IN the tiny town of Lisdoonvarna in rural west Ireland, a scene of Sodom and Gomorrah meets Love Island is unfolding.
At 11pm, on the street outside The Ritz hotel, as Whitney Houston’s voice belts out, throngs of couples are dancing to the beat.
Visitors get close in the tiny town of Lisdoonvarna in rural west IrelandCredit: Olivia West
As stars blink into the sky, on the street outside The Matchmaker Bar, couples snog beside painted murals of heartsCredit: Olivia West
In The Matchmaker Bar, I find local Cupid Willie Daly sitting with his 68-year-old ‘love ledger’ — a tatty leather-bound book filled with details of hopeful singletonsCredit: Olivia West
Girls with rich toffee fake tans and short pleather skirts bop beside boys with hope twinkling in their eyes.
A pretty blonde grabs a guy for a jive. A young couple twirling in hysterics collapse on the pavement beside an older couple kissing.
Nearby a girl perched on someone’s shoulders waves her pint as a man with a traffic cone on his head wraps his arms around two female friends.
I can hardly walk two steps without being accosted by men asking: “Are you looking for someone? Will you marry me?” No thanks, I’m all right!
This country town is giddy with a collective euphoria. Perhaps, it is love.
Before I arrived, I’d heard about the Matchmaking Festival, held here for more than 160 years. It began after the discovery of healing mineral waters brought hordes to the area.
There are romantic yarns about thousands of couples, hundreds of marriages and countless babies born from the festival, which runs through all of September.
And tawdry tales about 80-year-old farmers heading to the festival in 4x4s with a mattress in the back.
Already this year a video is circulating of a couple having sex against a window on Main Street.
Still, ever hopeful, I decided to see if this town — rumoured to be the real-life Love Island — can work its magic on me, a hopeless singleton.
I arrive to find the streets crammed with camper vans (“shagging wagons” as the locals jokingly call them) with number plates from across the world.
There are girls wearing T-shirts saying “Road frontage” (a joke about how love matches in rural Ireland originally prioritised land) and men loitering hopefully on street corners.
I’ve barely parked when three men in their sixties catcall me and my female photographer: “Hello Ladies! Are you here looking for love?”.
The town’s population is barely a thousand but during the festival it can swell to 60,000, with visitors from their teens to their nineties arriving from all over the world.
Around 3,000 make the pilgrimage here from Britain every year — many on repeat visits, from cities including London, Bristol and Manchester.
In The Matchmaker Bar, I find local Cupid Willie Daly — the heart of this operation — sitting with his 68-year-old “love ledger” — a tatty leather-bound book filled with details of hopeful singletons.
“If you touch the book and you’re single you’ll be married in six months”, he promises, as I grip on to it.
Willie’s father was a matchmaker as was his grandfather before him.
He pairs people up on instinct and believes in love at first sight. He’s also looking for love himself, having separated from the mother of his eight children, his wife of 25 years.
Willie puts the popularity of this year’s festival down to the cost-of-living crisis: “If you have a good-looking woman in your bed creating a little warmth you’ll save on your bills”, he says, grinning.
At that afternoon’s tea dance in a nearby bar, where a Zimmer frame has been abandoned by the dance floor, I find Mary.
Is she looking for love? “I wish I could find something!”, she says with a laugh. In her late 60s, she and her two single pals have been coming to the town for 25 years. “You never know what’ll cross our paths,” she adds.
That evening a younger crowd flock in, cramming into The Matchmaking Bar to find Willie.
Kirsty Lynch, 23, Lorraine Curry, 24, Dearbhla O’Brien, 23 and Angela Gallagher, 23, are all single.
“We’re looking for love,” they chorus. What are they looking for in someone? “Road Frontage!”, “Money”, “Kindness”, “Tall”.
Katie Glass goes to Lisdoonvarna matchmaking festival to find a husbandCredit: Olivia West
A couple gets together while visiting the Matchmakers BarCredit: Olivia West
Siobhan and Johnny were matched up two weeks agoCredit: Olivia West
Janet, 30, has come as a wing-woman for her single friend Aoife, 28, from Liverpool.
“We heard about Lisdoonvarna years ago so we had to come and see it, and if anything comes of it . . . ” she says, leaving the possibility lingering.
Aoife is filling in one of Willie’s “love” forms. She’s keen to meet some-one “kind”, and with very good craic. Some have less romantic plans. Two guys tell me they came with a car and a tent, hoping to meet a girl who is up for a quick night under canvas.
At one time matchmaking was essential in rural Ireland — to keep land in the family and make sure you did not marry your cousin.
Now a younger generation from across the globe are drawn to it after becoming disillusioned by Tinder.
Willie says for singles now “money almost doesn’t come into it”. What most people ask for is “honesty”.
Aoife Moran, 24, a red-headed beauty in a stripy blue top, believes meeting someone in real life is better.
“Tinder is online, that’s no craic — it’s more fun in person”, she enthuses. “You can be anyone online but you’re yourself in person”.
A pretty brunette nearby, Helena O’Callaghan, 29, agrees.
“On Tinder they can lie, and often they don’t even text that long so you never get to know them,” she says.
In person you get a sense of someone.
Last time Helena came to Lisdoonvarna she met a farmer she dated for three months.
Now she is looking for someone “funny” and free — “someone that’s going to bring me out of my shell”.
Nearby I find a handsome bearded man, Austin Postais, 34, who spent £1,100 flying to Ireland from the US after reading about the town festival.
He is here, excited about “the idea of bringing magic back into love”.
He has found dating apps “very mechanical and frustrating, everyone having to meet these standards . . . I’m a very patient and loving person and I want the opportunity to meet someone and just see what happens.”
Olivia Williamson, 35, a gorgeous, voluptuous brunette, also came here from America, optimistic that Lisdoonvarna is a setting for passion.
“In a place with a lot of people who are open and available, there is a possibility you could find someone. People here are looking for love”.
As stars blink into the sky, on the street outside The Matchmaker Bar, couples snog beside painted murals of hearts.
A girl in a denim jacket takes her man’s face in her hands, while inside the bar, Aoife Moran and Austin are dancing, having been introduced by Willie.
On Saturday night this far-flung High Street erupts with twentysomethings crammed into pubs blaring out country music.
In The Matchmaker Bar, packed with pretty girls, tender-faced men swagger around jiving couples as the amorous chatter swirls: “Meghan would love him” “Do you like her?”
In Willie’s matchmaking booth Siobhan O’Sullivan, 23, and Johnny Jones, 24, enthusiastically thank the man who has put them together.
“The minute you introduced us, I knew that was the man for me”, a blushing Siobhan tells Willie.
Johnny tells me: “Willie educated the chemistry between us”, explaining they met two weeks ago and now plan to stay in a relationship despite Siobhan living in Boston, Massachusetts and Johnny in Dublin.
Everywhere is another love story.
Mags and Frank Power, a cool-looking older couple, met at the festival 24 years ago. They married in 2013 and still come back every year.
Pretty brunette Claire Ryan, 27, met her boyfriend Eammon Joyce, also 27, here four years ago. The couple, from Tipperary, want to marry.
“It works!” says a beaming Claire, “It’s the most romantic place”.
Grainne Ahearn, 24 who is here with friend Sarah Keane, 23, is a genuine Lisdoonvarna baby. Her parents met at the festival in 1992, married in 1994 and have two kids.
Like Love Island, there’s something about Lisdoonvarna that stirs people’s romanticism and longing.
As the night gets messier, drinks splash and people stumble, it’s noticeable they aren’t fighting or shouting but kissing, dancing, flirting and hugging.
Love is in the air and it is contagious. Even I find myself matched, with Willie’s blessing, to a 6ft sculptor with pale blue eyes and a soft Dublin accent.
Outside The Ritz, I spot the couple I saw locking lips last night outside The Matchmaker Bar. The man gets down on one knee, and as the crowd cheers him on, he proposes.
Aoife and Austin are another couple matched by WillieCredit: Olivia West
Claire and Eammon met in the town four years agoCredit: Olivia West
This couple got engaged at the town’s festivalCredit: Olivia West
It’s a Zimmer winner at this tea dance in the townCredit: Olivia West
Matchmaking in the town is not just a recent phenomenon as this photo taken between 1880 and 1914 showsCredit: National Library of Ireland Lawrence Collection