Welcome to Lisdoonvarna, population 822. This isn’t the destination of an over-60s mystery coach trip, this is The Outing.
An LGBT+ spin-off from the town’s historic matchmaking festival, The Outing is billed as ‘the world’s first and only LGBT+ matchmaking and music festival’. In an age when dating apps are responsible for the majority of couplings, is there really a need for old-fashioned matchmaking? Well, 2016 is the fourth year of the event, so something is clearly going right.
Just last year Ireland became the first country where equal marriage was voted in by the majority of the population. Unlike Brexit, some countries clearly get public voting spot-on! The jubilation of such a landmark result spread not only through the major cities of the Emerald Isle, but touched the small towns like Lisdoonvarna in the sleepy pocket of County Clare, on the western coast. The festival has now become as much a celebration of equality and acceptance as one of love.
We rock up at the rather unassuming Hydro Hotel, the HQ or party-central of the show. The classic country house hotel can be your base or other hotels such as the nearby King Thomand Hotel are all within stumbling distance.
A LGBT+ matchmaking festival may sound pretty niche, but in a town that plays host to 60,000 visitors every autumn for the hetero-focussed matchmaking festival, the gay spin off could serve a purpose. Central to this love-meddling is Willie Daly who, at 73, has decades of experience getting couples together. He’s easy to spot, walking around with a huge shabby brown book, holding the name of 157 years worth of couples, 3,000 of which resulted in marriage – including one lesbian matrimony. Locals speak of him as a nigh-on mystical character with great powers when it comes to bringing people together.
Inside the lobby of The Outing HQ, Willie’s assistants man a desk, sat behind a pile of paperwork. Filling out your preferences and interests in an old-skool affair, no internet spread sheets or app tick-boxes to be filled. It’s all laid down on paper ready for the main man to work his magic.
While singletons may come in search of finding their lobster, most – it would seem – come for the craic. A weekend of open minded gayness is on the agenda and it certainly delivers. Camp doesn’t quite cut it. There’s more glitter, sparkling shamrocks and rainbow flags adorning the venue than you could wave a pint of Guinness at. Tasteful it is not. Fun, in your face, and all-out flamboyance it certainly is.
Ireland’s First Lady of Drag Panti Bliss is the poster girl and host for the event and, after being heavily involved in the marriage referendum, her headline act is guaranteed to be one of the highlights of the weekend; reading front-row prey with trademark toxic charm and telling tales of the rich and famous.
As any good drag queen will prove, appearances can be deceptive. Small town syndrome does not apply here, the festival line up – a fusion of comedy, pop acts (B*witched are 2016’s top billed act) visual arts, ceilí bands, drag, plus Irish and international DJ’s such as Horse Meat Disco, wouldn’t seem out of place at any big city Pride event.
Stick a few thousand boys-who-like-boys in a room and the atmosphere is guaranteed to be a giggle. But throw in Irish hospitality, a masquerade ball and some traffic-light stickers and you have a party! After a summer of circuit parties full of sculpted posers hiding behind their Diesel aviators, this town could be the perfect antidote offering unpretentious, laid-back fun. The only thing you might miss is the sun.
So, are you going to find love in Lisdoonvarna? The jury is out on that one, but the festival is sure worth checking out, at least for a talking point on your next Tinder date.
Once you’ve slept off your hangover, take in a bit of local culture during the afternoon. The Cliffs of Moher are literally breathtaking – in a strong wind you’ll be gasping for breath – but it’s worth it to take in the views.
Get your omega-3 fix at the Burren Smokehouse by sampling the local salmon, then drop into the nearby Burren Storehouse to catch a sing-a-long classic movie.
Lisdoonvarna enjoyed fame as a spa town, with sulphur rich waters that supposedly could cure many ailments. A trip to the Spa Wells and a whiff of said waters may leave you rather unsure of such claims.
The Outing takes place 7-9 October in Lisdoonvarna, Ireland. The closest airport is Shanning Aiport, taking a 344 bus service from there. Bus details can be found at buseireann.ie. Arrivals from Dublin Airport need to take a train service. For more information, visit ireland.com or theouting.lgbt.
Words: Phil Mundy