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'Ooooooh, Lisdoonvarna!' - the flamboyant craic at the brilliant rural Irish festival

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Illustration by Caty Bartholomew
There are about 10 couples dancing out on the street in the early evening in the center of the crazy spa town of Lisdoonvarna in North Clare. It is a waltz the band are playing inside one of the crammed hotel ballrooms and bars on the other side of the windows overlooking the square.

The summer is over and times are said to be hard on the economic front in the west of Ireland, but nobody told the dancers that. There is merriment on every side through the fabled town where the summer slowly retreats during the centuries old matchmaking festival each September, and even early October.

It is 24/7 craic day and night, and thank God we still strongly possess that illogical and resilient spirit of fun. I hope they have it too in countries like Greece and Portugal and Spain where their economies are in even worse shape than ours according to the doomsayers.

In Lisdoonvarna on the Sunday evening there is not room to park all along the single main street from the famous Spa Wells near the bridge to the Burren roundabout at the other end. The town rings with music, the sound of dancing, crowd sound and laughter. There is bunting everywhere.

All the bars appear to be so full the clientele are spilling out on to the street. And if that is the way it is and the band is playing, sure they dance there as if they were inside on the ballroom floor.

All the generations are represented, and there is a significant tourist presence on all sides.  The matchmaking festival is Lisdoonvarna's harvest and the townsfolk reap it with a will. And for the local musicians this is the busiest season of their year.

A fair few of the traditional rural festivals have been killed off by modernity over the past decade. That is so sad.

In many cases the local events were killed off by the imposition of sharper standards on such matters as public liability insurance for participants and spectators. More stringent drunk driving laws also had a major impact, as did the increasing cost of alcohol in pubs and hotels and the clatter of the recession generally.

But the Lisdoonvarna event is maybe even stronger than ever. Was not even the notable Sinead O'Connor a visitor last year?

The flamboyant Willie Daly, last of the ritual matchmakers of the past, is now known internationally, has been filmed and recorded by every major TV channel as he goes about his romantic trade. The fact is that most of the merrymakers do not have marriage on their minds when they visit, but it is also true, to this day, that a significant number of rural bachelors and spinsters from all over the Republic still find love and marriage and partnership during the days and nights of the festival.

An underlying social reality is that, for many country people in their thirties and forties, the opportunities for meeting each other are often few enough. The big "dry" (non-alcohol) ballrooms where their parents met and fell in love are now supplanted by nite clubs and discos populated by teens and twenties. These are no places at all for folks in their thirties and forties to easily and comfortably socialize.

An index to the continuing popularity of the matchmaking festival is that the town provides a range of the old-style ballrooms and bands playing music to match. Against that background, as the band plays, even the colorful Willie Daly is usually redundant.

I've met many couples, happily together for years, who first met each other on a Lisdoonvarna dance floor many Septembers ago.

I'm sure other couples will merrily meet and create romances from this year’s festival too. That has to be heartwarming.

If any of you get the chance to visit then seize the opportunity with both hands, especially if you are a spinster or bachelor or otherwise unattached.  Many's the American citizen came to the Spa for a weekend over the years and are there ever since, usually attached to a rising family and a farm of land!

Here's a local tip to finish. The spa waters for which the town is famed are extremely healthy and energizing. People swear by them.

My negative is that the sulphur water tastes horrific indeed. Think of rotten eggs and you come close.

But ask any local and there is also another well near the center of the town opposite Curtin's Roadside Tavern. This well, visited by few tourists, maybe even guarded by the locals, contains a flow of cool, clear iron water, straight from the limestone bowels of the Burren, almost directly the taste of real paradise.

Do not pass it by if you are there, and after a draught from it you will enjoy the matchmaking festival even more fully.

And if you meet a life partner I think you should invite me to the wedding as a small gesture of thanks.

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