Potatoes on the Peace Line: hope grows on Belfast farm

A farm developed on the site of a former rubbish dump here is providing hope for the future by giving young people employment skills and building bridges across the religious divide. The Farset City Farm is set high on a hill in West Belfast, one of the most troubled areas of the city.

The farm straddles the so-called Peace Line, an ugly barrier of steel and wire erected by the authorities at the height of the recent ``troubles'' to keep apart feuding Roman Catholic and Protestant communities.

On one side is the Protestant area of Springmartin. On the other is the Catholic neighborhood of Moyard. These neighborhoods have been the stomping-ground for rowdy young men. The whole area has a high unemployment rate, and, in the past, community tensions have made this a flashpoint for violence.

The Peace Line still stands, but the sharp edges of community conflict have been softened.

The Farset Farm has shown how seeds of hope can blossom into hardy intra-community plants, in the most unlikely of places.

The land, originally used as a dump, was donated by the authorities to a local community self-help group. Volunteers helped to clear the rubble, erected rough lean-to sheds, and bought a few domestic animals.

With the backing of a government program to help the unemployed, they began to train young people who had no other hope of a job. Most of the young people trained here acquired farming, horticultural, and other skills and they later found permanent employment. This, in turn, created opportunities for new trainees.

Gradually, the volunteers added a computer-based youth information service, a photographic and oral history project, and further outlets for creativity in drama and art.

One of the founding members of the farm is Jackie Hewitt, and his enthusiasm and drive are infectious.

``The project was not created to build community bridges,'' he says. ``Its original purpose was to provide the skills that might give unemployed young people an opportunity on the job market. Volunteers came from both sides of the religious divide, and this has been a bonus.''

With scarcely concealed excitement, Mr. Hewitt shows visitors around the small farm -- to meet Monday the duck, Pinkie the pig, Pippa and Nelson the goats, and Louis the lamb. There's also the love birds, the cockateels, the budgerigars, and the peacocks as well as the ponies that graze in the paddock.

Hewitt points proudly to the potatoes growing on the Peace Line, and says, ``We talk here about pigs and pullets, not bombs and bullets!''

The Farset Farm is a small project, and its backers would not claim that it is going to bring peace to the troubled city of Belfast, or to Northern Ireland.

The name Farset was chosen deliberately to remind Belfast of the foundation river that once meandered from Protestant glade to Catholic field and back again on its way to the Irish Sea. The river today is funneled underground through the city.

Jackie Hewitt sums up: ``We are trying to recognize and to demonstrate a sharing of the past, the best of the present, and a hope for the future.''

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