‘Our mantra is live, laugh, learn - and possibly love’

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“People will invest in a personal trainer for their physical health,” says Denise McNally, the “Dungannon born and bred” one half of the dynamic duo that is herself and Claire Hughes, who run dating and events agency Soiree Society.

“So likewise they are investing in a matchmaker for their emotional health and complete fulfilment.”

She makes it sound so simple and straightforward, and in many ways, it should be; we live in an age where we’re told that we can ‘have it all’, and virtually everything, from our personal trainers to the houses we want to buy, the jobs we want to apply for, and the people we want to date, can be accessed via the click of a button in the privacy of our own homes.

Except the reality is that findng potential partners online is, for many of us, not suitable, not appropriate, and not something we want to pursue.

And that’s where Denise and Claire come in.

Having originally started the Soiree Society as a means of organising events in late 2013 by herself, Claire decided to extend her services to personal and bespoke matchmaking after meeting like-minded psychology graduate business park manager and fitness specialist Denise last October.

It’s what they describe as a “completely offline” service, in which they personally screen and set their clients up with potential matches.

It’s discreet, it’s thorough and it’s also completely safe and very regulated; in fact, Soiree Society is the first and only Northern Ireland based matchmaking company to have received official approval from the ABIA (Association of British Introduction Agencies) and to have been trained and certified by the Matchmaker Academy UK.

“We bring a fresh and modern approach to what is a centuries old tradition,” the women, who are both from Co Tyrone, explain.

“The era of meeting in dance halls is over and many people have resorted to the internet to connect with people. However people are starting to realise the downside of online dating sites, with many concerns around false profiles, security issues and the lack of privacy. People are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the ‘one size fits all’ approach of online dating. This means that matchmaking is becoming an increasingly attractive option for all ages.”

Castlecaulfield woman Claire, 56, is a former bank manager who retired after 35 years in the financial sector.

The married mother-of-two met Denise, a mum-of-one from Dungannon, in October 2014 at an interview, during which she was telling her about Soiree Society, which was aimed at unattached people.

“Denise got quite excited about it,” recalls Claire. “Basically we just absolutely hit it off and she came on as my associate matchmaker.”

Claire says she remembers the moment she knew that there was a need in Northern Ireland for people like her and Denise to offer a bespoke service for those who genuinely wanted to meet someone.

“My 35-year-old friend was standing in my kitchen one day and was basically telling me that her five-year-relationship had broken down, and she was finding it difficult to find a meaningful relationship.

“She just wanted someone who shared her values and desire for marriage and a family basically, and she felt that she was too old for bars and niteclubs. She was also a professional career person and neither wanted, nor would it have been appropriate for her, to have gone on to online dating sites because she couldn’t possibly have put up her photograph there.”

But as Claire and Denise - and indeed, all of us - can testify, it’s not just younger women who want to find a partner.

Continues Denise: “The one issue that kept coming across from every single age group was the difficulty at events like family weddings.

“I spoke to a 62-year-old widow who told me that after every wedding she went to bed at 12 o’clock and cried herself to sleep because of the loneliness.

“I got involved with Claire’s venture because I picked up on her genuine belief that we would be in the business to enrich people’s lives, and that has been my mantra for everything I’ve got involved in to date.”

Older people who would love to find someone to share their lives with are very much on the Soiree Society’s radar, and the women believe that their personal touch and discreetness appeals to them.

“Our service is completely safe and confidential,” the said. “Older people need to know that we would not be putting them with a client who we have not met, screened or authenticated.

“We understand that many of our clients are nervous and even vulnerable at times, so we meet with them privately to explain the process and to assess their needs.

“We confirm the identities of every one of our clients which gives them peace of mind when meeting new people. We operate within the codes of practice of ABIA and Matchmaker Academy ensuring we offer a fully ethical service. Our youngest client at the moment is 26 and our eldest is 73. If the person wants to bring about positive change in their lives, age is just a number.”

Clair revealed that the majority of their clients were in the 45-75 age range, with many of them experiencing divorce, separation, widowhood, empty nest syndrome and social isolation following the loss of their own peers.

“Age is no barrier to happiness. We meet with these people and tell them this, and ask them where they want to get in their lives.

“Just because you’re 60 doesn’t mean you’ve given up on fun or only want to go and play bingo! A lot of these people are professional people who want to keep their minds and bodies alive and active.

“For many older people Sundays can be a long and lonely day and Soiree organised many events on these days.”

She adds with a knowing laugh: “A lot of people have that Northern Irish syndrome of ‘what will the neighbours say’. These events give them a little excuse, and they know it’s ‘OK’ to say they are going to a Soiree event, because it’s not a ‘dating’ event, and so is acceptable.”

In terms of the technicalities of how the Soiree Society actually matches potential couples, it sounds fairly simple.

Claire and Denise explain: “The matchmaking service consists of two options - a paying client or a pool candidate. To simplify, we could compare ourselves to a professional recruitment company. The company will first of all search their own database, or pool, to see if someone already on their books fits the required criteria. They may also head hunt specifically for a particular type of person. The client, in this case our paying client, pays for that service as they see value in getting the right person, saving them a lot of time and expense and frustration looking for that needle in the haystack.

“You do not have to be paying client or a pool candidate to attend our events which are open to all unattached people.”

Denise stresses that people are only taken on as paying clients after a heavy screening process.

“They must be emotionally ready for it and looking for love and a meaningful relationship. We have a one to one meeting with them to get inside their skin and see what they’re looking for.

“We also authenticate heavily, checking their ID, address, up to date photos, and they have to sign a disclaimer. Nobody is going to get through all this unless they are really, really interested in meeting someone.”

And Claire adds: “ Matchmaking and dating is not a one size fits all. We empathise with each particular person and it is tailored to them. We don’t just go along and pick someone off a shelf. We tell clients that this is by no means speed dating, it can be very slow and very bespoke to that person, but hopefully we are getting it right.”

**Log onto www.soireesocietyni.co.uk for more information.