It’s seven o’clock on a Sunday and O’Donoghue’s pub on Merrion Row is packed with a blue sea of Dubs fans.
“Where is the speed friending on?” I ask the barman.
Tall and balding, he continues to pour a pint of Guinness as he stares at me.
There’s a pause.
I realise he has no idea what I’m talking about.
“It must be the other O’Donoghue’s, love.”
It was after he moved to Dublin from Kilkenny for work back in 2013 that he launched the event. He didn’t know a lot of people here and found it difficult to make new friends. “I thought this would be a good way to meet new people,” he says.
It started with just a few people, but it’s now on twice a month and the sessions are often full, Phelan says. The events are organised through the group’s Meetup.com page, which has 2,060 members.
Each speed-friending evening hosts up to 30 people. Once people attend and make friends, “then there’s no real need for them to come again”, Phelan says. “It’s new people the whole time.”
A lot of the people who come to speed friending have just moved to Dublin, he says. “Obviously, there’s social media as well. People are always on Tinder and Facebook, but it doesn’t really work.”
But once people meet at his events, they often keep in touch using social media: setting up, for example, WhatsApp groups to organise coffees and nights out.
So does Phelan have loads of friends now?
“Yeah,” he says.
“Well,” he says, “maybe four or five close friends now.”
I pay €10 and, in return, get a pen and a small piece of paper with columns entitled “Name” and “Contact”. On the back, there are two handwritten questions to help get conversation started: “What’s your dream job?” and “If you had a superpower, what would it be?”
In some ways, speed friending isn’t a new concept to Dublin. Befriending services have been around for years.
Charities like Alone and Making Connections offer befriending services for the elderly. Depaul Ireland runs this service as a support for people who have left homelessness. And Befrienders Dublin works with Mental Health Ireland to support those with mental-health issues.
Loneliness is a problem in Dublin. In a Samaritans survey in January, more than one third of callers mentioned it as an issue.
Having researched loneliness for more than thirty years, Ami Rokach of York University in Canada has seen its links with blood pressure, heart disease and morbidity.
“Lonely people are more prone to die, basically,” he says.
He believes people in cities are more at risk of loneliness and says services that help people make new friends, whether they are voluntary or commercial, are a good idea.
The bar in the room where the event is being held is closed, but there are people sitting at most of the tables lining the walls of the room.
I breathe a sigh of relief when another person of the female variety walks in. By the time the room fills up there are twenty people, four of whom are women. Phelan says it’s the first time the gender balance has been so far off.
In speed friending, as in speed dating, everyone sits in pairs and chats for a few minutes. (In this case, it’s five.) Then a bell rings, prompting everyone to decide whether to exchange contact details, and then move on to meet someone new.
One woman explained to me that she was there because she had lost all her friends to marriages and babies. Someone else said they just had to stop watching YouTube videos and get out of the house.
I met two Americans, a Canadian and a Spaniard who had been living in Dublin for less than a month. There was also a man from Eastern Europe who has lived here for years, but has had to make new friends because most of his old ones returned home after the downturn. A couple of people had travelled from other counties for the evening.
Each five-minute interval flew by. One person invited me to London, and another said I looked far older than I am; sometimes I was glad to hear the tinkle of the bell.
Since it felt rude not to share some sort of contact information with the people I met, I gave mine to someone I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. By nine o’clock, I had eleven new friends.
Or rather, eleven new email addresses, numbers and Facebooks.
Though there was an open invitation to Dicey’s after the event, most people went home to get some sleep before work the next day.
“Being on a Sunday kind of eliminated a lot of possibilities for me after things finished up,” says Ben Larkin, who decided to try the event for this first time out of curiosity.
The casual atmosphere appealed to him and he would definitely go again. But he also said there were some problems with organisation. He was left by himself a couple of times and had to chat to the people beside him, “something which could easily be remedied by numbering the tables.”
Alex Goulet also says the night could have been organised a bit better. He describes it as “a little bit of a cash grab”. Still, he doesn’t rule out going again, because he did meet some new people.
It can be hard to find new friends as an adult, Goulet says, and speed friending is good, because everyone is there for the same reason. “It takes some of the awkwardness away,” he says.
Phelan would not say how profitable the speed-friending meetups are for him.
He says he makes a little bit of money from the events, but that he spends a lot of time organising them and there are expenses involved: a room, some finger food.
“My business is successful,” he says. “It helps thousands of people, and it makes a real difference in people’s lives.”