Ulster Project Plants Seeds Of Peace In Teens
Published: August 18, 2005
MARIETTA—The grass is looking greener for eight Irish teens who spent July in Atlanta learning about peace-building, conflict resolution and leadership, and recently traveled back to their Protestant and Catholic communities in Northern Ireland to share and live out what they’ve learned.
The day after their return—July 28—youth participating in the Ulster Project heard heartening news as the outlawed Irish Republican Army formally declared an intention to resume formal disarmament and to rely on peaceful negotiations on power sharing with the government in the British territory. The region is where sectarian violence between Catholics and majority Protestant populations has erupted most recently for the past 30 years, but where the rivalry and fighting dates back more than three centuries.
As violence devastates lives around the world, Pope Benedict XVI called the IRA declaration “beautiful news” that must be followed by a sustained commitment to peace from all sides.
The Ulster Project shares that commitment, and was established in the United States in 1975 by the Rev. Kerry Waterstone of the Church of Ireland (Anglican) as a way to bring Catholic and Protestant teens over from Northern Ireland to experience American diversity and activities fostering tolerance, understanding, leadership and friendship in hopes of building peace upon their return home.
Eight youth from Omagh, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, ages 14-16, stayed June 28-July 27 with local host families of the same faith around the Archdiocese of Atlanta. Atlanta has been matched since 1994 with Omagh, a quiet town 70 miles west of Belfast in a rural area with about 1,000 stones that date back to the Stone Age. Omagh has been peaceful in recent years except for a car bombing there by the IRA in 1998 that killed 29 and injured 350. This year groups from approximately 28 U.S. cities hosted Irish teens from eight Northern Ireland communities.
The president of Ulster Project Atlanta is Cece Miles, a parishioner of St. Ann Church, Marietta, who first became involved in 2000 when her son Brandon was a teen host.
“The project overall incorporates the efforts of many individuals and truly ‘creates unity amidst diversity’ both within the teen participants and the U.S. planners and providers. The teens themselves are the core, and the ripple effect touches many lives,” said Miles.
Another Atlanta board member, Del Halstead-Nussloch, an Episcopalian who recently traveled to Omagh, first hosted a student in 1995 and has seen the program progress in that each year Irish teens seem more naturally comfortable with the ecumenical fellowship. She believes the program’s focus on peace-building is “extremely valuable” and noted how teens and their families come together even before the trip to meet and prepare for a talent show before departure.
“In 1995 I think they were pretty raw and didn’t have a whole lot of opportunities to interact with one another. While Omagh had always been a fairly nonsectarian town, there were not a lot of opportunities to interact,” she said.
The last century’s conflict, much more complex than a religious struggle, is rooted in how Great Britain has governed Northern Ireland since 1921 and fighting developed in part from a desire among Catholics for the Irish government to regain control of the region, which would unite Ireland and preserve its ancient heritage. Catholics there generally are the indigenous Irish population and a large minority once discriminated against in housing, employment and opportunity. The Protestants generally are those who, though their families may have lived in Ireland for centuries, are loyal to their British roots and part of the former ruling class, fearful of what loss of their majority status might mean. They have historically tried to preserve their ethos by keeping Northern Ireland a part of the United Kingdom.
The latest fighting between the IRA and the Protestant Ulster Volunteer Force and other paramilitary groups began in 1969 and the Good Friday Agreement was reached in 1998 on power sharing. But “cross community” interaction is limited and establishment of a power-sharing government has repeatedly faced setbacks, most recently in December when the outlawed IRA refused to allow its disarmament to be publicly recorded. While many feel acceptance of diversity and real peace have yet to come, signs of goodwill, like the Ulster Project, are developing in Northern Ireland.
The Atlanta program includes a mixture of educational, cultural and entertainment activities that bridge cultural, religious, economic and political barriers as well as encourage individual development of peace-building essentials such as leadership, conflict resolution and social skills. Youth heard a Holocaust survivor speak at the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum and then visited The Temple synagogue. They heard an imam at Al-Farooq Mosque speak on Islamic traditions and the challenges of the Quran being misinterpreted with their religion’s lack of a unified hierarchical structure. They observed a prayer service there, with chanting and women in a separate area. Various service projects included visiting Decatur Cooperative Ministry, where they cleaned and organized the homeless center, and volunteering at the Georgia Games for amateur athletes. They rooted for the Braves and rode the roller coasters at Six Flags, and began the month at a farm where they heard motivational speaker Eddie Donald speak on leadership and later participated in team-building activities.
Donald read from Rudyard Kipling’s Poem “If”: “If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue or walk with kings nor lose the common touch … If you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, yours is the earth and everything that’s in it, and which is more, you’ll be a man, my son.”
At the Jimmy Carter Presidential Center and Library they learned about conflict resolution, then shopped in Little Five Points. Focusing on civil rights, they visited the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change.
Irish Catholic participant Connor McCann was making his first trip to the United States and said before the closing ceremony that back home he doesn’t have much contact with Protestants except for another Ulster participant Jane Jardine, with whom he plays in a regional youth orchestra. The 15-year-old doesn’t feel any hostility toward Protestants and found that the program helped him to develop his leadership skills. He’s active in his parish, playing violin in a folk group.
“We’re just kids and the differences in religion don’t seem to really matter. We tolerate the differences. I get along with them very well. It’s been a good learning experience,” said McCann, with a boyish shyness. “The activities have helped me build up skills and I’ve gained confidence. A lot of times you have to speak out and share your opinion … Americans are more outgoing than Irish people, but when we go back we’ll be more talkative and open up with our emotions and that will help them to open up as well.”
It was his first community service project, too.
“You get to see those less fortunate families. It encourages you to be more generous in giving,” he said.
His friend Jardine is on the student council at her school, and at her church she plays various instruments in a praise group. She already has ideas about bringing Protestants and Catholics together more. With a strong, quiet demeanor, she said she has a better understanding of the importance of dialogue for conflict resolution, as “there are so many other ways to overcome disagreements” than violence. She was sad to leave and reported that “everyone has been getting along really well; everyone is the best of friends and no one wants to leave.”
She found the leadership workshop by Donald to be particularly inspiring, as she feels called to leadership.
“It’s helped me to realize I have to be brave and go for my goals and not let fear bring me down.”
Board member Donald spoke about each youth at the closing ceremony and handed out inspirational gifts such as books like James Allen’s “As a Man Thinketh” and “Self Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson. He said in an interview that his message to youth is to strive to become leaders by developing their talents and skills and becoming their most authentic selves.
“Everybody has a unique niche or purpose, a way to serve the world from that uniqueness,” he said. “Leadership is about becoming more of yourself.” He added that things that come along with being yourself are courage, determination, perseverance, creativity and resourcefulness.
Their Irish-Catholic counselor Arlene Logue, a 23-year-old technology and design teacher at a Catholic school, said that her family, fortunately, has never been affected by the violence in Northern Ireland. But she understands the need to continually work to build peace there. The Ulster Project is popular in Omagh, she continued, and youth must apply and are selected based on leadership potential. She added that while she had to attend a Catholic college to teach at a Catholic school, she was able to participate in a cross-community teacher training program with students from a Protestant college. She appreciates diversity.
“You accept differences. It would be a sad world if everyone was the same.”
Ulster Project Atlanta President Miles noted how, in particular, the visit to the synagogue and education on Judaism were meaningful learning experiences.
“In today’s environment it is a lesson in what’s going on globally. It’s a window into understanding some of it anyway. It truly helps people who participate become better people,” she said. “It really is a wonderful program for both the American and Irish kids.”
The closing ceremony was held in the parish hall of St. James Episcopal Church, just off the square and by the train tracks in Marietta. Parents, youth and other volunteers gathered in a circle and held hands. Youth grew teary-eyed as they hugged afterward. In the talent show Jardine played piano as Catholic teen Michael Sharkey recited the 1892 W.B. Yeats’ poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree:”
“And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow, dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings; there midnight’s all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow, and evening full of the linnet’s wings. I will arise and go now, for always night and day I hear the water lapping with low sounds by the shore; while I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray, I hear it in the deep heart’s core.”
Later McCann played violin while Jardine played traditional Irish melodies on the viola. An Irish step dancer with ringlets and a hot pink, sparkling costume with white knee socks and a Scots Irish Highland dancer with a plaid skirt and argyle socks together pounded the floor in traditional dance. The girls both perform at the annual Celtic Christmas Concert at Emory University.
Project coordinators announced that the second annual Christmas high tea fundraiser will be held on Dec. 18 in conjunction with the Celtic Christmas Concert, produced by James Flannery, Ph.D., director of Emory’s W.B. Yeats Foundation. They also are planning a “reci-peace” cookbook and are seeking volunteers to help plan next summer’s program.
Miles and other volunteers find “the heart’s deep core” satisfaction in helping plant the seeds of peace and enduring friendship among these Northern Ireland and American teens. Many keep nurturing their cross-Atlantic and cross-community ties, including one of two American counselors this year, Sara Miller, who had been a host teen back in 1997.
“Seeing the group of strangers that meet at the airport on arrival day transition to the crying/hugging pile as we try to pry them apart for the trip back to the airport for departure and knowing that many of these new relationships will continue far into the future makes all the efforts worthwhile,” Miles said.
She noted several American teens who participated last year came to the closing ceremony, as “continuity and community among successive groups, I think, are important goals that add to the experience and depth to the project overall.”
Persons interested in volunteering for the 2006 Ulster Project should contact (770) 952-0040, write firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.ulsterprojectatlanta.org.