A group of stakeholders met last month for a second discussion about Leadville becoming a sister city with Allihies, Ireland. About a dozen government, school and museum leaders, as well as representatives from the Irish Consulate, were involved in the meeting.
As part of Sister Cities International, which was established during the Eisenhower presidency to improve international diplomacy, the pairing is the first between cities in Colorado and Ireland, where the process is informally known as “twinning.”
“There is such a rich history between the two towns that was mostly forgotten,” said West Park Elementary School Principal Kathleen Fitzsimmons, who is also third-generation Irish. “What this does is reestablish a relationship that began more than 150 years ago.”
Fitzsimmons added that of all the Irish immigrants who came to Leadville during 19th century, about 70 percent hailed from the Beara Peninsula where Allihies is located. When the area was hit particularly hard by the Irish Potato Famine in 1845 due to its rocky soil and isolated location, thousands began to flee to Leadville’s silver mines. Mining was a familiar profession for many immigrants who had worked the copper mines in Allihies.
In 2019, James Walsh, a professor at the University of Colorado Denver who has researched Irish history in Leadville for two decades, visited Allihies. He biked 240 miles from Dublin to the Beara Peninsula, which is about 30 miles long and 10 miles wide.
According to Walsh, the landscape becomes mountainous heading west from Dublin, then rocky with the occasional green meadow, before becoming wind-swept and treeless near the coast and Allihies. The region, which is Irish-speaking, is very remote, Walsh said.
After Walsh arrived in Allihies and began conversing with the locals, he realized hardly anyone knew about Leadville. He visited the Allihies Copper Mine Museum and met with teachers and public officials. Over time, interest in Leadville grew in Allihies.
Eventually, Allihies’ school curricula were altered to include Leadville. Soon after, the Irish government contributed funds to the Irish memorial that is slated to be built in Evergreen Cemetery in Leadville this summer.
“The memorial is important to people in Allihies,” said Walsh. “A lot of the Irish immigrants were never heard of again after they left for Leadville. Their family lineages stopped or were hard to follow after that. Life was really difficult here for them. This is an Irish memorial, but it’s really a memorial to any immigrant with the courage to get up and leave like that.”
Since Walsh’s visit, several Irish diplomats have visited Leadville. Depending on the status of COVID-19, representatives from Allihies will travel to Leadville again this or next summer to dedicate the memorial, Mayor Greg Labbe said.
If all goes as planned, Labbe expects Leadville to officially become a sister city with Allihies by late summer.
Fitzsimmons, who has begun planning to incorporate the relationship into classrooms, said programs like student exchanges are possible. Labbe added that the sister city relationship could bring more tourism to Leadville.
“We have a lot to learn from one another,” said Labbe. “And we’re really happy to be able to honor our history with Allihies.”