Dingle, Ireland | Credit: Ian Schneider

Somewhere outside the cow-mad town of Abilene, Kansas, the body of Dwight D. Eisenhower ​— ​buried in an $80 standard military-issue coffin ​— ​is spinning wildly in its grave. Eisenhower often gets a bad rap, as a tapioca president during the most vanilla of times ​— ​the 1950s. But how tapioca could Eisenhower have been, having led the Allies to blood-drenched victory over the Nazis in Europe? With the stench of World War II forever in his nostrils, Eisenhower knew governments could not be trusted to get along, so in 1956, he created Sister Cities International as an opportunity for citizen-to-citizen diplomacy.

Now it seems Santa Barbara’s Sister Cities Board ​— ​a robust machine of international engagement ​— ​is dancing on Eisenhower’s grave, having just picked an inexplicable fight with the tiny town of Dingle, Ireland. In fact, thanks to their actions, we’re now facing a full-fledged international incident. Instead of building bridges, we are burning one down.

On April 7 ​— ​when the world was otherwise distracted by the pandemic ​— ​Santa Barbara City Council quietly voted unilaterally, and without adequate warning, to cut off Sister City relations with the town of Dingle ​— ​population 2,000 ​— ​scenically located on Ireland’s westernmost promontory. 

No one from Dingle’s Sister Cities Board had been notified this was even in the works. No one notified them on January 27 when the Santa Barbara committee voted to pull the plug on a 17-year bilateral relationship. To listen to the Dingle crew ​— ​led by the redoubtable Mairead de Staic ​— ​no one even told Dingle there was a problem. 

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De Staic is fighting mad. “We got no indication that Dingle/Santa Barbara Sister City has being dissolved. We got no chance to defend our community or our committee,” de Staic objected. Her committee, de Staic vowed, “is challenging this injustice.” 

Members of the Santa Barbara board ​— ​Pat Fallin and Tom McCool ​— ​insist otherwise. They claim they were forced to step in a couple of years ago and save the floundering committee. In official documents, they claimed Dingle doesn’t have any committee at all, that it’s just de Staic and her husband, Brian de Staic. They also argue Dingle is too small, and that the de Staic couple have refused to abide by the new-and-improved guidelines adopted in 2019. 

Adding insult to injury, they stated there’s been only “a couple of exchanges” since 2003 ​— ​when Erin “Go Bragh” Graffy de Garcia almost single-handedly conjured the Dingle/Santa Barbara connection out of whole cloth. Worse yet, the Santa Barbarans allege that members of their delegation “did not feel all that welcome” during a visit in 2018. 

However, having investigated the pertinent documents, there were, in fact, 12 exchanges between the two towns, not just a couple. Many, the minutes reflect, were lively, fun, and well attended. A couple involved former mayor Helene Schneider. 

A Dingle delegation arrived in 2018 to show solidarity with Santa Barbara during the 1/9 Debris Flow. That same year, 25 Santa Barbarans went to Dingle, where they were greeted by representatives of 40 civic and cultural organizations there. It’s also true some wires got crossed. A delegation of three former Santa Barbara poets laureate showed up to a Dingle pub for a reading to be greeted by a crowd of only four people. Somewhere in another Dingle pub, I am told, a crowd of poetry lovers waited in vain for Santa Barbara’s poets. 

De Staic is righteously pissed. She’s accused her Santa Barbara sisters of half-truths and flat-out lies. She provided names of everyone on her committee and considered the matter settled. She likewise expressed coolness to expanding from Dingle to include the entire County Kerry. How would Santa Barbara like it if it had to include Santa Ynez and Santa Maria? Santa Barbara, she said, never replied to her replies.

No matter how hard one squints, it’s not clear in any of the exchanges that Dingle was ever put on notice. 

As usual, all communication took place via email. No one on either side ever picked up the phone. 

I’ve never been to Dingle, but friends of mine have. They loved it. One in particular was struck by how eloquent he became while drinking Guinness in a Dingle pub one night years ago. Based on what he remembers, he has condemned “the despicable decision” of the S.B. Sister Cities Board.

Dingle, it turns out, is a genuinely happening surf spot; like Santa Barbara’s, its beaches face south. The Dingle Bay has been adopted by one specific dolphin, which inspired Santa Barbara dolphin fountain sculptor Bud Bottoms to create a dolphin statue for Dingle. This predates the establishment of Sister Cityhood. 

Dingle has a working harbor and an art scene that tilts heavily in the direction of the traditional. In fact, everyone there speaks Gaelic, Dingle being the epicenter of Ireland’s insurrectionary Gaelic revival. Its leader was Irish revolutionary Thomas Ashe, who died in 1917 after being force-fed by British authorities while on a hunger strike against British rule. Ashe, it turns out, was related to American actor Gregory Peck, whose Dingle relations showed up at a recent film festival.

Dingle goes back about 5,000 years and was the scene of the mythical battle waged by legendary Irish hero Finn McCool ​— ​at least that’s the Americanized version of his name ​— ​who beat “The King of the World” in a third-century throwdown that lasted a year and a day. Finn ultimately chopped off the king’s head, reattached it backward, put him on a boat, and sailed him out of the harbor.

That is one possible ending here. Or maybe someone could just pick up the phone. But do so soon. Dwight D. Eisenhower needs his rest. 

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