Sister city sightings

By Bobbie Curd

Carrickfergus became Danville’s sister city in 2009. The small coastal city, actually part of the United Kingdom, is one of Northern Ireland’s oldest towns. It was founded in 1177.

Perhaps no one knew the ties that would bind after Danville’s relationship with Carrickfergus began. After all, the sister cities program has been around since 1956, created by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to lessen the anxiety and tensions resulting from the Cold War. As the Danville Sister Cities website explains, Eisenhower had a vision of the best American ambassadors not as governmental appointments, but as everyday American citizens.

The program gives participating communities a chance to have relationships across the world. Sister Cities International says it counts over 2,000 partnerships created in more than 140 countries since its inception.

Fast forward to 2019, where a partnership has also blossomed between Carrickfergus’ Uplift Performing Arts and Danville’s West T. Hill Community Theatre, bringing dozens of teachers and peers every year to offer week-long performance workshops to kids of all ages, creating what’s been described as life-long extended families. The Danville Sister Cities artist exchange program resulted in such a tremendous exchange of ideas, a local playwright penned an Irish piece after her time spent there, and a new public mural resides on the side of a downtown Danville business, created while a participating Northern Ireland artist held workshops and classes here.

Danville Sister Cities says when you visit Carrickfergus, the phrase “Céad míle fáilte,” or “a hundred thousand welcomes” may be heard. Many different Danville residents have made the trip to Carrickfergus, and all say they have heard the hundred-thousand welcomes, loud and clear.

Georgia and Caitlyn de Araujo

“Standing in the park beside St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Easter morning listening to the bells toll … Celebrations in the park, across from the library on the edge of the sea, with jugglers on stilts, oodles of kids and some truly giant rabbits … The view of the harbor from our flat, and the smell of white lilies …”

These are just a very few of what Georgia and Caitlyn de Araujo consider the most magical memories from their trip to Carrickfergus. The mother-daughter duo went on their overseas journey in April of 2014, after Georgia —  who is director of the Boyle County Public Library — took part in an ambassador exchange program through Danville Sister Cities.

Caitlyn graduated from Danville High School in 2009 and Beloit College in ‘13, and now lives in Wisconsin, where she is a costumer/wardrobe technician for several theaters.

“We spent three days in Dublin, Ireland, first and then traveled by train and bus to Carrickfergus,” Georgia said. They spent five days in the city.

“Why not make the trip? Caitlyn said. “It was such a wonderful way to get abroad and make connections between two communities.”

As far as what they expected to experience, Caitlyn said she went with a pretty open mind: “Because I was a travel companion … my goals were to get a taste of the culture, experience the wonders of a new place — and make it everywhere on time.”

Before embarking on the trip, Georgia spoke at length with Liz Orndorff, a local playwright who had already participated in an artist exchange program with the sister city, as well as MIlton Reigelman, the sister city coordinator, plus some other Danville folks who had been.

“So I had some idea of what it would be like,” she said.

Georgia said she knew part of her experience was to be an observer — to ask questions about daily life there, but also to be an ambassador in relaying a sense of her daily life back home. She found herself “overwhelmed by the openness, kindness and welcoming atmosphere in everything we did, every place we went.”

Caitlyn said the program is a truly “cool idea,” and it promotes community and connection internationally. Seeing the world from a different perspective is invaluable, she said, but also hard to come by.

“The sister cities program creates a door. Whether you travel internationally with the program or not, you are helping members of those communities become more aware of other cultures and ways of life,” Caitlyn said. “If you do travel abroad because of the program — all the better! It’s very easy to be daunted by travel. If you have a purpose, the possibility becomes easier.”

Georgia couldn’t agree more. “Feeling you are a stranger some place is a hard thing, and I think it’s human nature to seek connections. When the connections actually go back generations — and many Boyle County ancestors trace back to Northern Ireland — these are profound connections. It is so interesting to see a place 3,700 miles away is similar to us in so many ways.”

But these two never experienced feeling like strangers in a new land.

Caitlyn agreed with her mom’s assertion about the kindness they experienced, calling it “simply heartwarming.” She still carries her Carrickfergus library card in her wallet. Seeing firsthand how those community members take such pride in their country and home was enlightening.

“Throughout the country, the attention to infrastructure, public spaces, cleanliness, energy use and conservation — it all demonstrated such a sense of collective pride and ownership that I wish we had in the U.S.,” Caitlyn said.

Georgia said public transportation is very easy there, “to the point that to have a car is a bit of a nuisance.” She said traveling by train was a joy; less than 30 minutes away is the Titanic Museum in Belfast, a venue they both call extraordinary.

“It was the most well-curated museum I have possibly ever been in,” Caitlyn said.

The sense of history is enormous, Georgia said.

“I think the average person in America thinks back to about 1776 as a beginning point. When the largest building in your town is centuries older than that, your sense of time is vastly different,” she said, referring to Carrickfergus Castle.

“In the castle, at the front gate … there are slash marks in the stone where the guards would sharpen their swords when they were bored,” Caitlyn said.

They traveled up the bluff to the Knockagh Memorial to the fallen soldiers of the two World Wars, which overlooks the city. Caitlyn said they walked the beautiful path down the coast, past sheep to a lighthouse overlooking the choppy Irish Sea.

Georgia was pleasantly surprised to find exercise equipment along the trails, free for anyone to use. They could see the entire loch, all the way to Belfast. They saw leftover eggshells from handmade Easter eggs in the grass from festivities the day before; the cranes from the shipping port … It was nothing short of breathtakingly beautiful.

The excursion ended at an ice cream parlor that that was a converted roller rink and dance hall, where Caitlyn said she had the best honeycomb ice cream.

And she wanted to add an extra tip for travelers: “When they say ‘fruit scones,’ they mean raisins.”

Ron Scott

Ron Scott and his wife Janis made their journey to Carrickfergus over the summer of 2015. As city manager of Danville, Ron said they took the trip on their own dime, but were very cognizant of the fact they represented the relationship between the two cities as cultural ambassadors.

“My mission was to reaffirm the City of Danville’s keen interest in maintaining and growing our sister city relationship with Carrickfergus,” at a time when the Carrickfergus city government was merged with the Borough of Mid-East Antrim, and all the relationships were being reexamined, Ron said.

Judging from the picturesque landscapes and venues in Ron’s photos from his trip, there was plenty to explore and experience. But he recalls interactions with the people first and foremost.  
“The gracious hospitality of the people of Carrickfergus — so wonderful,” he said. In experiencing the open-armed sense of community there, Ron said he and Janis discussed many subjects with local residents, “sharing a cup with them, generating a feeling that one had indeed traveled back to a much earlier ‘homeplace.’”

He describes the historic city as very well-kept, with modern art and amenities in abundance. But he was also charmed by the 12th century renovated castle by the sea.

The quality of preservation was second-to-none — not to mention the city’s reuse of historic churches as apartment buildings, for example, like where they stayed. “It resulted in a sense of place and an ambiance that is difficult to describe.”

Ron said it’s quite apparent that a great emphasis is placed there on the overall quality of life. “The universal cleanliness, the many parks, programs provided for those with physical challenges, the many walkways and trails for all ages — it was really quite wonderful to see and experience.”

He described conversations held with Billy Ashe, the mayor at the time, and other city staff and elected officials within local governments as a “professionally great learning and sharing experience.”

However, Ron said the best part of the trip was the selflessness of the Irish, something he says is also hard to describe.

“A connection has been formed between Janis and me with our host committee and others we met during the exchange that I believe will be lifelong — we’ve stayed in touch each year since our visit …”

Ron said the many programs offered through Danville Sister Cities offer people an opportunity to see similarities instead of differences. There is much attention paid to landscaping, much like there is in Danville, he said. There were fountains, some with running water and others with planted flowers. He recalls ornamental flags being popular.

Although he and Janis toured many different cities, Ron said the visit to Danville’s sister city “was in a class of hospitality above all others …”

Ron developed several detailed reports he brought back to the city commission, including various thoughts about wayfinding signs. “But the sum of the community’s attractions and ongoing events outweigh that of any individual attraction. That collective sum is what will attract people to Danville and bring them back, unless they are in the ‘GPS mode,’” Ron details in one report.

Having appropriate spaces for people to gather downtown is imperative, he also noted as a highlight of the visit. That’s so people can interact with each other, providing the means for growth and vitality to a city.

Carrickfergus’ culture enlightened ideas for renovations at Weisiger Park and Constitution Square, something Scott noted was initiated by the Convention and Visitors Bureau in Danville.

They observed bike and sailboard races, tourist buses continually coming through. “People in Ireland are friendly, curious and talkative — genuinely interested in people who visit; each person we talked with made a positive impact on us.”

Ron tells the story of when he popped into a Carrickfergus store to buy a newspaper, inadvertently leaving his wallet on the counter. “Before I could get halfway down the block, the young store clerk came running out and returned it to me,” Ron said. “How cool is that? Do you think it would happen in Danville? … I believe it would.”

The Scotts visited Kilcreggan Urban Farm, a highly successful program in Carrickfergus providing those with learning disabilities the opportunity to live independently, while participating in farming activities and other events in order to improve their sense of self-worth.

He and Mayor Ashe met and discussed challenges and opportunities in running city governments, like code enforcement and the need for new investment.

They went on walking and driving tours to the Carrick Museum, Carrick Castle, the Andrew Jackson/U.S. Rangers History Centre ….

“Danville is greatly blessed to have been settled by the Scots-Irish who hailed from Carrickfergus, and we have rekindled our historic relationship with the people of Carrickfergus and Northern Ireland through those programs,” Ron said.

Liz Orndorff

After she looked at pictures of Carrickfergus, the loch and Belfast, Liz Orndorff made her mind up — she applied for the artist exchange program as a playwright.

“I thought it would be fun without being too stressful, since they spoke a variation of my language. I had never been to Northern Ireland, or the Republic either, so I went for it. Very, very lucky to have won it,” Liz said.

Liz tried not to have too many expectations going in. “And what I did have — like the people being lovely — turned out to be true.”

She had always read that the places Americans had the most trouble adapting to were Great Britain and Ireland because they assumed and expected not to have many differences, and were then surprised by the numerous differences that do exist.

“It helps that in general, the British and Irish like Americans and vise versa,” Liz said. “They love, love our country and bluegrass music”

When Liz went in 2012, she said they were also fascinated with U.S. politics.

Liz took her trip with friend Nancy Martindale, a local artist. It was a priceless adventure to experience new things with a friend, she said. “We had an incredibly good time, but we worked like crazy.”

She did experience some real-life issues, like horrendous traffic on the wrong side of the road, and “driving the roundabouts — fast fast fast,” she said. They also had to take time to get used to the difference in the grocery stores there.

“Just how the packaged and classified food — cereal was divided into two isles, adult cereal and children’s cereal … We went to a movie and I learned that they do not put butter on their popcorn!” she mused.

Learning to use the appliances and different electric outlets was interesting.

“But, it was fun to learn new things, too,” she said.

Her favorite activities above all were eating out and sightseeing, and she greatly enjoyed the Titanic Museum. Her work with school children while there was another awesome experience.

“The people of Carrickfergus are extremely kind, nice and took excellent care of us. I encourage others to apply for these exchanges when they arise.”

Liz said when President Eisenhower came up with the idea of promoting “citizen diplomacy,” he realized that many positive things could come from personal relationships between citizens of different countries that were not weighed down by the baggage of governmental relations.

“He was right. Danville Sister Cities has really built on the foundation more than other SC chapters that I can find. We have ongoing relationships with the performing arts school Uplift, we have had Irish actors do plays at Pioneer Playhouse and Irish music at city festivities. And it continues,” she said. “It is always a good thing to expand your mind and your experiences. sister cities makes that possible.”