THERE'S an old saying in Co Clare that west of the Shannon there are 29 and a half fellows to every woman. Up to recently Ennistymon based matchmaker Willie Daly wouldn't have agreed. But he does now, as he has to advertise in Northern Ireland due to the shortage of marriageable women in the South.
Bearded, dressed in cords, wellingtons and a pullover to his knees, Willie Daly is all smiles and full of chat and stories and theories. "Women's independence has left its mark. They're more particular. Now that they've jobs and some of them even have cars, their need for a provider is not as great, but they still need companionship we all do."
Matchmaking is in the Daly family genes. Willie's grandfather operated mainly at fairs his father did a little too, but only in a desultory way. His own career started 29 years ago, "as a bit of a joke".
We re ensconced in the kitchen of his peach coloured bungalow, perched on the hillside overlooking Liscannor Bay. Willie is chopping up cabbage and putting it on to boil for lunch. Already there's an enormous pot of potatoes bubbling on the cooker.
With his backside against the sink, he launches into tales of his first foray into matchmaking. "Michael lived a few miles over the road. He fancied Mary but only got to see her at Mass, as her father kept a close eye on her. An advert in the local paper gave him the opportunity he was waiting for."
Taking Willie along for support, Michael called at the house inquiring about the pig for sale. The pig was duly produced and, as the fellows hoped Mary made an appearance.
"A bit soft," pronounced Michael feeling the flesh on the animal's back.
"He's barley and milk fed. He couldn't be," answered Mary, putting her hand beside Michael's on the pig's back.
"Would you eat it with me?" asked Michael after a few minutes.
A few days later Mary's father called around to Willie to check Michael's credentials. Willie was given the task of organising "the plucking of the gander", as the terms and settlement of the match were known. In this case it was agreed that when the couple married, her father and aunt would have life use of the house and receive milk and vegetables when available.
This was the first of many a match for Willie Daly, though it only became a business last year when he began charging a fee. His rate is £15 for a woman and £40 for a man. "I've made hundreds of matches about 65 per cent of introductions lead to marriage."
Deciding a cup of tea wouldn't go amiss, he puts on the kettle. Opens a cupboard. Empty. Tut tuts. Looks into the dishwasher. Smiles. Takes out two mugs which he rinses under the cold tap.
The phone rings. It's a query about pony trekking an enterprise he has been running for the past 30 years. He is also into the pub, B&B and restaurant trades and has a string of 13 ponies.
He is the father of seven children, most of whom are involved in the business. Claire runs the restaurant and B&B in Ennistymon Grainne is his Girl Friday Marie is big into matchmaking Elsha is currently in Paris and Sarah still at school. Of his two sons, Henry is a blacksmith and Rory plans to go to equestrian college.
I like matchmaking. It keeps families and land intact. I hate seeing families dying out. The son stays to inherit. The parents live to old age and the mother won't allow another woman into the house. Too many lads end their days bachelors. Eventually the land is sold to foreigners."
He says a match of his father's that didn't work out because the man was so "pickish about women has resulted in German ownership of that parcel of land. "He wouldn't marry the right woman because she'd a big nose!"
He sees matchmaking as a way of life. "In the old days boys and girls weren't able to get together socially, the matchmaker stepped in. They were genuine, good people who arranged happy marriages."
He checks the potatoes, prods the cabbage, wets the tea, saying "with simple living comes high intelligence. Nobody is a better judge of people than a quiet country person.
Despite the advent of modern technology, including the fax of which he is an enthusiastic proponent Willie likes to meet people face to face, though sometimes he has to rely on phone calls and photos. "Men don't mind travelling and I'll invite them to Clare, bring them into the pub, buy them a drink and let them hear the traditional music. If they're a bit shy, I'll even sing myself. I started by matching locals to each other now it has spread countrywide."
One old his recent matches involved a Cork man and a Galway woman. He had been in contact with Willie for several months and eventually Willie put him in touch with a woman he considered suitable.
"The two of them wrote for nearly nine months and exchanged photographs. Eventually a meeting was arranged in Galway. I collected her from her car and we walked to the pub."
POURING out the substantial brew into the two mugs, he continues. "There was no sign of your man, just two middle aged women and an old fellow in the corner. I bought her a drink and we waited ... and waited. Eventually I showed the bar man a photo. He hadn't seen him, but the old man came over and said. I think it's me you're looking for. He was at least 50 years older than the photo.
"The girl, who was in her 30s, was horrified and when I confronted him, he said that it was the only photo he had. The girl left. And I thought to myself, that was the end of that. I couldn't believe it when they contacted me some months later to say they were getting married. They had missed writing to each other."
Another May September match was a 34 year old widow with a penchant for black stockings and short red skirts and an 83 year old man. Their meeting place was the Clare Inn Hotel. They were both wealthy and just "fell in love". And did they marry? "Yes." And are they happy? "Yes."
One of Willie's latest innovations, the Romantic Trail Ride, takes place the third week in August to tie in with the Lisdoonvarna Festival. Parties of about 12 set out on horseback for a six day ride. "They sleep under the stars, have planned stops and take in the best places for traditional music. We've a wedding this autumn."
Willie says be knew from the beginning that Michael and Margot (see panel) fancied each other and, more importantly, that they were right together. "But they were both shy. In the end it was a storm that brought them together." And what about intervention from him'? "Ah a bit of encouragement."