The Charleville-Plouaret Twin Connection celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2017
When asked about the validity of the international town twinning phenomenon, Cáit O’Sullivan gives an emotional response. She is as firm a believer as you’ll find anywhere in Ireland in the town twinning process. She is the secretary of the Charleville-Plouaret Twinning Committee and has been involved in the Franco-Irish match for over a decade.
“I first got involved when my late neighbour Mary Binchey asked me to get younger people involved in town twinning and I suggested that my (then) 14-year-old daughter would be interested.”
Getting young blood into the movement is a constant challenge for all organisations – sporting and social – but it seems to be particularly difficult for twinning organisations; even more so in the current age where the illusion of being everywhere at once and experiencing all things is presented to people on a constant basis through the little screen on their android phones.
It’s no wonder that it’s difficult to recruit people to do anything these days but Cáit knows from experience that once young people (or people of any age) actually travel to another country and experience the unique warmth and hospitality that comes with twinning visits, they are irresistibly drawn in.
“We’ve talked at length about different ways of getting people involved in the twinning… It’s hard to sell it – a lot of committees used Facebook, for example. We don’t do that. I think that while people will find it easy to tick a photo they like, it’s another thing to get them involved.
“I personally think that if you could get people to go to France and experience what we experienced and meet people in their own homes and experience the hospitality and all that goes with it, then you’d get a vision of what the twinning is actually about. It’s very hard to actually sell that to somebody that’s not involved.”
Cáit herself was drawn into the twinning by her late neighbour Mary Binchy:
“She was very involved in the twinning when it started up in Charleville. They were looking for some teenagers to go on the trip that year and I think our daughter Claire was 14 at the time and she and our neighbour’s children and a couple of other pals got involved…. that was about 2003 or 2004.”
Preparations are already underway for this year, when approximately 30 visitors from the village of Plouaret will be making their way once more to Charleville in May for a get-together with their Celtic Cork cousins.
“You’d be thinking to yourself ‘Oh my God, where are we going to put them all?’ but there’s great support and it always comes around – we always manage to do it.”
Plouaret is in the Cotes d’Armor department in Brittany and is about a 45-minute drive from the Brittany Ferries ferry port in Roscoff. It’s also within a half-hour drive of multiple points along the northern Breton coast.
Charleville, in contrast, is at least an hour from the beach but it does enjoy a central location and trips to various big tourist spots such as Killarney, Cork city or Kinsale are not big treks when it comes to entertaining their guests.
“They love to spend a morning in the locality – doing a bit of shopping in Charleville, having a cup of coffee – that sort of thing. They don’t come to Ireland for the weather!”
Cáit also sings the praises of the multiple friendships forged from the international link:
“At this stage, lots of friendships have formed. My two daughters have been on numerous occasions and the very first family that our eldest daughter stayed with, their daughter has stayed with us and she’s actually coming again this year and she’s going to try and get a job in Charleville during the summer. And that’s outside of twinning.”
In Cáit’s case, the personal connection went much deeper than with most people. In 2012, while on a twinning trip to Plouaret, she became suddenly and very seriously ill.
“The night before we were due to come home, I got a brain haemorrage.” Today, she explains it in a matter-of-fact manner, but it was a near-death experience that could well have ended up being a tale to be told only by others had it not been for the support and assistance she got on the ground. She was whisked off to hospital and eventually made a full recovery.
“My husband obviously stayed with me while I was there,” she explains, “but we were there nearly five and a half weeeks and the twining people were amazing: they gave him a car, he was able to stay with one of the families and every night, somebody fed him – every night for over five weeks.”
Cáit counts herself fortunate not only that she was in the midst of a strong extended network of friends, but that she was in a country with a far more impressive health care system that involved transport by helicopter between hospitals in Rennes and Brest.
“It was amazing,” she says of the rapitdity and organisation of the treatment she received. “But we couldn’t have done it all and stayed so long as we stayed if we hadn’t had that support – we had absolutely huge support and we’ll never forget them for that.”
The Charleville committee includes people from all walks of life, according to Cáit, and she is no doubt about the benefits of the whole project.
“It’s only when people join that they get to experience the hospitality of the Breton people. They’re very like the Irish. Once they open up their doors to you, you’re as welcome as anyone – nothing is too much bother to them. It really is a fabulous experience and I am so glad that we’re part of it and that our children have had it.”