As the 2019 ‘Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival’ was drawing to a close, I revisited Lisdoonvarna and the legendary SpaWells for the ‘Final Fling’ weekend.
Lisdoonvarna is a transliteration from the Gaelic name ‘Lios Duin Bhearna’ (the enclosed fort in the gap). The huge attraction of Lisdoonvarna in the old days was that it was a spa town and reports of its waters and their benefits date back as far as 1740.
The spa twin wells are located on the banks of the River Aille. The Lisdoonvarna waters come from an unusual source, as both sulfur and iron water gush from the same rock.
Tourism in Lisdoonvarna developed around the spa and in 1887 The West Clare Railway opened a train station in Ennistymon, (7.5 miles from Lisdoonvarna), which contributed enormously to the development of the spa and the town.
Many local characters were connected with the wells including legendary ‘Biddy the Sulphur’ from the Gutherie family. By 1888 she was dispensing from a little pump-house, hotels were vying with each other for business and people from every walk of life mingled around the wells.
Even the clergy visited Lisdoonvarna to ‘take the waters’ and one of Lisdoonvarna's most famous sayings describes the town as a place ‘where parish priests pretend to be sober and bank clerks pretend to be drunk.’
The spa attracted many visitors and as they relaxed and enjoyed themselves, romance soon entered their holiday equation and finding a partner became one of the main activities of Lisdoonvarnas’ holidaymakers. September was, and still is, the peak month of Lisdoonvarna’s holiday season and in the old days with the harvest safely in and money jingling in their pockets, well-heeled farming families and bachelor farmers flocked to Lisdoonvarna.
Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival
In rural Ireland in those days, marriages were arranged between two eligible families rather than between individual men and women, and for such ‘deals’ the expert services of a matchmaker was often required to negotiate the intricacies of trading land for dowries while also taking into account other attributes like ‘beauty’ and farming or professional skills. In the west of Ireland, a good match meant keeping the farm in the family.
Wealthy families vacationed and matchmakers flocked and prospered and Lisdoonvarna became the ‘in place’ to find a match. By the early 1840s, the impromptu matchmaking at the spa developed into the month-long ‘Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking festival’.
Today’s festival continues the old traditions while blending with the new. There is daily matchmaking with Willie Daly in his ‘office’ in ‘The Matchmaker Bar’. Willie who is like a 21st century ‘shenachie’ has wonderful stories and is loved by all. During the weekend, I met with him and three of his eight children; Marie, Henry and Elsha, who as fourth-generation matchmakers are carrying his banner forward. Elsha recently launched her website you can visit here.
Every year, on the very first day of the festival the ‘First Chance Dance’ kicks off at noon (until around 2:30pm) at the SpaWells ballroom and they hold a dance every day of the festival. There is dancing every night in Lisdoonvarna’s many hotels and bars and in the street. Each weekend ‘Irish Country’ stars and other big music names pull in the crowds and the 2019 festival was the best ever with over 80,000 passing through the small town, which during the year, around eight hundred call home.
On the last Saturday of the festival, we donned our dance dresses, specially packed for the SpaWells, and wandered from ‘The Imperial Hotel’ down to the SpaWells ballroom at the far end of the town. We were warmly greeted by John Sexton from Mullagh, County Clare who comes over from the US every year, for the past 15 years, to sell the 5€ tickets for the dance. John, and the entire SpaWells’ team, in the tearoom, ballroom, and at the old Pumphouse, all work on a strictly volunteer basis.
Marie Urquhart, President of ‘Lisdoonvarna Failte Ltd’, decked out in her SpaWells apron, told me of their commitment to keep it up and running and to one day reopen the old bathhouse. It seems investment is needed if the Lisdoonvarna’s SpaWells are to regain the glory of yore. If the bathhouse was renovated and reopened, with ‘wellness tourism’ being so popular, the SpaWells could actually drive tourism in North Clare during the off-peak season.
The magnificent SpaWells ballroom, steeped in history and surrounded by beauty is a rare pearl and with an international revival in social and retro dancing, is a magical meeting point for dancers. Glamorous retro balls in Paris attract droves of beautiful Parisian ladies, who love to dance, but there’s a lack of dancing men. In the SpaWells ballroom and in Lisdoonvarna, there is an abundance of men who know how to dance. So it seems Lisdoonvarna and Paris might be a ‘match’ made in heaven.
We climbed up the steps from the tearoom to the ballroom and saw ladies in dance dresses and well turned out men. Larry McEvoy with his accordion soon had everyone up dancing. Later we needed a tea break and headed back to the tea room. The large windows look out on countryside reminiscent of ‘The Quiet Man’and each table is lovingly dressed with linen tablecloths and retro porcelain.
The highlight of the day was when stunningly beautiful Nataya White, a 15-year-old North Clare student, made her entrance in the ‘Lisdoonvarna dress’, for a photo shoot. The dress was designed by Kim Bernardin a Parisian designer. Ladies attending the dance told Nataya how gorgeous she looked and how romantic the dress was.
Nataya blended in with the dancers and as the camera flashed in the SpaWells, while Paris Fashion Week raged in Paris, it seemed that Nataya in the ‘Lisdoonvarna dress’ was cementing the link between Paris, ‘the City of Romance’ and Lisdoonvarna the little ‘Town of Love’ Looking towards the future Nataya could be the perfect érgérie for the ‘Lisdoonvarna-Paris mini-festival’, organised by Irish woman Patricia Killeen, which will stage its second annual event in Paris, in 2020.
If it’s true that love makes the world go round – Lisdoonvarna twirls at the speed of light. And who knows, maybe it’s something in its spa water that plays an aphrodisiac part in helping love flow and flourish?
 ‘Lisdoonvarna Historical Background’, Clare County Library,
 Maureen Donachie, ‘Seanachies: keepers of Ireland's rich folklore heritage,’ Irish Central, October 13, 2016, https://www.irishcentral.com/news/community/the-seanachie-keeper-of-irelands-rich-folklore-heritage
 Willie Daly has a horse cart from ‘The Quiet Man’ film at his family farm. Some of the locations of the film are about an hour’s drive from Lisdoonvarna: https://www.irishcentral.com/travel/travel-tips/where-was-the-quiet-man-filmed
 Paris fashion week (23 September-1 October 2019),
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