Kilkee’s French Twinning as Vital as Ever, 32 Years On

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In the first of a series of in-depth articles on the 150 or so twinning arrangements between Ireland and France, Tootlafrance talks to Kevin Heapes, chairman of the Kilkee/Plouhinec Twin Town Committee

Kevin Heapes has been involved with the Kilkee/Plouhinec twinning committee since 1992, even though the twinning is amongst Ireland’s oldest, having first been set up under the auspices of the Town Council in 1982. Similarly to a lot of Irish twinning arrangements, the town council representative is no longer present on the committee, but the twinning arrangement continues regardless.

“Officially we don’t know where we stand, but we’ll carry on,” says current chairman Kevin Heapes. “It’s really only rubber-stamping but they really have more support on the other side – they have resources in the local Mairie which we don’t have.”

The lack of administrative and financial support is something that’s common to most twinning arrangements as a result of a lack of real local democracy in Ireland compared to France. The biggest challenge that the Kilkee/Plouhinec arrangement faces, he feels, is the lack of young people involved in the arrangement.

“I’m not sure why,” says Kevin, who runs the eco-friendly “Purecamping” caravan site with his wife Trea just outside the village.

Kevin Heapes: "... twinning is something that broadens your horizons – there’s no doubt about it."

Kevin Heapes: “… twinning is something that broadens your horizons – there’s no doubt about it.”

Back in 1992, when Kevin first joined the committee, the arrangement was very much in the doldrums and young blood was called for.

“I was a younger man at that point,” he points out. “I’m now in my mid-40s so I got involved and went over on the 10th-anniversary trip in 1992 with everyone else. We made a lot of personal friends and we’d always call into people we know for a night or two.

“It suffered more during the Celtic Tiger years when people were going to Bali rather than to Brittany. A lot of colleges and schools tend to bring kids to go on tours to France and bring them to Eurodisney. I don’t know what they learn because you don’t even need French for Eurodisney.”

For anyone organising an educational tour to France, the temptation to bring people to Mickey Mouse’s American enclave is all too strong, it seems. The massive attraction is something worth seeing in its own right for sure, but it has little to do with encouraging educational or cultural links between Ireland and France.

Heapes points to what may be something of a disconnect too at secondary school level. Many of the teachers, he points out, are from outside of the town, essentially resulting in a lot of teaching staff not having a built-in vested interest in the life of the town and its youth.

The main links between Kilkee have been built around the two communities’ similarities in size and economic activity. Tourism is a key common factor:

“Plouhinec would have a similar set-up tourism-wise. Oysters are a big business around there and oysters are a big business around us as well.”

In spite of the challenges, there is still a strong desire keeping the association alive. Last year, a far-from-insignificant group of 80 people came over to Kilkee from Brittany and this year, members of the French side set up stalls in Kilkee market, selling Breton goods.

Oyster Haven: A view of the coast near Plouhinec (Photo - Bernard Beigne)

Oyster Haven: A view of the coast near Plouhinec (Photo – Bernard Beigne)

Plouhinec is located in the balmy Golfe du Morbihan on the south coast of Brittany. Boat-building is a highly developed activity in the area and it’s also another common point of contact between the two communities. Kevin is a traditional boat enthusiast:

“I’m also involved in traditional boats, which is another great common interest we have. They have a traditional boat festival every two years over there, so I’d bring over a few West Clare curraghs and we’d show them off in the village and involve them in the local boat festival. It works out well.”

There is still plenty of activity going on at the teenage level, however, with a number of exchanges organised between individual families, allowing them to experience something of one another’s cultures and languages.

“There would be about four to five exchanges every year,” Kevin estimates. “We find that when one family does it, then the tradition carries on down through the other members of the families. Word of mouth gets around and we have an emailing list, so we’d put the word around for any requests.”

The use of e-meeting software is another initiative that has been used in the past, Kevin says, with some mixed results. This involves using online communication to effectively create “pen-palled” classrooms, with classes carrying out online projects together. The French side, he says, have been a bit more enthusiastic than the Irish side, although much of that is down to the fact that the schools in their Breton twin town are larger and have therefore better resources in terms of money and staff.

"Vive le Marché!" - Some members of Plouhinec committee selling their wares in Kilkee in June 2014

“Vive le Marché!” – Some members of Plouhinec committee selling their wares in Kilkee in June 2014

Funding is a constant issue and it’s all through voluntary work on the Irish side. When it comes to the occasional big event, some funding is available. The 30th anniversary celebrations two years ago was a case in point: the French Ambassador was invited down to Kilkee to take part in the celebrations and the County Council contributed towards this once-off event.

Otherwise, it’s a case of organising activities to gather money to fuel their activities. French nights are a common source of cash generation and French markets.

“We would organise things like the French market and French nights,” says Kevin, “or selling baskets of Easter Eggs – that’s one of our top earners, actually, but a lot of people fund the various activities themselves.”

The main thrust of the twinning, therefore, is on a social level, as Kevin explains:

“It’s a social twinning, essentially – mostly cultural with regard to music, and personal friendships after that.

“There’s great scope for commercial activity too – at least in the sense of learning from one another. What they’re quite interested in is that we have got together in recent years and created a fairly strong sustainable tourist business here and they’re very interested in learning about our model.”

Are twinning arrangements with France still important in Ireland?

Another world on your doorstep? Kevin Heapes is still a firm believer in the power of twinning.

Another world on your doorstep? Kevin Heapes is still a firm believer in the power of twinning.

“Yes, they are. It’s interesting in that some of the original twinnings in Europe were from a post-war peace perspective between Germany and France. The Irish take on that has been to work on the Celtic link and get people together – a ‘hands across the water’ kind of thing.

“But it’s great. You only need to look at the likes of the Celtic Festival in Lorient this year, where Ireland was the focus country again. There’s a great camaraderie there and when you get people over, you find out more about our shared history…

“My children have been lucky enough to have been involved and they grew up knowing that there’s another world out there; they know that there are different cultures, they know that there are different languages. When you’re in rural Ireland and you’re out on the West Coast, you can become quite insular in some ways and twinning is something that broadens your horizons – there’s no doubt about it. It brings another world to your doorstep – even the act of sitting around the table and sharing meals together. It’s very important, I think.”

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