Athboy recently hosted some 75 French visitors as part of the town's 10th anniversary celebrations of the twinning arrangement between Athboy and a group of nine villages from the Autonne valley in Picardy, France.
The initial twinning charter had been signed in September 2000 in France. Last year, the 10th anniversary of the signing had been celebrated in France. Since then, the Athboy Twinning Association had been making preparations for what turned out to be a tremendously successful occasion. Help was also enlisted from the numerous organisations and voluntary groups which exist in Athboy.
Athboy Community School was the rendezvous where the French visitors were introduced to their host families. Each visitor was presented with a pack which contained a copy of the official anniversary booklet, containing a tri-lingual version of the Athboy Heritage Trail, a commemmorative calendar and literature on local attractions made available by main sponsors, Meath Tourism.
As daylight turned to dusk, Athboy Farmers' Market took on a somewhat different appearance under the torchlights of fire artistes who entertained the assembling audience, to the rhythm of the traditional tunes from the Tlachtga branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann.
The visitors were officially welcomed by Pauric Staunton, chairperson of the Market Committee and current Athboy Community Person of the Year. The twinning anthem 'We Are One', which was specially written and recorded by Dara Englishby and members of Athboy Macra na Feirme, was performed publicly for the first time. Members of Athboy Heritage Forum took part in a torchlight procession which depicted the links with the Festival of Fire which began at Halloween on nearby Tlachtga on the Hill of Ward.
This was followed by the unveiling of commemorative plinth by two of the youngest members of both twinning associations, Kevin Cooke and Hugo Merazga. The plinth bore the inscription 'Marché de Jumelage' in recognition of the influence of the French farmers' markets during the planning stage of the Athboy project.
A menu of weekend activities was made available to the French visitors thanks to various local voluntary groups. These included rugby, archery and pitch and putt clubs, sean nós dancing and a high nelly run. The local library was the location for an exhibition of memorabilia based on activities which took place over the last 10 years of the twinning.
In the Macra Hall, entries from the art competition organised among pupils in the local national schools were on display. Dominique Carron, president of the Autonne Villages Twinning Association, presented prizes.
The Fair Green was the venue for the official reaffirmation of the twinning oath ceremony. This began with entertainment by the Erik Satik Ecole de Musique from Crepy-en-Valois, and the Oristown Accordion Orchestra, directed by Gerry Kelly.
The Irish, French and European flags were raised by members of the Athboy Scouts and the three anthems were played by the orchestras. The dignitaries then made their way to the podium which was resplendent in the colours of the two tricolours thanks to the assistance of the Athboy St Patrick's Day Committee.
The podium party included public representatives from both Athboy and Autonne Villages areas, in addition to local politicians and community representatives. Lucy Grillet acted as MC while her husband, Thierry, provided translations. Speakers included the two twinning chairpersons, Anthony Leavy and Dominique Caron, Pauric Staunton; Hubert Briatte, Mayor of Morienval; Cllr John V Farrelly, chairperson of Meath Tourism; Sebastien Vancon, representing the French Ambassador to Ireland, and MEP Mairead McGuinness.
The reaffirmation of the twinning oath was read by Richard Brown, Rút Ní Theimhneáin and Antoine Clabaut in English, Irish and French, respectively, followed by the signing of two copies by each dignitary present, to a selection of traditional French and Irish tunes on button accordion by musician Peter Staunton.
The French were presented with a bodhrán specially hand decorated for the occasion by Jacinta O'Brien. Local invitees were presented with a specially commissioned pen-holder made by local wood turner, Richard Lucas. All guests were presented with a bottle of champagne each by the French visitors.
Oristown Accordion Orchestra, the Cassells School of Irish Dancing, and Class Act School entertained the audience, and the visitors called into the Éigse Uí Ghramhnaigh All-Ireland Sean-Nós Dancing finals.
The Old Darnley Lodge Hotel was the venue for the 10th anniversary banquet with a specially designed menu incorporating the best of Irish produce. Both twinning chairpersons jointly cut the anniversary cake made by Aoife Mooney and modelled on Joe Mooney's triple spiral logo.
The after dinner entertainment was provided by the Athboy Community School Choir, directed by Jacqui McGowan, who had prepared two additional French pieces for the occasion. Navan Swing Band who filled the dance floor into the small hours of the morning.
On Sunday morning, members of the French group took part in the celebration of Mass in St James's Church where Pere Antoine Nguyen, parish priest of the Autonne Villages, concelebrated Mass with Fr Patrick O'Connor, PP.
M Carron presented Fr O'Connor with granite statues of St James, St Peter (the patron saint of Autonne Villages) and St Patrick.
Many of the French visitors made their way with the locals to the Sunday Market where they were able to sample local produce.
The award for the best dressed window for the weekend was presented to Catherine and Pat McElhinney of McElhinney's Man's Shop.
The Old Darnley Lodge Hotel was the venue for Sunday lunch for the final round up of the weekend activities. Musical entertainment was provided by the orchestra from the Erik Satik School of Music and members of Athboy Macra na Feirme. Following a few non-scripted surprises and exchanges of gifts, the French guests were escorted to the waiting coaches for their return trip to Dublin Airport.
Each will take back happy memories from the land of the 'céad mile fáilte' and will hopefully return soon to visit other areas of the Royal County. So, too, will the people of Athboy retain fond memories of another chapter in the life of the Athboy/Autonne Jumelage, according to Anthony Leavy.