Young hopes for Northern Ireland

Meet Jane. She is so pretty and perfect that you sometimes wonder if she's real. Sixteen years old, the youngest daughter of a family of four. Wide blue eyes and auburn hair. Wearing jeans and pink sweater over pure white skin scattered with freckles. And a smile that would melt an iceberg. She seems untouched by "the troubles" in Northern Ireland, the violence and bloodshed that have racked her home country for over 11 years.

"I was less than 6 years old when they started," she observes, her voice traveling the musical range of lilting northern Irish brogue. "They are just a part of life, I guess. But I haven't had much close contact with the violence. There was a girl I knew who lived close to my granny. Her father was killed by a car bomb."

This simple statement conjures a terrible image of early morning quietness shattered by a flash of violence, screams, and smoke: the stuff movies are made of, not everyday life.

The image seems graphic, but somehow unreal, sitting here at John F. Kennedy International Airport with two dozen boisterously happy children and young adults. They are waiting for a flight to carry them back home to Ulster, a land torn by political strife, religious bigotry, and simmering hatreds.

Ulster Project Delaware is an ecumenical effort, now in its fifth year, designed to foster greater understanding be tween Roman Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland by bringing children between the ages of 14 and 16 for a summer vacation here in the United States. The sponsoring organization , Pacem in Terris, grew out of an antiwar group after the Vietnam war was wound down. The group now arranges for children to live with families around Wilmington, Del., where they spend lively hours together vacationing, seeing the sights, and attending intensive encounter sessions. This year, two new groups have also been brought over to stay in Wisconsin and Louisiana.

For many of them, it is the first time they have had any true association with someone from "the other side."

"I wouldn't have seen any of these people -- the Protestants, that is -- " a boy of 15 remarks, "because they live on the Protestant side of town."

Portadown, where he comes from, is a market town, bustling, prosperous, but boarded up in places, some windows bricked in, doors cemented shut, and whole neighborhoods changed dramatically in the course of two short years, as Protestant or Catholic families have moved out, because of a threat or an actual act of violence. Others have followed with breathtaking speed, pursued by fear and ignorance into segregated communities.

To a degree, portadown has recovered from some of the worst of the violence in the country. The main street has been restored, shops have been rebuilt, there is a new cinema or two. The fundamental difference is that the rebuilt Portadown is really two towns, sharply demarked along political/religious lines with very distinct relgious districts. Violence is a constant threat; segregation is a way of life.

But there is no segregation among these children at the moment. There are no Catholics. There are no Protestants. There are only children.

And these children were crying this morning, because they had to leave each other.

"I can't cry anymore," one says. "There are no more tears, I cried that much." The tears, she says, are not just to be leaving -- she loves her homes in Ulster -- but because they have all grown so close together. When they walk down the street, they travel arm in arm, sometimes four abreast. Jokingly, one asks me to join a marching phalanx of three Catholics and three Protestants, so that "the Protestants will outnumber the Catholics."

"We wouldn't think of asking what someone was, here," one young lady standing outside a "wee shop" in Rockefeller Center had remarked earlier that day. "But, at home, that's the first thing you want to know. Is she a Catholic? Is he a Protestant? And many of the kids back there are bigots, you know. They talk about the Catholics behind their backs."

They all have stories of the violence in the homeland.

One of the older boys was in Belfast one day on a visit with his family. They were standing on a street corner when they heard a disturbance and turned around just in time to see a policeman shot in the head. The boy's friend, who is standing with him and talking in hushed tones in the nave of St. Patrick's Cathedral, had a neighbor who stepped into his car with his daughter one morning and turned the ignition key. A bomb exploded under the car, killing him instantly. His daughter survived.

Many people close to social work and community programs in Ireland are skeptical about how much a program like the Ulster Project can do about this kind of pervasive violence. What good does it do to take a few kids on holiday in America, and then send them back into an unchanged world, where almost all education is segregated, where they move in the same old predetermined grooves, where the scars of hatred are etched deeply into the life of each community?

These observers would much rather see the $27,000 (all of it raised here in the US) it takes to send these kids over to America spent in Northern Ireland, where there are followup programs and more closeness to reality and a keener perspective on the problems.

"Do you really believe it is going to make any difference at all to their lives over there?" one source at the Irish Consulate General in New York asks. "I mean, suppose you took some kids out of the ghetto in Detroit and sent them off for a vacation in Martha's Vineyard. Do you think that would change the racial problems of the cities? Our feeling in Dublin is that you have to address yourself to the basic political realities.

"You're not going to change the fact that Northern Ireland is a sectarian quagmire by showing some kids truth and happiness in Minnesota. . . . The political problems remain unsolved: absence of acceptable government, exploitation by violent extremists, and all that. And meanwhile, people go on killing and dying."

The organizers of Ulster Project Delaware are not unaware of this criticism, but they say this drop in the bucket is an important drop. That you start with these children, chosen for their leadership qualities, and hope that they will bring back a permeating sense of mutual understanding and affection with them. That you hope they will begin an erosion of the walls of hatred and bigotry. That you simply hope.

"You don't change 300 years of history overnight," the Rev. Gerard Clifford, a clear-eyed man with round features and a vaguely troubled air about him, acknowledge. "This is a slow process, obviously. Nobody expects miracles or short- term effects. The effects are long-term. But there is no denying that these kids will go back confident that they have already been able to find friendship among Catholics and Protestants alike."

The friendships are obvious: like the one between Ian and Seamus. Ian sits in a fast-food restaurant the evening before we depart for the airport. He wears a green, orange, and white medal that discreetly proclaims "World's Greatest Irishman." He's surely handsome enough to make the claim. And he has the cocky assurance of a young Irish gentleman. Seamus, however, is not so sure. "We haven't settled the point," he laughs, nodding his head at the small badge his companion is wearing.

One is Catholic. One is Protestant. Neither of them has had a friend outside his religion -- ever. They are now fast friends. They hope to get together back home, even though there will be strong opposition from their other friends, and the "bully boys."

Are they worried about the consequences?

"I can take care of myself," one says simply. The other smiles in agreement.

But it may take more than handiness with their fists to make such a friendship hold together. Every bit of the social upheaval in Northern Ireland will tear at this friendship. and the segregated education system will keep them separate.

"The practicality of follow-up on these programs is not all that good," complains Dr. David Stevens, projects officer for the Irish Council of Churches in Belfast. "My impression is that maybe there is a Christmas party for the kids every year, but the realities of life in Portadown are such that there are very few places they can safely meet. Segregation is just a fact of life."

Dr. Stevens has his doubts about the Ulster Project and all projects to take kids out of Ireland for a holiday, although he admires the motives of the American supporters.

"Interest in this kind of thing peaked around 1974," he says. "The Ulster Project has shown great tenacity, actually. but there is a lot of doubt about just holding holidays. People have moved to social development, which is not something just done in a vacuum. Most groups have moved to localized holidays within Ireland with very careful follow-up."

The kids here in this bus, moving uncertainly through New York City traffic, are keenly aware of the problems of "follow-up." with youthful enthusiasm, they have vowed to get together. They plan discos and parties. They want to find neutral meeting grounds. They are not intimidated by the barriers they face when they get back.

Some of them accept these barriers as natural. One Catholic girl, for instance, says she things separate education is a good thing, because you can't teach religion in a mixed school, "and religion is an important subject." But somehow, she feels, the friendships they made here will last anyway; that they will all hold together.

It is reminiscent of a song Bob Dylan wrote, "concerning myself and the first few friends I had," in which he said, "We thought we could live forever in fun, but our chances really was a million to one . . . like the one road we traveled, we are shattered and split." And you can't help thinking of it as you talk to these children on their way back to Northern Ireland, boasting bravely of how their friendships will surmount all the obstacles of hatred and religious strife.

Meanwhile, they are making their way across Manhattan American rock-and-roll and Irish traditional songs. The bus in this bus, 24 of them. The girls are singing -- a mixture of reverberates with their voices, now angelic and choir-like, now boisterous and gay: "Sure, my heart's at home in old Ireland. Woaaaaa! In the county of Armagh."

you can see the faces, and you can hear the voices. And you can see by their eyes that they're Irish. But you can't tell who's Catholic and who's Protestant.

And Jane, the girl with the alabaster skin and the smile of an angel, says, "It's like the sermon we heard the other day, isn't it? About the mustard seed, which was the smallest of all seeds. Well, this is a small seed, but maybe it will grow."

So, they are planting this small seed in Northern Ireland. Just to stop the bombs and the killing. A handful of families and a few clerics, together with a fund-raising organization, are bringing children over to learn that other children who have different religious backgrounds are not evil, are not hateful, but are just children -- like themselves.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.