PITTSFIELD -- Sixteen years ago, Anne Gagnon saw that Pittsfield had a sister city in Italy, and wondered why not have one in Ireland?
A trip to the Irish consulate in Boston and a visit to several cities in Ireland later, the Pittsfield resident helped land the city of Ballina as Pittsfield's new sister.
It's all part of the Sister Cities International, a program started by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956 to help bring communities across the world closer together.
Since Gagnon laid down Pittsfield roots in Ballina 16 years ago, delegations from both cities have visited each other, exchanged gifts and taken part in various cultural activities.
On Friday, two Ballina councilors and an engineer were greeted by about two dozen Pittsfield residents at a City Hall gathering hosted by Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi. The ceremony was a kickoff to this weekend's St. Patrick's Day activities in Pittsfield.
Ballina was represented by councilors Willie Nolan, Josie Egan and engineer Mike Livings. The councilors brought news that their jobs would soon be replaced: The Ballina City Council is being abolished in May, as city residents voted to reduce their government spending and defer to the county government.
Bianchi, who traveled to Ballina last year to commemorate the program's 15th anniversary, joked about driving down the narrow streets there and losing his rearview mirror in the process. Pittsfield Irish Sister City Committee member Pat Gormaley said the streets are so narrow you have to reverse if another car is coming from the other direction.
Nolan said he brought Livings to see how the roads are taken care of in Pittsfield. That remark drew laughter.
He said he also will be visiting his uncle this weekend in Boston, who immigrated to the United States and fought in the Korean War.
Egan said she will be visiting her daughter, who works as a nurse in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "We've always had American connections," Egan said.
Both cities share similarities in being at the western end of their respective states and countries. Ballina, with approximately 10,000 people, is about one-fourth the size of Pittsfield in terms of population.
Ballina is known as the "salmon capital of Europe," Nolan said. About 10,000 salmon are caught by fishermen each year on the River Moy, he said. Approximately 75,000 salmon are estimated to swim there.
Two members of the Irish Sister City Committee, Fran Curley and Gormaley, said they are looking to set up a student exchange program with Ballina next year through St. Joseph Central High School.
"The most beautiful thing about (Ballina) is the people who live there," Bianchi said. "They are the most giving, caring people you will ever meet."
Bianchi and Nolan exchanged gifts, with Nolan offering a Foxford Woolen Mills rug and Bianchi giving Egan a gift bag with chocolate designed by Pine Cone Hill in Pittsfield.
Nolan said he was "very impressed by the cordiality of the people" in Pittsfield.
"It's always a wonderful occasion when we have visitors from the beautiful isle of Ireland," Bianchi said, before Pittsfield's Sheila McKenna sang the Star Spangled Banner and an Irish lullaby. Then everybody dipped into a large outlay of catered food.
To reach Nathan Mayberg:
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