The weather might still be wintry but, in a small office near the Shrine of Our Lady of Knock, in County Mayo in the west coast of Ireland, business is booming. The weeks around St Valentine's Day are the busiest of all the year at the Marriage Introduction Bureau. Set up in 1968 by Fr Michael Keane, the bureau has introduced more than 13,000 couples. So far, 1,526 men and women members have tied the knot and there are hundreds of 'introductions in progress' and 10 engagements. Fr Michael explained: "I was a young curate working in the west of Ireland and it worried me how few people were getting married. It was partly because places are quite isolated, but also because of immigration, there was really a shortage of women. Men in Co Mayo outnumbered women four to three." Fr Michael said he heard of a Catholic marriage bureau in London and sent for their literature. After discussing the project with a team of married couples and priests, he set up the bureau, based on the London model, run by volunteers, under the patronage of the bishops of Connaught. Initially, things moved slowly. Although they put up cards in churches and adverts in parish newsletters, Fr Michael said: "I think the women especially were very shy about coming forward." However, after some press coverage and a very positive article in a leading women's magazine, enquiries started pouring in. Thirty-three years on, the bureau employs paid staff, and sees on average one wedding a fortnight. They recently started using computers - donated by one happy couple they introduced. Applicants come from all walks of life. Among the men there are a large number of farmers, businessmen, teachers, tradesmen, technicians and the odd doctor. The largest group among the women are nurses, followed by teachers, secretaries and a few doctors, consultants and executives. Ages range from 20 to 60, with the largest group in the 31 to 45 age range, although Fr Michael said they do get enquiries from the 20 plus age group and over 50s and 60s. They welcome people with disabilites, and he said: "We always encourage widows and widowers." Fr Michael said the bureau has received enquiries from as far away as England, Canada and America. Just recently he introduced a girl from Dublin to an Irishman working in San Francisco. The application form is quite simple, he explained. "There are some basic questions about your age, height and occupation, your interests and your parish. People are also asked to submit a colour photograph. "We advise people to send us a very good picture of themselves," he said. "You can't make a first impression the second time. "Once the application form has been processed, details of a woman, without the name or address, are sent to the man. If he would like to get in touch, we ask the woman whether she is interested, and take it from there. After a while we send them a short form to see how things are going. If it hasn't worked out, we set up further introductions." But half the marriages the agency has seen have taken place after the first introduction, Fr Michael said. Although Ireland has changed a great deal since the 1960s, Fr Michael said modern life can be just as lonely, and in some ways it is more difficult to meet people than it ever was. "Church halls aren't the Ballrooms of Romance they used to be and discos are very noisy once you're out of your 20s. "We are social creatures," he said. "We need each other. We need to go out to meet other people. It is the best cure for loneliness." Although Fr Michael has been responsible for so many marriages, he has never officiated at a wedding of people introduced by the agency. "I'm delighted to be of service," he said. "But after that my job is done. I prefer to stay invisible. It might embarrass someone having me turn up." If you would like more information, write to Fr Michael Keane, Marriage Introduction Bureau, Knock, Co Mayo. Enclose a 30p stamp. Registration costs a one-off fee of 60 Irish pounds.
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