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updated 3/22/2006 7:54:31 PM ET 2006-03-23T00:54:31

Willie Daly moves through the crowd like a modern-day messiah. People crowd around, their eyes wide with expectation, their hearts open to his sermon of universal love. They clutch his forearm as if touch alone will hasten their quest, suffuse them with the energy that flows through this jovial, gray-bearded sage. At any other place you might think this was some sort of religious revival. But this is a jam-packed pub in Ireland, in a little place called Lisdoonvarna near the blustery west coast of County Clare on the North Atlantic. The occasion is the historic village matchmaking festival, and Daly is one of the 

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last of the traditional Irish matchmakers — a faith healer, a heart mender, a miracle man of Irish love.

I have traveled to Lisdoonvarna to see what this matchmaking business is about. A clever hoax or the real deal? More than 40,000 come to the town during the five weeks of the festival each fall. While many are from Ireland, an increasing number of the romantically challenged are from Britain, Asia and the United States. Their ages run a broad gamut, from late teens to late eighties. During my week at the festival, I find myself downing Guinness and trading tales with everyone from pig farmers to computer geeks longing for that crazy little thing called love.

Even by Irish standards, Lisdoonvarna is not a huge place. During the winter months, you won’t count more than 500 inhabitants. A block off the main street you’re stepping over cow patties in the countryside. How did such an unassuming place become the village of love, the Woodstock of Ireland? Quite by chance.

Back in the mid-1800s, the village thrived as a spa town. “By the end of August, the Irish farmers had harvested their crops and sold all the stock they were gonna sell,” Daly tells me over drinks at the Hydro Hotel, one of the main festival venues, an imposing Georgian-style structure fronted by huge white columns. “They came to Lisdoonvarna with money in their pockets to relax at the spa and look for wives.”

As we speak, the crowd swirls around us in the lobby, country western music blaring from the ballroom, men and women checking each other out — a slightly different scene from the old days. 

Daly, a third-generation matchmaker, took over from his father in the 1960s. Back then, the job entailed meeting the notoriously shy farmers and trying to match them with ladies from his thick black book. You arranged a meeting and hoped for an immediate spark. “Going back even further,” says Daly, “matchmakers were also responsible for negotiating the dowries. A lot depended on the size of the family farm or how good-looking she was. One or two extra cows might be called for if the lass was a bit unsightly.”

How times have changed. Daly still does private sessions, but his primary modus operandi these days is making the rounds at local venues such as the Matchmaker Pub. “So you know Willie?” has become the perfect pickup line.

The festival has a traditional horse-racing and sulky meet where singles mingle while betting on their favorite steed, but it also offers the more modern speed-dating and, of course, the timeless socializing.

At the dozen pubs and assorted other venues around the village square, live music stokes dances that run from noon until 3 a.m. seven days a week. In the Roadside Pub, I catch traditional Irish songs like Mary, Cut Your Toenails or You’ll Tear the Sheets played by a two-man band on acoustic guitar and squeeze box (accordion). 

But it’s not just Guinness and late-night music that spark romance, as I discover on an afternoon stroll across Lisdoonvarna. The square overflows with antique stalls; fortunetellers work out of battered old trailers. Madame Lee, one of the more flamboyant seers, has rented a vacant Victorian-era shop front, transformed it into a place called the Honey Pot and decorated it with pink satin curtains. Clad in a matching pink satin gown and bandana, Madame Lee tells me that as the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter — a person of remarkable cosmic power in Irish folklore — she is uniquely empowered to read “the stones” and the tarot cards of wannabe brides and grooms.

I decide to take my chances elsewhere and walk to the Victorian spa, an eclectic complex that blends architecture from various periods — an old café that resembles a Victorian train station, a modern glass-enclosed dance hall and a gorgeous art deco bathhouse currently being restored to its 1920s glory. In the café, I quaff a glass of the spa’s famous sulfur-suffused mineral water. Allegedly a potent aphrodisiac, I gag as the elixir slides down my throat.

I’m not sure if it’s the sulfur water or dumb luck, but I meet someone that night. At the Roadside Pub a husky blonde rubs up against me and asks where I’m from. Her name is Jan, and she’s drinking Irish Mist (straight up). We chat a bit, I buy her another Mist. Eventually nature calls, and I excuse myself. I’m back in a flash, but not before Jan catches the eye of another guy at the bar. That’s Lisdoonvarna. Doesn’t matter; I’m just here for a bit of craic anyway, as they say in these parts — an old Celtic term for rollicking good times.

The next day I explore the countryside around Lisdoonvarna. This part of County Clare is called The Burren, a windswept highland with incredible limestone rock formations and deeply wooded vales. The area has more ancient sites per square mile than any other part of Ireland, including prehistoric rock monuments like the Poulnabrone Dolmen. The Burren doesn’t glide down to the sea; it drops straight off at the Cliffs of Moher, where I stand on the edge of a 300-foot drop, staring at the Aran Isles.

Back in Lisdoonvarna, just when I think that love is about as rare as a sunny day, I meet Patrick and Nora at the Rathbaun pub. He’s a local farmer; she’s a bonny Irish lass who’s been living in England for 30 years. “A friend invited me to the festival,” she says. “I said no at first because I could only imagine a bunch of smelly farmers. But my friend kept insisting and I finally gave in.”

A week and a half into her stay, she had yet to meet anyone who even remotely sparked her interest. But then Willie Daly introduced her to Patrick. 

“God’s truth, I was supposed to fly home tomorrow morning,” says Nora. “But I’ve cancelled my flight. And I don’t know how long I’m staying.” Patrick squeezes her hand, and they gaze into one another’s eyes with one of those looks you only see in movies — and in Lisdoonvarna, when that matchmaking magic finally kicks in.

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