It's Nashville, Sister

What you didn't know about Belfast and Opryland

The city of Nashville, Tennessee, is primarily known here (and in most other places) as the self-styled capital of country music, and the home of the Grand Old Opry and Dollywood (Dolly Parton’s theme park) among other things. Yet you could well be reading this while sitting in Nashville’s ‘sister city’. Yep, Belfast has a special relationship with Nashville, but not too many people here seem to know about it…

Including many of the staff in our Visitor Centre and City Council when contacted by CNI. Finally, however, it emerged that Belfast has had a ‘memorandum of understanding’ with Nashville since 1994, which involves both cities working together to develop cultural, educational, tourist and business links.

Indeed, Lord Mayor Tom Ekin led a delegation to Nashville in December 2004 to formally recognise the link between the two cities. He met with his counterpart Bill Purcell and representatives from the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau, the International Business Council, the Chamber of Commerce, the Civic Design Centre, the Metro Arts Commission and the city’s habitat for Humanity affiliate. At the time Councillor Ekin enthused about how both cities could benefit from the link.

So what took Belfast so long to get its act together? Things seem to have been much less complicated on the other side of the pond. In Nashville, a small but dedicated band of citizens have been working for years to promote the relationship and organize events and exchanges between the two cities.

In fact, two former Queen’s University students who emigrated to Nashville in the 1980s, Ian and Katherine Brick, initiated contact.

‘We realised after some years here that most people did not realise that their ancestors may have come from Northern Ireland and Scotland,’ Katherine told CNI.

‘In fact, they were unaware that local president of the USA, Andrew Jackson, had parents who came over from Carrickfergus. This is what prompted us to approach Sister Cities here in Nashville with the suggestion to link with Belfast.

‘In 1994, we met with the Sister Cities committee and put across the proposal. The cities were roughly the same size, and music and ancestry were strong connections. We then accompanied a group of Nashville people to Belfast where we met with Dr Ian Adamson, the Lord Mayor at the time. We had a really interesting and enjoyable trip, and the committee subsequently decided to make Belfast a Sister City.’

Belfast councillors Ian Adamson and Hugh Smyth made a follow-up visit to Nashville in 1995 and the link was sealed. To some people this may sound like just another excuse for a junket, but Katherine is adamant that the relationship between the cities has real benefits.

‘Originally 40 young people from Northern Ireland were sponsored to come to the Opryland Hotel for an 18 month period to train in the hospitality industry with hopes that Northern Ireland tourism would pick up after the peace process, and there are about 60 young people from all over Northern Ireland who have received a one year scholarship to go to various colleges here. This is done in conjunction with the churches.’

Linda Sack, chair of the Belfast committee in Nashville, gave details of other events including choir tours and joint art exhibitions. For one project 12 Northern Irish teenagers stayed in Nashville during the summer, developing a mural in conjunction with Nashville teenagers and artists. This mural reflected aspects of Northern Irish life and is currently displayed in Nashville’s leading museum, the Frist Center for the Visual Arts.

Sack hopes that the mural will encourage citizens in Nashville to think more positively about Belfast, and Katherine Brick admits that there are difficulties in promoting a positive image of this city.

‘Most people think of the place they see in the news with shootings, bombings and children being stopped from going to school. Also, most Americans are only interested if there is something in it for them, so it can be difficult to get support to do things sometimes.’

Linda Sack agrees that Belfast’s image abroad is primarily linked to conflict but is encouraged by what she has witnessed since becoming Nashville’s facilitator with Belfast.

‘Through Sister Cities, I have developed an entirely different image of Belfast. I have been able to see first hand the progress in your city, and my young Belfast friends are interested only in moving beyond the historical strife. The relationship enables us to get past stereotypical images and build friendships with real people.’

Sack is frustrated, however, that such positive work doesn’t get the publicity it deserves.

‘We don’t get much interaction from the City Hall, through which the Sister City relationship was established in 1995. They have bigger fish to fry I’m sure. We rely on many ‘lay people’ in Belfast to keep the relationship alive, but we would love to have a more formal group of Belfast people to do a bit of coordinating.’

Even in the local Country & Western scene there was little awareness of the link, until the launch of the first annual Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival in February 2005.

One of the few local people already in the know was local singer/songwriter Brian Houston, who had detected a certain irony in the link between the two cities and expressed this in a track ‘Radio Son’ on his 35 Summers album.

‘It was inspired by a guy called Robin telling me that Nashville and Belfast were twinned, which I’d never heard before, and seriously doubted was actually true. I wrote the song anyway because of the Irish love for American country music and the fact that record companies in England negated my success here by saying that Ireland was a little America.’

Houston, in fact, has travelled to Nashville and opened shows for country superstars like Martina McBride. Despite this, he admits to being a little bemused at the relationship between the cities.

‘I thought that it was somebody’s romanticized notion of ‘wouldn’t it be nice’ to be honest,’ he said. Reflecting on his own trips to Nashville – ‘ it’s a connection thing’ – he warned that American insularity, as well as Belfast’s, would need to be broken down if an external partnership was to take off.

‘My impression is that a lot of Americans don’t know anything about us. I had people in Nashville asking me if Belfast was in Scotland, for instance. I’d say that George W Bush, who hadn’t been abroad until he became President, is fairly typical.’