Matchmaker Claire Hughes: If you want to find love, be prepared to take action
While loved-up couples will be celebrating Valentine's Day this week, it's one day that singletons would like to avoid, according to Northern Ireland matchmaking service founder Claire Hughes. Joanne Sweeney finds out that when it comes to finding 'the one', quality not quantity is the way to go
VALENTINE'S Day is one of those times of the year that can strike fear into the heart of any singleton.
No-one knows that better than top matchmaker Claire Hughes from Co Tyrone, who has helped introduce hundreds of people to one another in the hope of finding romance and a lasting relationship.
Thanks to the former bank manager from Castlecaulfield, 36 couples from the north have been happily in a relationship for more than a year, since she launched her Soirée Society matchmaking service in 2015.
"There are a lot of trigger points for single people throughout the year and actually New Year’s Eve, or immediately after Christmas is the main time that people contact us," says Claire.
"[Single] people can feel lonely even though they are surrounded by family and friends – in a crowd, they feel lonelier than ever. They contact us when they feel that they can't go through another Christmas on their own.
"Valentine's Day is another trigger as singletons hate Valentine's Day with a vengeance. They also hate being invited to a wedding as they don’t have a 'plus one'. And for single parents, Mother's Day and Father's Day can really bring home to them that the family unit isn’t there."
Claire views her business as being like a good recruitment agency, in that she sets out to find the best candidate for the person who is seeking a partner.
However, she has found that sometimes the Northern Ireland male can be a little canny when it comes to paying for this bespoke service.
"At the beginning I was finding that the men would say to me, 'Why would I pay money when I can get a date every night of the week free from online dating'?" she recalls.
"I remember asking this 39-year-old man, who really wanted a serious relationship and to be married with a family, if these dates were with the type of woman he would take home to meet his parents or if he would he want them to be mother of his children. He said no to both and I told him that matchmaking is all about quality and not about quantity.
"He eventually came on to my books but still tried to barter down the price. Afterwards he couldn’t get over the quality of the girls he was going out with."
The service is more expensive than online dating, ranging from pool membership at £100, (that's having your details and profile listed in the hope of a match coming up), gold membership of £795, which guarantees four introductions to women or men that are suited to you, or the bespoke membership package which costs £195 a year to be on the company's database and offers the option of paying £150 for an introduction when you want.
A similar service in London would cost what by northern standards is a breathtaking £10,000, Claire says.
"The big difference in London is that matchmaking service clients are very well paid, there’s a big population and, the busier they are, the less time they have for dating – so matchmaking is way up there on their list of what they value," she explains.
One of Claire's recent success stories is a 50-year-old marketing consultant from Co Armagh who she met socially one night and who was so intrigued with Soirée that he followed up with an appointment.
"I pay an accountant to do my books, I go to a dentist when I have a toothache so why shouldn't I consult an expert when I want to find someone?" the man, a divorced father, reasoned.
He has now been going out with a woman for nine months and is more than happy with having signed up with Soirée, according to Claire.
Claire founded the business after being inspired by a conversation with a good friend in her mid-30s. Her friend explained how difficult it was for single professionals to meet a partner who was interested in a genuine long-term relationship that could lead to marriage and a family, rather than just a casual one-night stand. Being in a professional career, she did not want to use online dating, due to what she saw as a lack of privacy and confidentiality.
Claire brings her professionalism from her banking days to the business, as well as an ability to connect with people. She won the Best Upcoming Matchmaker Agency of the Year at the UK Dating awards in London in 2016 and was a finalist in Best Matchmaking Agency of the Year 2017.
"I’m married 38 years myself and understand what a loving relationship is," she says. "I have some skill in working closely with people, particularly businessmen, from my banking job. I’m quite a warm person and I can empathise with people.
"I do care and want to bring improvement into people’s lives. There’s nothing as rewarding as introducing two people to each other who get on together as their success is my success."
She has been joined in the business by her sister-in-law Rhoda Hughes, who was a divorcee before she met Claire's brother-in-law and knows how hard it can be to find someone when you are busy working and caring for a family.
Claire and Rhoda can get frustrated with some women who won't date a man who's 5ft ll inches when they have asked for a date over 6ft, or men or women who prevaricate in taking the leap of faith on going on the first date.
"There is a real stigma about dating in Northern Ireland as it’s still quite a small parochial place. There’s still a lot of ‘What will people think?’ around,” says Claire.
"We are not magicians, not every match works. I would be the millionaire matchmaker if I could always find that elusive chemistry. We will never ever force anyone to go on a date but we will ask them why they are saying no.
"We might think that these two are a lovely match but when you drill down to it, the two parties might not be looking for the same thing. But they will never achieve anything if they don’t take action."
:: For more details, visit soiree societyni.co.uk