There are eight words that can sum up the average Irish person’s attitude to the pandemic, and they were uttered on First Dates Ireland this evening: “I’d give ya a hug, but sure look.” That’s right, we’ve entered the dating realm in the Covid-19 era and Mateo and his charming team are welcoming those seeking love to the First Dates restaurant once more.
“As you can see, we have a few changes this year,” Mateo says with suggestive eyebrows over his mask, before channelling his inner Tyra Banks. “SMILE WITH YOUR EYES!” he yells, brandishing a garish pink two-metre-long stick that shows how far each couple must sit from each other. It’s just like going to a dance in a convent school and getting a smidge closer to a boy than you should be.
Social distancing is evident throughout, with an elongated table for each couple so they look like the lord and lady of the manor dining alone at opposite ends of a drawing-room. It’ll be hard to whisper sweet nothings to each other when you need a megaphone to be heard. It doesn’t stop our first couple, with Sean from charming Amy by complimenting her “lovely blue eyes.”
Sean from Dublin, says he’s looking for a “quiet girl” to look after him. Enter Amy, who says she’s drawn to bad boys but needs a handyman. Just as well Sean works as an electrician, sure isn’t there a plug for every socket? Sadly the pair didn't feel a spark and parted as pals.
Around them, other diners are behaving a bit differently than in previous years. Once, the tables would be filled with background first daters quietly eating and getting to know each other. Thanks to Covid-19, Mateo tells us the seats are filled by people in couples, family members, flatmates and others who live together or are in bubbles together. We’re used to seeing nervous laughter and people on their best behaviour. Now it’s pals openly eavesdropping and some obvious stares at the main daters from surrounding couples. (Honestly, I’d be the same if I was offered a chance to dine with my best friend and get a front-row seat to the drama.)
The next couple is out to tug on our heartstrings. 35-year-old Shane from Meath, who hasn’t been in a relationship in 14 years after a brain injury set him back, tells the camera he’s afraid of getting hurt and I instantly want to mind him. “If I can do it, anyone can,” he says, hitting us right in the feels. Single mum Avril might be the woman he’s been waiting for. She’s kind, understanding and a great listener and like Shane, she hasn't had a first date in about a decade. She’s also gorgeous, arriving for the date in a jaw-dropping floor-length glittery gown. Strong ‘fresh out of lockdown vibes’ from Avril and I approve. “Oh yeah, look at you. Sparkly,” Mateo mutters under his mask as she walks to the door, making me think my new secret lip-synching concerts in the supermarket aren’t so strange anymore.
Avril and Shane are very well suited and soon Shane declares it the “best first date I’ve ever had”. My heart burst at this. His sister is sitting nearby and when Avril excuses herself to visit the ladies’ room, she gives him a pep talk and compliments him on how well he’s doing on the date. It is wholesome, heartwarming stuff and exactly what we needed to see on TV.
The even better news is that they both want to see each other again, with both of them saying it was a perfect date. The line at the end confirming they met and are now officially dating surely proved romance isn't dead and true love is real.
Another part of the show really caught my attention. I stared at it like a hungry man looking at a Sunday roast. The daters can actually sit at the bar. They just sit there, order drinks, and chat to Ethan the barman while they wait for their date to arrive. I’ve never been so jealous of something so simple.
One couple, upon meeting at the bar, immediately make the most Irish realisation: sure haven’t they already met? If you’re playing First Dates Bingo, you can probably shout ‘check’ now.
Kerry man Tim and Rory from Sligo met years ago in Galway. Rory lived in Brighton for many years, a utopia he describes as having “miles and miles of sausage”, while Tim also lived in England for two years. Rory is an absolute tonic and hits it off straight away with Tim, but their flirting leads them down the road of friendship.
Over at another table, Tracy is getting her funny bone tickled by red-headed Rob from Cork. Tracy phones her sister, who loudly exclaims that she’s found the “culchie ginger” of her dreams. The pair bond over their love of music but also delve into some deeper issues like race, religion and the great divider: Lyons or Barry’s? A match made in Lyons Tea-drinking heaven. They just need to meet up for that cuppa.