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 match.
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 St Valentine.
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 storytellers.
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.