The small and highly picturesque village of Ballydehob in West Cork first began its twinning adventure with Cléden-Cap-Sizun in Brittany in September 1999
“The twinning was something that we had been attempting for a number of years and it was my family that put up the money for the first trip,” remembers Billy O’Regan, who is president of the twinning committee.
Current chair is Terri Leiber (pictured above with son Gabriel). With her husband Mark O’Mahony, they have also been involved from the very first years. They are both French speakers and Terri teaches French at the Mercy Heights Secondary School in nearby Skibbereen.
The twinning followed along the lines of finding another twin town that was similar to your own in size and socio-economic structure and the twin village of Cléden-Cap-Sizun is located in a somewhat isolated coastal location in the Finistère department right at the tip of the western end of the Breton peninsula.
“The village itself is about half the size of Ballydehob,” says Mark O’Mahony, “but there are all small settlements around it that are included in the area. But like here, it wasn’t just confined to Ballydehob people. On the first trip, I think that there were people from Goleen, Schull and even the odd Bantry person.”
The first trip, Mark says, included a bus-load of people that ranged in age from 6 months up to the mid-70s.
“There have been some exchanges of ideas,” says Terri, “particularly towards the beginning in the area of farming, because Cléden-Cap-Sizun is a rural community too and there was a lot of curiosity from people here… otherwise, they would be more geared towards fishing than we are.“We went a lot of visits to fish farms over the years and last year, we went to see their big fish factory – very impressive. Over there, they also do a lot of pig farming, but you don’t see pigs much because they’re all indoors. Their farming is all very mechanised compared to here. Particularly in the beginning when we had these EU grants to help us, we had to make these links to industry as part of our twinning schedules.”
Most of the time, however, the exchanges are dominated by a social and cultural bent, especially in latter years.
“When I say ‘cultural’, it’s that when we go there, they try and get us involved in Breton cultural things – mainly music and dancing or sometimes crafts,” says Mark. “Similarly, when they come over here, we try and show them everything we’ve got in our area, including set dancing and céilí dancing.”
Essentially, the regular twinning visits involve a schedule of events where the visiting group is taken to see the best sights in the area and is exposed to as many aspects of local cultural life as possible. With the volume of visits over the years and given the sizes of the communities, the list of attractions doesn’t take long to run out, but there’s always something new to see and the Ballydehob committee has taken the Bretons as far afield as Killarney (about 1½ hours away).“We’d always have one big social evening, both on the Irish trip and the French one.”
Accommodation for the vast majority is organised through local families, so that each visitor gets a more intimate taste of what life is like in one another’s community. This all helps with the cultural/linguistic exchange of experiences, even though it’s a case of each to his/her own, with some members of the twinning entourage having learned a lot of French over the years and some who have learned almost none.
“We always stay with a family when we go over,” says Mark, “and we accommodate a family for the return visit too. Teri also gives some basic French lessons to people in Ballydehob before going over.”
The exchanges pass on down through the generations too or within families and often, they last a lot more than just the one or two standard weeks. While these exchanges are unofficial, they have grown directly from the twinning arrangement:“We’ve had students stay with us over the summer from contacts that we’ve met on the exchange trip. Last year and the year before, their son came over and stayed with us for a month. And then this year, his younger brother came and stayed with us for several weeks. Molly my daughter has stayed over there with them. She was gigging locally in the pubs and improving her French.”
There was also a pen-pal exchange going for a number of years between the primary schools of the twinned communities, where schoolchildren exchanged ideas and interests.
“When we went over there once or twice, the children went into the national schools there while
school was on and talked a bit about their school with Teri interpreting.”
The Ballydehob / Cléden-Cap-Sizun twinning arrangement is typical of many others around the country in that it has a social/cultural dimension at heart and it keeps rumbling along despite a number of different initiatives that have come and gone. When it comes down to it, are arrangements like this important?
“I think that twinnings are good to get to know the real French people, as opposed to the tourist route. There’s no tourism involved; no hotels, no Fáilte Ireland involved… we’re meeting local people as they are in their own settings and their own homes and similarly, they’re doing likewise here. Admittedly, we’re trying to show our best side. I mean that if you came to Ireland on an average week night, you wouldn’t have the same busy schedule that we lay on for them!“But it’s as close as they’ll get to experiencing life in a small West Cork village. Basically, the more you meet them, the more you realise that we’ve all got the same problems and issues. We worry about living in a small community, the lack of jobs in the area or of facilities, people moving out of the area to live in the city.”
Funding is, as always, the thorny issue, with virtually none available for these real initiatives that bring real people from two EU member states together in a meaningful way. For business links and tourism links, there seems to be plenty of push but for projects like the Ballydehob twinning where people do engage over generations in a direct and meaningful way, the money doesn’t seem to be available on the Irish side.
“There used to be funding available from the County Council but that seems to have quickly ran out. For the last three or four trips, we’ve had to fundraise ourselves. We’ve had table quiz and dancing nights where people would pay in to learn Irish dancing and Breton dancing. We did ‘The Wren’ one year on St Stephen’s Day, which also raised some money. After that, we’ve paid our own way.
“Usually, we fundraise to provide food and entertainment for them when they come over – paying for ticket entrances and so on rather than our travelling expenses in getting to France.”
At this point, Mark knows the western edges of Brittany “like the back of my hand”, as well as having met a sizeable chunk of its population over the years. The other more unexpected aspect of the twinning has been that the initiative has brought together lots of people in Ballydehob – people that might otherwise not have got to know each other. Departing on a tour of a foreign country together has its own way of bringing that community together.
Tootlafrance Twinning Map: Click on the map symbols below to see Ireland’s other twinning arrangements with towns in France