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Wednesday, July 23, 2008 02:20 pm

Lucky and charmed

Irish interns learn all things Lincoln and a bit about Springfield, too

Irish student interns at the presidential library (left to right): Andrew Tipping, Lynsey Gillespie, Daniel McCarthy, Joanne Gallagher, and Patrick Rooney

Five young adults in matching blue-and-burgundy polo shirts sit in a row at a long blond-wood table in the sunny Governor's Conference Room at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.

At first glance, they could be students from University of Illinois at Springfield or Lincoln Land Community College, but as soon as they open their mouths to speak the unmistakable lilt of Irish accents comes dancing out and confirms to anyone listening that they didn't grow up just around the block.

They're from Northern Ireland, all studying history at Queens University Belfast, and have signed on as summer interns at the library and museum. In addition to learning about all things Lincoln, they've discovered that Springfield's got character.

"It looks like the towns you see in the films," says Andrew Tipping, a 21-year-old who hopes to work in a museum. "The ground layout, the little shops and stuff — it looks like the stereotypical American town."

Not that that's a bad thing, Tipping adds before mentioning that he's also learned that Springfield is home to the horseshoe sandwich. Joanne Gallagher, a 20-year-old first-timer to the United States, gets a laugh from her friends when she mentions that Illinois drivers don't like to signal and also says she didn't expect the hot, humid weather (the interns say it's mostly cool and rainy in Northern Ireland).

Lynsey Gillespie, a 20-year-old who's visiting Springfield for the second time, and Patrick Rooney, a 20-year-old who's spent some time checking out the capital city's golf scene, say the interns were amazed by the community's warm welcome. They've been invited to pool parties, to church, and to other get-togethers and have even been taken to St. Louis and Chicago by their new friends.

"The friendliness of the people has been a big surprise," Rooney says. "I've been to San Francisco and Las Vegas, and it's just a completely different atmosphere here. It really lives up to the reputation of the Midwest."

For seven hours a day, five days a week, the interns work in the library/museum complex as part of their university's pilot work-study program. Daniel McCarthy, the fifth and youngest intern at 19 years old, is assembling an oral-history project focused on African-Americans growing up in Springfield. Tipping works with the museum foundation, learning about memberships and fundraising. Gallagher is constructing an oral-history project on the Korean War for the Internet. Gillespie interacts with different departments in a library-services position, and Rooney cleans up political cartoons from the early 20th century and readies them for exhibition.

Their professor, Catherine Clinton, an American who taught at Harvard University before moving on to Queens University Belfast, says the program was designed so that the students could work in a field of education, history, and conservation in a U.S. environment.

Clinton and a longtime friend, library and museum director Rick Beard, decided that it would be beneficial not only for her students to receive the same type of opportunities offered to American students but also for them to act as ambassadors for Queens University Belfast and for Northern Ireland — historically known for periods of violence between the Nationalists and Unionists until the Good Friday agreement was signed and democracy established in 1998.

"They were welcomed in Springfield, and I wanted them to have that feeling and to also let other people know that Belfast is a very special place," Clinton says. "They can be proud of their role in carrying on the democratic traditions that hold the U.S. together and that hold Northern Ireland together today."

The interns will continue their work in the library/museum complex until the beginning of August, and Clinton, who has spent a large amount of time in Springfield working on a biography of Mary Todd Lincoln, hopes to return to the capital city for the commemoration of her death on July 16, 2009.

Contact Amanda Robert at arobert@illinoistimes.com.

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