A Match Made in County Clare

Lisdoonvarna, County Clare

Photo of Lisdoonvarna pub by Fionn Kidney, licensed under Creative Commons

Matchmaker, Matchmaker,
Make me a match,
Find me a find,
Catch me a catch
— Matchmaker, song from Fiddler on the Roof

In the autumn a middle-aged farmer’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love. The harvest is in and he’s facing a cold and lonely winter. But where will he find himself a wife? Perhaps, come September, he can head to the Matchmaking Festival in Lisdoonvarna.

The village of Lisdoonvarna is Ireland’s only active spa town, built around a spring rich in sulphur and iron. Tourists have been “taking the waters” here since the 18th century, but it was the opening of the West Clare Railway in the 19th century that opened the area to mass tourism. Visitors would take the train to Ennistymon and a pony from there to Lisdoonvarna.

All the lonely people,
Where do they all come from?
– All the Lonely People, song by the Beatles

Post-famine Ireland had a high percentage of single people. Mass emigration took potential partners out of the country, and among those who remained, men were concentrated in the countryside and women in the towns. Perhaps also a tendency to shyness and a puritanical attitude to sex put a dampener on courtship. In any case, the Matchmaking Festival was established, and the romance business flourished.

Willie Daly, the fourth generation matchmaker in his family, has been introducing couples to each other for 45 years and is responsible for over 3000 marriages. During the festival, he can be found in the snug of The Matchmaker pub; just follow the long queue of potential mates and put your name into his enormous scrapbook of profiles. Legend says that if a single person holds the 150-year-old book in their two hands, they will find a mate within six months, while a married person doing the same will find their passion rekindled.

Today, Internet sites such as match.com and plentyoffish have become a year-long matchmaking festival. But there is still room for the old-fashioned approach practiced by Willie Daly.

Love is waiting there for everyone, it’s there just waiting to be found. When it is, it’s a lovely feeling.

— Willie Daly, matchmaker

Not all visitors arrive for the purpose of finding a lifelong mate. Music and drinking are also a big part of the festival’s appeal, and many singles and couples arrive in September out of curiosity or in search of “the craic”, turning this tiny village for a short period into a bustling place.

The following month, Lisdoonvarna holds “The Outing”, a matchmaking festival for gay people from Ireland and around the world. The Outing first ran in 2013, but received a boost in 2015 when Ireland became the first country to bring in same-sex marriage by public vote. Rainbow flags will fly, and Willie Daly will be ready to add new names to his big book.




Surf’s Up

Lahinch, County Clare

Photo of Lahinch Surfer by TOF2006, licensed under Creative Commons

Let’s go surfin’ now
Everybody’s learning how
Come on and safari with me
– Surfin’ Safari, song by The Beach Boys (1962)

In the summer of 1972, an international group of surfers held their boards upright on the sands of Lahinch in County Clare and looked despairingly at the sea. The day was unusually calm and the waves were barely six inches high. The sea at Lahinch, usually turbulent enough to provide optimal surfing conditions, might as well have been a lake.

Surfing at that time was a very new sport in Ireland. Indeed, it barely existed until 1963, when Kevin Cavey picked up a copy of Reader’s Digest.

One day I read in the Readers Digest about the sport of the Kings in the Hawaiian Islands, and saw a picture of them riding head height waves, the sort of which I had often seen in the west of Ireland. I immediately determined to put Ireland on the map as a surfing country. So as to test if surfing would work, I built an 8 ft long plywood and aero foam board and launched it in Bray in August 1964. I immediately formed Ireland’s first Surf Club and called it ‘Bray Ireland Surf Club’.

– Kevin Cavey

He linked up with other interested surfers in Ireland and the U.K., and organized “surfaris” to places like Tramore, Strandhill, Enniscrone, and Lahinch. He even established networks in Northern Ireland, a remarkable instance of cross-border co-operation at the height of “The Troubles”.

By 1970, Ireland boasted about 400 surfers. Irish surfers competed abroad and started to win, and in 1972 it was decide to hold the European Surfing Championships at Lahinch. Surfers travelled from Britain, France, and Spain for the chance to ride the Atlantic waves.

Unfortunately, the waves didn’t co-operate and only the junior competition went ahead.

The day after this anti-climax, there was a swell off Spanish Point, produced by a reef that had never before been noticed.  The French contingent had already left, but those remaining became the first to ride this newly-discovered reef. They followed this with a “surfari” to Donegal, and most of the surfers returned home with exciting tales of the wild and unpredictable surf on the west coast of Ireland.

Surfing continued to grow in popularity. The 1997 the European Surfing Championships were held again in Ireland, this time in Bundoran, County Donegal. Today, there are around 40 surf schools and 20,000 surfers in Ireland. Kevin Cavey is now known as “the grandfather of Irish surf”.


I’ll end this post on a personal note. In September 2006, my work colleague told me he was going surfing in Lahinch with his brother and a friend, and asked if I’d like to join them. I didn’t have anything better to do that weekend, so I accepted the invitation.

The sea that Saturday was just as calm as it had been for the European Surfing Championships in 1972. We ended up walking the beach, drinking smoothies, and enjoying the sunshine. My colleague’s friend had a lovely smile and, as we chatted away along the beach, our companions decided to give us some space to get to know each other.

Two years later, P.J. and I were married. So I owe a great deal to the fickle waves of Lahinch.


Fungie the Friendly Dolphin

Dingle, County Kerry

Photo of Fungie by Dulup, licensed under Creative Commons

On a summer’s day in 1983, Paddy Ferriter looked out from the window of his lighthouse at Dingle Harbour. A fishing boat was making its way home, a bottlenose dolphin frolicking in its wake. Dolphins were not uncommon on the Kerry coastline, but few ventured this close to shore, and Paddy was sure he had seen this one before.

The dolphin soon became known as a regular in the area, and was christened “Fungie”. Visitors have wondered if this is an old Irish name meaning something profound, but it probably just stands for “fun guy”. Fungie is a playful creature who has an unusually close bond to humans. He rarely ventures far from Dingle, and has been adopted as a mascot by the town.

The tour boats leave the harbour all year round, weather permitting. They operate on a “no see — no pay” basis. Few boatmen lose money on this gamble, because the Dingle dolphin nearly always shows up. Over the years, hundreds of people have swum with Fungie, including celebrities such as Pierce Brosnan and Mary Black. An entire industry has built up around one playful animal.

Several theories have been proposed for the cause of Fungie’s affinity for Dingle and its people. Perhaps he was released from a marine park, which would explain his comfort with humans and disinclination to mix with his own species. Around the time of his arrival, the body of a female bottlenose was washed up dead; this may have been Fungie’s mate, and perhaps the dolphin couldn’t find the heart to leave after he lost her. In the late 1990s, Fungie had a fling with a younger dolphin named Smokey, but she left him for warmer waters and he remains in the bay.

Or does he? After 30 years, there is some speculation that the original Fungie may have been replaced by a younger model. The lifespan of bottlenose dolphins is hard to discern. In captivity, they typically live for no more than 25 years, but captivity probably shortens the life of a sociable creature used to open seas. In the wild, they may live as old as 50. Even so, Fungie was an adult in 1983, so he’s well past his prime in dolphin years.

The creature that inhabits Dingle Harbour has been slowing down of late. Local skippers point out the nick on his fin, which he got from a propeller blade some 20 years ago. They also point out that Fungie’s behaviour is so unusual that it’s hard to believe it could be replicated in another dolphin.

Fungie’s relatives are not always so easygoing. A more irritable bottlenose dolphin called Dusty has been located around Doolin and Galway Bay. Swimmers have ended up in hospital after mistaking her flapping fins for an invitation instead of a warning. Dolphins are still wild animals, and Fungie’s friendliness may have lead us to overestimate their tolerance of us.


Proof of the Pudding

Clonakilty, County Cork

Photo of black pudding by Robyn Mackenzie

I once knew a waitress who worked in a hotel in Galway. Every morning, she’d ask the guests if they wanted a “full Irish” breakfast.

“What in that?” the American guests would ask.
“There’s bacon,” she told them. “And sausage, tomato, black pudding….”
“And what’s in the black pudding?”
“It’s delicious. You should try it.”
“But what’s in it?”
“Well… pork, oatmeal and, umm… blood.”
“Oh, gee.” They shuddered. “I’ll skip the black pudding then.”

Which is a shame.  Because black pudding of the right kind is damn delicious. And the best kind of black pudding comes from Clonakilty in County Cork.

You do not like them,
So you say.
Try them! Try them!
And you may.
Try them and you may I say.
– Green Eggs and Ham, Dr Suess (1960)

The recipe for Clonakilty Black Pudding was created by Johanna O’Brien in the 1800s. She was a farmer’s wife, making a few extra bob by selling her eggs, butter, and other produce to Harrington’s Butchers. She passed the recipe to Phillip Harrington, who handed it down through his family.

When Edward Twomey took over the business in the 1970s, he found the process of making black pudding a chore and attempted to stop. Outrage ensued! People were travelling from all over Munster to get their black pudding; pensioners took the bus from Cork to stock up. He realised he was onto a good thing, and Clonakilty Black Pudding became the cornerstone of the new supply company, Carbery Meats. Soon they were winning awards and supplying produce to supermarkets in Ireland and worldwide. Johanna O’Brien’s recipe is still used, with its secret mix of spices known only to the Twomey family.

Black pudding itself has probably been eaten for a long time. Why would you waste a good (and tasty) source of nutrition? In the words of Fergus Henderson (author of Nose to Tail Eating), “If you’re going to kill the animal it seems only polite to use the whole thing.” Traditionally part of a fried breakfast, black pudding is also yummy in a starter or salad, especially when paired with apple to counteract the saltiness. Other Europeans have their own versions: boudin noir (French), morcilla (Spanish), blutwurst (German), kaszanka (Polish).

In 2016, black pudding was proclaimed to be a “superfood”, but unfortunately this turned out to be a marketing hoax. It is high in iron and zinc (good for you) but also in saturated fat and salt (not). It’s best enjoyed in moderation, which means you should invest in the best. And didn’t I just tell you the best comes from Clonakilty?