She wasn’t long into online dating when Vicki realised that she needed something more specific than what was on offer from Tinder, Plenty of Fish, and Bumble, the three dating apps she tried.
ince she was a small child, Vicki had loved horses, and the childhood hobby had blossomed into a life built around the outdoors and animals. She had studied equine training and management in college, and as an adult carved out a career working with animals. Now, she found herself “talking to people who never in a million years would you think about meeting in real life”.
For Vicki, as for many of the people I spoke to for my new book, Courting: Tractor Dates, Macra Babies And Swiping Right In Rural Ireland, what she did as a job felt like far more than an office job from which she switched off at the end of the day.
In fact, many of the people I talked to described their chosen career in vocational terms. It was a way of life. And in a partner, they needed someone who shared their appreciation for and understanding of this exact way of life — whether that was a knowledge of the demands running a farm can place upon a person’s time, or the pace of life offered by living in a small community on an island, or the immersion in nature moving out of a city might offer.
“My lifestyle didn’t really fit with a normal person’s lifestyle, someone who did a nine-to-five job in an office,” Vicki told me of her time on the more mainstream dating apps.
“I didn’t have enough in common with the people I was meeting.” When she would describe the events of her day — things like staying late with a sick animal to wait for the vet — they would look at her blankly. Why was she not going home at five o’clock?
So, Vicki turned to muddymatches.co.uk, a dating website set up by British sisters Lucy Rand and Emma Royall. Established in 2006, when online dating was in its nascent stage and actual dating apps were yet to be invented.
“People were starting to talk about it in London. Unfortunately, it was kind of seen as freaks and weirdos, or people who were a bit desperate,” Lucy told me.
It is what’s known in the world of dating as a ‘niche dating site’. It was something of an early adopter — nowadays, Muddy Matches is far from being the only one of its kind to offer people a more specific pool of potential matches. Name a preference, a way of life, a proclivity or taste, and chances are there is a dating app to provide fellow fans.
There’s Cougar, for mature women; Fitafy (meet active singles and friends who value health and fitness); Frolo, for single parents; Outdoor Lads; Trek Dating; Kippo, the dating app for gamers; Muzmatch, for Muslim and Arab singles, dating and marriage.
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There’s also Christian Dating Ireland (“calling all single Christians”); Veggly, for vegan and vegetarian daters; Kink D — BDSM, fetish dating; Stache Passions, for moustache lovers; Redhead Dates (“you’re sure to find your ginger flame”); Dead Meet, for those who work in the death industry; Bristlr, for beard lovers; Tastebuds, which pairs people in accordance with their musical preferences; and Gluten Free Singles, to name but a few. Pet lovers, non-drinkers, sailors, astrologers, clowns — all have their specific dating apps which will help you find someone into the same things as you.
At the most exclusive end of the market are the invitation-only dating apps. Raya, often referred to as Tinder for celebrities, or The League: “Are you often told your standards are too high? Keep them that way — The League, a community designed for the overly ambitious.”
Back in 2006, Rand was living in London, and her sister Emma, who still lived in the countryside where they had grown up on a farm, was visiting for the weekend. Over drinks in the pub, Emma confided in Lucy about the difficulty of meeting someone when you lived in a rural area.
Had she tried online dating, Lucy wondered? She had, but it was full of ‘townies’.
Both sisters immediately realised the problem. They knew that coming from a rural background could predispose a person towards priorities around how they wished to live. Priorities which someone who grew up in an urban location might not understand. “We just kind of figured that everyone knew that that was a thing, it was a niche,” Lucy told me. Surely there must be something specifically aimed at people living in the countryside, they thought.
There wasn’t, or rather, barely — the sisters did find an equestrian-related dating site, and a matchmaking site which required a large fee in return for organising only a couple of dates.
Lucy and Emma knew there was a gap. Space for something that was a bit of fun, aimed at people who shared a love of the countryside, and a genuine understanding of what was involved in a life there, rather than a kind of idyllic fantasy.
“Farmers have to cancel dates because they’ve got trespassers or cows in a ditch. You can’t just stop that, it’s a way of life, it totally takes over. You’re always going to put the animals first, and the farm.”
They never imagined it would be a full-time career, but they decided to “have a bash at it”. In fact, they were on to something — Muddy Matches is now 15 years in business.
Their oldest Muddy Matches baby, born to a couple who met on the site, is now 14. Muddy Matches isn’t itself yet an app — they’re a small, family-run business and these things take time, Lucy explained with a grin.
Not long after they launched, the pair began receiving messages from Ireland. When were they planning to launch here? They weren’t, but in the face of customer demand, decided to.
In 2009, they held a speed-dating event in Co Carlow. With a smile, Lucy described to me sitting in a cafe the following morning, listening to the fellow customers, all unaware of who they were. “It was the chat of the place,” she said. “They didn’t realise we were the Muddy Matchers. It was: ‘Shock, horror, there’s been a speed-dating event’.”
At that first event in Borris, most attendees were between 30 and 50. “Proper farming community, proper rural people came to that,” Lucy said. They had chosen Borris because it was one of the ‘top 10 bachelor hotspots in Ireland’, according to the 2006 Census.
As it turned out, the event was a huge success. The sisters had tapped into something. A want in people for a person who understood them, who understood where they were coming from, or going to (blow-ins), who wanted the same kind of life.
“You don’t have to live in the countryside to be muddy,” Lucy says, describing something that is a combination of lived experience, and genuine understanding of what is involved.
They have members who are currently living in a rural setting, but also those who had to leave — younger siblings who didn’t inherit the farm, but long to get back to that way of life. And there are those who grew up in an urban setting, but who do truly understand what it is like to live outside of a large city.
Last July, The Wall Street Journal ran an article ‘Looking for love post lockdown? Niche dating apps are the next big thing’. It pointed out that we all had a lot of time during lockdowns to think about what kind of lives we wanted to live and daters were now much clearer on the kind of person they wanted to meet.
The niche dating apps offer the hope of some kind of shortcut to, hopefully, finding someone in the often daunting landscape of online dating with whom you have something in common. Someone who wants to live in a similar way to you.
“What did you learn about dating in rural Ireland?” is one of the most common questions people ask when I tell them I’ve written Courting.
The starting point was all of the above — the logistics and technicalities of it. How do apps work when you live in a smaller community? Do you start to bump into people online who you went to school with, as you run through everyone available? Yes, as it turns out, but that’s not really a problem, because as anyone who is single knows, online dating is now the main way of meeting someone.
There isn’t the embarrassment around it that’s sometimes imagined by those who met their partners years ago (this set tend to recoil in horror at the idea of online dating, while those who engage in it tend to talk in tones of grim determination. “I went back on the apps”, said in somewhat resigned tones, was the phrase I heard most regularly in speaking to people for the book).
As I set out on what would become almost two years of research — travelling to farms, islands, villages and small towns throughout the country — I wondered whether, when you live in more isolated, smaller communities, you are forced to throw your distance preferences wide open.
Do sparsely populated places equal less choice, which in turn equals the assumption of meeting someone who does not live close by, in your community? Also yes.
Almost everyone I spoke to had a built-in expectation that if they met someone, there was a good chance they were unlikely to live near them. It taught me to stop bemoaning my own long-distance relationship — much of this book was written on the train from Dublin to Cork on the way to see my boyfriend.
The likelihood of meeting someone who did not live near you was assumed as a possibility. When this happened, it could range from a pain in the neck to far a more complicated situation, if things like farm ownership was involved.
What if both people were in agriculture, both inheriting the family farm? Who would move?
But fairly soon, the more people I spoke to, matters beyond the logistical were what struck me. It became clear that, for many people, there was a tension between their place, and their person (the meeting of one that is).
These people had stayed where they grew up; moved as an adult; or returned home, having lived away, to a place that offered them a specific way of life to which they had a huge affinity. They felt that place was essential to their
well-being, their ability to live a happy life. But, often, being in this place limited, or maybe even precluded, their chances of meeting a romantic partner.
There was the woman I spoke to in her 50s who grew up in Dublin but moved to a small island community of a couple of hundred people. She had visited somewhere similar decades before and always wanted to experience island life. She adapted immediately, loved it, had no issue with the long, sometimes lonely winters.
However, she knew that living there meant it was many, many times harder for her to meet someone than it would have been had she remained in Dublin. It also made it far more likely that she, a single woman, could afford to live on her own than had she remained in the city where she was born, she pointed out.
There was the farmer in his mid-30s who told me of past dates, where it might seem to be going somewhere, but then an intense work period would begin, and his partner could not understand why he would be unavailable for several weeks. His current girlfriend comes from farming, so she understands.
There was the man living in Co Down, who told me: “Dating apps only work if you live in a city.” He was back living at home having returned from London after a divorce and to see out the pandemic. And he loved it; relished being by the sea, near his family, the beauty of the place where he had grown up, the community there. He was buying a house there. But the logistics of dating people who did not live nearby were challenging.
Place versus person. It came up again and again. The meanings of their place were manifold — everything from the way of life it offered to the community, family connections, and sense of a balanced life.
And as for Vicki? She was born in Essex and working in England when she first signed up for Muddy Matches, having come across the site through an ad on Facebook.
“It piqued my interest — an online dating website specifically for farmers-slash-outdoorsy people,” she told me. Initially, the subscription fee put her off, a qualm that was soon quashed after some more time spent on other apps.
She joined, and within three days, had met Stephen, a farmer from Cork who was living, at the time, in England, where he was working on a farm. They have since moved to Cork, where they now live in an apartment built into his parents’ home, and work in farming, both on the family farm and elsewhere. She has two dogs and two horses.
“Stephen and myself are incredibly different people, but the thing that we have in common is the love for farming and the outdoors and animals,” Vicki says.
“And that is more important. I would much rather have someone who is different than me, but who gets the lifestyle, than have someone who has all the exact same hobbies and interests as me but doesn’t like farming and animals.”
Vicki and Stephen are now engaged.
https://www.independent.ie/style/sex-relationships/soulmate-wanted-but-restrictions-apply-liadan-hynes-explores-rural-irelands-dating-scene-42020620.html Soulmate wanted, but restrictions apply: Liadán Hynes explores rural Ireland’s dating scene