You’re never too old to find love, assures
Ireland’s last traditional matchmaker, with a twinkle in his bright blue eyes.
Sipping a cup of tea in his kitchen in one of the
most beautiful corners of the Emerald Isle, which has inspired poems by the
likes of W B Yeats and Seamus Heaney, 80-year-old Willie Daly flicks through
letters from people of all ages across the world looking for their perfect
I’m learning that a strong sense of romance endures
across Ireland – from the relics of St Valentine treasured in a church in the capital Dublin, to an etching of doomed lovers Tristan and Isolde at City Hall,
a popular annual matchmaking festival, and the most famous piece of jewellery
from the island, the hands-clasped heart Claddagh ring.
What’s the secret?
Curious to see the island in a new light, I travel
to Co Clare, to find out what Willie’s secret is.
The long motorway from Dublin relents to country
roads amid seas of green fields, as I travel west before arriving at a goat
farm on the outskirts of Lisdoonvarna to meet the man himself.
I receive a warm welcome, as Willie explains how he
followed his father and grandfather into matchmaking. He matched his first
couple as a teenager after a girl had caught a boy’s eye at church, making the
introduction by going with the boy to see a pig the girl’s family was selling.
Apparently, the boy and girl’s eyes met over the
pig, and the pair were later wed.
Clearly a shrewd judge of character, Willie can
match couples simply by spotting people he believes are suited, but these days
the bulk of his matchmaking comes via letters sent by singletons in their 50s,
60s, and 70s from across the world.
He shows me his 150-year-old book of love, a
bulging tome full of pieces of paper pertaining to both those seeking a
partner, and those Willie has matched.
“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 me.
I press my hands against the smooth leather cover,
thinking, ‘Well, why not?’
Wild Atlantic Way
From Willie’s house, it’s a short drive to the
world-renowned Cliffs of Moher. They jut out dramatically, battered by enormous
waves from the Atlantic, sending mists of spray into the air, with the Aran
Islands in the distance.
I feel as if I’m walking in the footsteps of
literary greats, travelling up the coastline from Co Clare to Co Galway. With
the sea on one side and the magnificent Burren on the other, I enjoy the
stillness of Flaggy Shore, which understandably inspired Heaney. Local poet and
guide James Walsh has a clear passion for the area, reading out excerpts from
poems at these beautiful locations.
As a lifelong Yeats fan, a visit to Lady Gregory’s
former Coole Park estate is a particularly special moment. It was here that
Yeats was moved to write the Wild Swans At Coole, and even left his mark, along
with several other literary greats, on what is now known as the autograph tree.
The original Claddagh ring
Travelling into Galway city, I take a walk around
an area where the original fishing community of the Claddagh once stood, before
making my way to a nearby jewellery shop.
Thomas Dillon Claddagh Gold dates back to 1750 and
counts former US president John F Kennedy, Queen Victoria, Princess Grace of
Monaco, and the current Irish president Michael D Higgins among its clients.
The low doorway on Quay Street opens into a
treasure trove of trays of rings and other Claddagh-inspired jewellery. Current
proprietor Jonathan Margetts tells me the meaning of the ring – the hands for
friendship, the heart is for love and the crown for loyalty between two people.
Trays of rings come in different types of metal and
some even embellished with diamonds and emeralds. Jonathan, whose family bought
the business from the Dillon family, said they were originally made to be
wedding rings, but are now bought for all occasions.
Dublin’s softer side
Across the country in the capital Dublin, I learn
that references to romance are everywhere – if you know where to look.
My guide Dave Wright of Pat Liddy’s walking tours
(walkingtours.ie), shows me around the historic St Patrick’s Cathedral, where
former dean and novelist Jonathan Swift is buried beside his lover Stella, the
romantic Ha’penny Bridge spanning the River Liffey, and Lover’s Lane with it’s
brightly painted tiles bearing quotes about love.
But I’m most intrigued to learn about the relics of
The saint’s story is both beautiful and
heartbreaking, sentenced to death for marrying couples in secret in the
mid-third century in Rome, and the tale of his final letter to his blind
daughter restoring her sight.
The relics were brought to Dublin in the 1800s as a
show of support for the Catholic Church in Ireland during difficult days. Today
they are kept at Whitefriar Street Church in an ornate box behind a window, and
roped off with reverence. A statue of the saint stands in an inlet above with
the sign St Valentine hear my prayer and flickering candles.
I feel like I can almost hear the echo of years of
whispered prayers to the statue of the saint gazing beatifically down at me.
From saints to scholars, the Museum of Literature Ireland on St Stephen’s Green is dedicated to some of the island’s greatest
Walking around the historic Newman House, I learn
about Peig Sayers, who preserved the old stories from the great oral
storytelling tradition on Blasket Islands off the coast of Co Kerry.
Bathing in literature through the immersive
exhibitions, there is a particular focus on Dubliner's author James Joyce,
including tall rows of shelves showing copies of his books translated into
languages from across the world.
The museum tour comes to an end with a table
covered in notepads for those inspired by all those great authors to start
jotting down their own ideas for a book.
I can’t help but smile as I think that perhaps in
six months' time I’ll have a new romance tale to write – if Willie’s magic book
of love works its spell.