The Donkey Farmer’s Magical Matchmaking Book

In the era of online dating, one septuagenarian Irishman clings tight to a method passed down through the generations—and thousands of happy couples are luckier for it.

The Donkey Farmer’s Magical Matchmaking Book

Willie Daly stands next to the pub’s roaring fire, giving precise instructions to the crowd gathered around him. When it’s your turn to touch the worn, yellowing, 160-year-old book, it’s important to close your eyes and really concentrate, Daly explains in his thick Irish accent. Both palms should make contact with the cover of the magical book for at least seven seconds. If you follow these steps, Daly continues, love has a way of finding you, sometimes rather quickly.

Anthony Denihan presses his palms to the book and immediately declares how warm it feels, which convinces him it’s working. “My hands are tingly now,” he says.

This is far from Denihan’s first time relying on the book for luck in love. Originally from Ireland, Denihan now lives in Manhattan, and he’s come here, to the Black Rabbit pub in Brooklyn, for a special event with Daly, a traditional Irish matchmaker he’s turned to many times before. For the past 20 years, Denihan has traveled back to County Clare in Ireland every single summer to take part in the Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival. Thousands of singles flock to the otherwise quiet village in western Ireland for music and the prospect of finding love. One of the festival’s main draws is Daly, who sets up a makeshift office in one of the village pubs, where unmarried men and women can come to seek out his services.

Between Denihan’s many trips to the festival, plus sessions with Daly when the matchmaker visits the States, Denihan says that over the past two decades he’s been introduced to many wonderful women and jumpstarted several romantic relationships as a result. So, even though he hasn’t met that special one he’d like to marry, he’s a believer in Daly and his sacred scroll.

Daly, for his part, has been at this matchmaking game for nearly six decades. As a teenager, for fun, he’d nudge people together who he thought had some kind of spark. By the time he was in his 20s, he’d followed in the professional-matchmaking footsteps of his father and grandfather. Now in his 70s, Daly estimates that he has matched upward of 3,000 couples.

Daly resides an ocean away from New York, in Ennistymon, a town near the coast in County Clare. Apart from a few markets, bookstores and pubs that host traditional musicians, the area is mostly blanketed by rich farmlands. Daly lives on a farm there, where he raises horses, cows, donkeys and lambs. His eight children are all grown (the matchmaker himself is twice divorced), and various family members can usually be found on the property, working on the land or just popping by for a visit.

On the roads leading to Ennistymon from Lisdoonvarna and from the famed Cliffs of Moher, Daly has placed sign after sign enticing drivers to his property — and amusing them along the way. Each sign is hand-painted in red and blue, then attached to a traffic light or stuck in the grass, alternatively advertising “Matchmaking donkey farm” and “Matchmaking museum and donkeys.”

“Often people come for the donkeys and are very surprised to find out they can be matched up as well,” Daly says.

A separate cottage next to his home serves as a small donation-based museum that’s devoted to both of his passions. Inside, there is a honeymoon buggy that was used in the 1952 John Wayne movie The Quiet Man, which was filmed in the west of Ireland, as well as an assortment of traditional farming equipment and a TV/VCR playing a loop of local news clips about Daly’s matchmaking business.

At one time, Daly even tried to play up the donkey and matchmaking angle by hosting events where singles could go on a group donkey-back ride and simultaneously meet members of the opposite sex. Think speed dating, only on donkeys. Even when such events aren’t happening, guests still come to Daly’s farm year-round. When they do, he’ll sit them down at the kitchen table, bring out the magical book and talk romantic preferences over tea and biscuits.

Every client gets a short one-pager to fill out, asking them for their contact information, age and marital status, along with their interests and hobbies, plus basic descriptions of what they’re looking for in a mate. Daly has them pay a small fee upfront, usually about $20, which entitles them to be set up with dates over a specific timeframe, such as three months. Signing the bottom of the form gives Daly permission to give out their phone number to anyone he sees as a potential match. Often this comes into play very quickly. Anytime a man or woman visits Daly’s home and signs up, he’ll start getting on the phone and talking them up to potential suitors right away.

Daly says there isn’t a particular strategy or single way that he works. If something about a person stands out — their height or eye color or penchant for Gaelic football — he’ll jot that down on their form and use it to influence who he reaches out to. Really, though, he’s going with his gut, putting people he thinks might click in touch and then letting them take it from there.

He also has lots of time to ponder possible setups while out in the field farming. “My mind starts rambling, and I can go over things,” Daly said. One of his favorite unexpected success stories came when a 73-year-old American man stopped by the farm. A misunderstanding ensued — Daly thought the man was looking to buy a horse and took him outside to check out the available animals. While they did that, a young woman from the area called up Daly, wondering if he knew anyone who would want to buy the hotel on her property. The American man heard the woman’s voice and was convinced that she was a match for him (he was looking for someone kind and slim, and seemed sure from her voice that she was both). One thing led to another, and they met and fell in love. Daly went to the wedding, and the couple went on to have three children.

Daly and his daughter Elsha outside his Matchmaker Bar in Lisdoonvarna.

Daly advises against getting too dead set on one specific type of person to marry. He encourages anyone who comes to him to be open-minded, and he says that if they’re ready to find true love, they should act fast. “I know the minute I see someone if they really want a husband or a wife,” he says. “And that’s the most important thing.”

At this year’s Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival alone he says he witnessed two successful marriage proposals. In one, about a dozen people were crammed into the tiny snug of a bar that he uses as his office. A man in his 20s who was there to see Daly caught sight of a woman of about the same age with the same goal. They couldn’t have exchanged more than a few words before the young man decided he was smitten with her.

“He was a showman, so he got down on both of his knees and asked her to marry him,” Daly says. “Well, she was about five inches taller than him and immediately told him, ‘Come on, come on. Get up.’ She turned him around and looked him over and then said yes. They’re planning on getting married this year.”

As improbable as a love-at-first-sight encounter of this sort seems, Daly says that actually it’s not that uncommon. Frequently the people who come to him — especially if they venture to the matchmaking festival — are really ready to settle down with lasting love. Add alcohol for courage and rooms full of others in the same boat, and it’s a powerful elixir. “It’s really the best kind of love,” he says.

Whether he’s setting up would-be couples in a local pub, at the festival, or in some other setting altogether, the one constant asset at Daly’s disposal is his magical book, which was passed down from his father. Daly believes that his grandfather may have been the first to use it. Initially, it was a practical tool to keep track of clients, then the notion that it brought luck and good fortune grew and grew. Inside are mostly handwritten names of men and women, along with some little details to remind Daly of special requests, like the one by a woman who was caring for her elderly mother and told him she wanted to find a mate who would not only sweep her off her feet but also be strong enough to lift her sick mother in and out of bed.

Daly used to refer to the book more and turn its pages to find possible matches. But these days it remains closed most of the time, to protect the fragile sheets from falling out. The book’s practical purpose has given way to the mythical powers Daly suggests it has. “I won’t say it gives you a halo, but just that good feeling once you touch it,” Daly says. “Many people might think that love just isn’t possible for me, and then when they touch the book it changes that and gives them confidence. They radiate, and that attracts others to them.”

Daly remains one of the last, if not the last, of Ireland’s traditional matchmakers, a practice that dates back centuries. At one time, nearly every locality had a matchmaker who paired up eligible bachelors and bachelorettes. Once both families approved, the future bride and groom met, and the tradition in some places was that the bride’s family roasted a goose in honor of their upcoming union. The matchmaker supervised the signing of the marriage agreement and made sure that the financial arrangement was suitable for both parties. Beginning in the 20th century though, the tradition began to fade, as Irish men and women decided to find their own love.

In many ways, how Daly connects singles and tries to set them on a path toward love has remained fundamentally the same. But who he helps has expanded and grown to adapt to the changing times. Heterosexual couples are no longer Daly’s sole constituency. Not long ago, he was unfamiliar with the LGBT community. Five or six years ago — around the time that gay marriage was legalized in Ireland — he started to get requests from gay men about needing his help in the love department as well.

“The first thing they said to me was, ‘Can you find someone?’” he says. “My mind was so trained to say, ‘I know a lovely girl,’ but they meant men — so that’s what I did.”

The requests increased, which led to the creation of a dedicated LGBT matchmaking festival, which now takes place annually in addition to the original festival. The way Daly sees it, he’s happy to help anyone — no matter their sexual orientation or ethnicity — find lasting romance.

“Everybody deserves to be in love,” he says. “You’re awful lucky to be born into the world. Love should fit in as well.”

And Daly’s matchmaking work is no longer localized to Ireland either. Clients now hail from across Europe and America, although there’s usually some Irish connection, as that’s a big portion of his Rolodex. One of the most popular pairings, he says, are American women looking for an Irish man. Others just like the idea of a traditional matchmaker but want someone closer to home. For this, Daly will try to put them in touch with someone from the Irish diaspora who’s resettled in America, or even try to nudge them toward someone else at the bar he’s currently in, like a professional wingman.

Gatherings like his Brooklyn meetup have become semi-regular events that have helped expand his reach and notoriety beyond Ireland. Anne Lanier, one of the Black Rabbit owners, met Daly more than 20 years ago when she traveled to Ireland to visit her friend Janeane Garofalo when she was filming the movie, The Matchmaker. Lanier and Daly have stayed in touch since, and a decade ago they even collaborated on a book about Daly’s matchmaking exploits. So whenever Daly makes the trek to the Big Apple, she lets him set up shop in her bar. He’s also happy to just go to a bar unannounced, put up some signs, and court business spontaneously from the patrons already gathered there.

Daly’s old-school approach of simply talking to someone and then trying to come up with suitable matches for them — without algorithms or endless swiping — is part of the attraction for some clients, rather than an oddity. He’s seen as a welcome antidote to dating apps like Tinder and Bumble.

“I had to call the police after a guy was stalking me, so apps really don’t seem to work for me,” one woman said wryly, while waiting to have a one-on-one with Daly. “I needed to try something traditional.”

Daly does not plan on stopping his matchmaking practice anytime soon. He hopes to pass on the family business to another male member of his family, most likely his teenage grandson, who Daly says has the charisma to carry on the tradition. Daly himself is newly divorced, and hoping to marry once again — for the third time.

“I still believe in marriage,” he says with a chuckle. “And I think everyone should marry as many times as they can.”