folklore has grown up around Lisdoonvarna, and the town and its matchmaking are now famed in song. There is, of course, Christy Moore’s 1980s hit, ‘Lisdoonvarna’, which referred to the now defunct music festival. It contains the immortal line ‘If it’s music you want, you should go to Clare.’ A possible alternative for the county’s motto.
Brendan Shine’s Dan in ‘Catch Me If You Can’ mentions the festival in the chorus and also dispenses the advice ‘if you’re a young one looking for a man, take a bus from Barna down to Lisdoonvarna.’
The town’s name is now synonymous with romance. Willie Daly is the festival’s official matchmaker. The fourth generation of Dalys to fix up happy couples, Willie says he is as successful as ever, despite the onset of online dating and the more casual attitude to marriage.
Willie believes the recession is changing people’s views of marriage.
“The first question they want to know now when they ask me to find them someone is if he’s working or unemployed,” he told the Irish Examiner last year.
2011 was Willie’s most successful year yet. Who knows what 2012’s festival will hold?