Nashville Descends on Northern Ireland
Sister Cities of Nashville, Tennessee led scores of public officials, musicians, entrepreneurs, restaurateurs, education leaders, diplomats, and many more to Belfast, in Northern Ireland, early this month. They were there to celebrate “Nashville in Belfast,” a week of events highlighting the Music City’s food, history, culture, and (of course) its music.
They brought with them guitars and accordions, brochures and little Tennessee state flags, gold- and platinum-record lapel pins, fried chicken, corn pudding, and lemonade, in hopes of giving folks in Belfast a taste of “Authentic Nashville.”
It’s been 23 years since Nashville and Belfast first became sister cities, and Northern Ireland has come a long way since then. Back in 1995, officials in Nashville hoped their new partnership might help bring peace to the troubled city of Belfast, while rebuilding a social foundation for its young people. Sister Cities of Nashville started a youth exchange program that encouraged teenagers of both Catholic and Protestant faiths to come to Tennessee, where they would live and work together, and hopefully overcome the biases that were so prevalent in Belfast at the time.
Over the next two decades, the quantity and variety of exchanges only increased, and nowhere was that evolution more clearly visible than in “Nashville in Belfast.” The festivities kicked off with the Lord Mayor’s Festival on April 28, a day of family-friendly activities with a “Global Belfast” theme and a performance from Nashville’s own The Willis Clan.
“We’re glad to welcome back a number of our Nashville friends,” said Lord Mayor Nuala McAllister in a video, “as well as some new ones who will hopefully make Belfast their new home.”
The next day, the acclaimed Nashville restaurant Monell’s hosted a VIP dinner featuring its Southern-comfort fare, from fried chicken and Lynchburg lemonade to broccoli salad and cornbread. After the dinner, Sister Cities of Nashville presented a concert at Ulster Hall by Kristian Bush, a Grammy-award winning songwriter, singer and producer, and one half of the duo Sugarland.
In a video Bush recorded at the dinner, he pans over a banquet table surround by hungry VIPs. “I’m here to play Ulster Hall tonight, and bring country music into the middle of Northern Ireland,” said Bush. “The sister cities of Belfast and Nashville, connected this evening.”
The Nashville delegation also took over the Twilight Market, a two-night pop-up event at St. George’s Market that drew an estimated 30,000 visitors. The regal downtown structure bears the distinction of being the oldest Victorian-era covered marketplace in all of Belfast. Countless stalls dotted its cavernous interior, selling local and international food, clothes, jewelry, and other goods.
Sister Cities of Nashville staffed one of these stalls, where members gave away guitar picks, lapel pins, travel brochures, and copies of a special Rolling Stone Magazine issue on Nashville. The Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp. provided hopeful visitors with the chance to win a getaway trip to Tennessee’s capital, just in time to catch the city’s brand-new international flight back to the United Kingdom.
At a raised platform in the center of the market, Michael King of Monell’s demonstrated how he cooks the restaurant’s signature fried chicken and corn pudding, even handing out samples to onlookers. Local vendors got in on the fun too, offering Tennessee-themed foods such as the “Nashville burger.” The Willis Clan could be seen at a nearby stage, giving an encore performance under strings of Tennessee state flags.
This was just one of a litany of special events held throughout Belfast that week.
Nashville Metro Council members Jim Schulman and DeCosta Hastings attended a Belfast City Council session. There, Schulman spoke about how much the sister cities could learn from one another. Several former Lord Mayors then joined Belfast City Council in reaffirming their commitment to the international partnership, recalling the kind hospitality they’ve always experienced when visiting Nashville. Finally, Schulman and Hastings presented Belfast City Council with a civic gift—a large, handcrafted metal sign reading “Nashville.”
Belfast City Council played a huge role in the week’s success. They were instrumental in getting promotional “Nashville in Belfast” panels on 30 city buses, distributing brochures, putting up signage throughout the city, and even connecting delegates to broadcasters at BBC.
“They were true partners in this first-time effort,” according to Heather Cochran Cunningham, the executive director of Sister Cities of Nashville.
Nashville Metro Council members also participated in a video conference call facilitated by Brandon Hill, leader of the Mayor’s Youth Council, between students in Belfast and Nashville. They used the opportunity to share their perspectives and ideas on the American and Irish movements for civil rights, school safety, gun violence, and the recent string of school-walkouts.
Lord Mayor Nuala McAllister, and U.S. Consul General to Belfast Dan Lawton made welcoming remarks to approximately 100 local students and teachers on the possibilities of studying abroad. McAllister spoke about how her study abroad experience in Washington, D.C. influenced her decision to run for public office. Then, sister cities officials met with students one-on-one to talk about opportunities for studying in Nashville.
U.S. Consul General Lawton also hosted a seminar on doing business in the United States. And to get a better grip on doing business in Northern Ireland, a handful of American delegates slipped away to the BelTech Conference, where they explored potential investment and business collaboration opportunities in the field of technology. These opportunities also played a key part in a panel discussion that aired on BBC Radio Ulster between Metro Councilman Jim Shulman and entrepreneur Marcus Whitney.
The Ulster Scots Agency welcomed Nashville delegates at a reception in honor of Andrew Jackson, the first Scotch-Irish president of the United States. The Agency handed out copies of its new leaflet on Jackson, a part of its mission to promote an understanding of the history of the Ulster-Scots people.
Representatives from both cities held meetings throughout the week to focus on particular areas for cooperation, including higher education, law, health sciences, economic development, soccer, social issues involving youth, the elderly, and the homeless.
On May 2, the Ulster Orchestra performed an “I Love Nashville” show with country singer Mandy Barnett to a packed house at Waterfront Hall. The next night, Monell’s chef Michael King partnered with Belfast restaurateur Michael Deane to bring a different Southern dish and drink to five local restaurants.
A day later, the delegation picked up and came home.
Heather Cochran Cunningham