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.

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Casement’s Last Stand

Banna Strand, County Kerry

Photo of Roger Casement from National Library of Ireland

As the sun rose on Good Friday, April 21st 1916, three soaking men pulled a wooden rowboat to shore at Banna Strand in County Kerry. Roger Casement and his companions had been set down by a German U-Boat but their dinghy had overturned in the waves.

The sandhills were full of skylarks, rising in the dawn, the first I had heard for years – the first sound I heard through the surf was their song as I waded in through the breakers, and they kept rising all the time up to the old rath at Currahane.

— Roger Casement in a letter to his sister, 1916

51-year-old Casement was exhausted and unwell. When he collapsed on the sand, the two other men — Robert Monteith and Daniel Bailey — realised he could travel no further.

They had come from Germany, by way of Northern Scotland and Rockall, a long and dangerous route during wartime. But Casement had travelled still farther in his life. When he’d been born into a prosperous Anglo-Irish family at Sandycove in Dublin, most would have assumed he’d have a comfortable future. But Casement’s restless nature would not let that happen.

Most Europeans who went to work in the Congo Free State were able to ignore the atrocities that made their lives there possible. Casement could not. Initially employed as a clerk, he was later commissioned by the British Government to investigate exactly how King Leopold had been running his fiefdom in central Africa. The truth was more shocking than anyone had imagined. His report outlined the “enslavement, mutilation, and torture of natives on the rubber plantations“, and the international pressure eventually forced Leopold to relinquish his personal holdings.

He’d first contracted malaria in the Congo. As he struggled onto Irish shores for the first time in many years, he was suffering a relapse of that disease. His companions left him in the shelter of an ancient rampart known as McKenna’s Fort, and they went to find the local branch of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

As he curled in on himself, shivering with cold and fever, did he think about those days in the Congo? Did he also recall his later investigations into the abuse of the Putayamo Indians in Peru? He was known as a great campaigner whose searing words brought injustice to light. Would his admirers see him the same if they knew of his other activities, of the furtive pleasures he took with young men he met on his travels?

When did his razor-sharp sense of injustice begin to focus on his native land? He must have known, when he tried to persuade German government officials to provide arms and training for the IRB, that the British authorities would seen him as the worst kind of traitor. But the Germans provided far less equipment than was needed, and now his main aim was to contact the Irish rebels and advise them to call off the uprising.

He waited, surrounded by 2000 German rifles, listening to the skylarks, watching the primroses and wild violets that bloomed in the prehistoric ring fort. Did he wonder about the strange, circular fate that had brought him to this place?

Now the R.I.C. were hunting
For Sir Roger high and low,
They found him in McKenna’s fort;
Said they: “You are our foe”,
Said he: “I’m Roger Casement,
I came to my native land,
I mean to free my countrymen
On the lonely Banna Strand”.

— Lonely Banna Strand, song by The Wolfe Tones

The local Irish constabulary arrested Casement at McKenna’s Fort. The uprising took place on Easter Monday without the German weapons, and ended after six days with the surrender of the leaders.

Casement was tried for treason in London. His impassioned speech from the dock gained him new admirers around the globe, including in other parts of the British Empire who saw parallels in their own national situations. But during the trial, the British Government circulated passages from the “Black Diaries”, accounts of Casement’s homosexual activities in Congo and Peru. Nationalists protested that these diaries must have been faked, but they succeeded in their aim of tarnishing Casement’s reputation and turning off would-be supporters.

Roger Casement was hung at Pentonville Prison on August 3rd 1916. His remains were returned to Ireland nearly 50 years later.The old fort by Banna Strand has been renamed Casement’s Fort.

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