Northern Ireland: Hope and Love in the Wake of the Troubles

The students at Edenbrooke Primary School are exuberant as they scamper around the courtyard on a mild January morning, playing tag and dodge ball,and their laughter makes one smile. Recess is one of education’s great inventions, giving youth a chance to burn off excess energy before returning to their classroom regimen. Two sides of the…

The students at Edenbrooke Primary School are exuberant as they scamper around the courtyard on a mild January morning, playing tag and dodge ball,and their laughter makes one smile. Recess is one of education’s great inventions, giving youth a chance to burn off excess energy before returning to their classroom regimen.

Two sides of the courtyard are bordered by high brick wall stopped with barbed wire – no real surprise because barbed and razor wire are everywhere you walk in this city, a painful reminder of a history of segregation, sectarianism, distrust and hatred.

Every now and then, a child stops in front of a section of brick wall and pauses to look at a freshly painted mural. It is an underwater scene, with brightly colored fish and other sea creatures. The child points at something in the mural, laughs and runs off to join his friends. The mural is no real surprise, either, because murals depicting that painful past are everywhere you walk in this city, where citizens are forging a better future and want to live not just in peace but also in harmony.

There is something different about the sea mural, however. It was painted not by nationalists or unionists but by students from the University of St. Thomas. As the school bell rings and the courtyard empties, the mural stands alone – a testimony of American artistry and affection.

The 10 St. Thomas students who painted the mural did so as one of many tasks during their three-week VISION trip to Northern Ireland. They spent most of their time in Belfast, carrying out service projects such as painting in schools and youth centers, serving breakfast at two schools, meeting with teenagers and visiting organizations as varied as the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland and Women in politics. They also spent a weekend in Derry (or Londonderry, depending on your political persuasion) and walked the Bloody Sunday route where 13 people were killed in 1972.

Late at night, often after 12- to 15-hour days, the students crowded into a living room in their New Life Community Center flat just a block off Shankill Road, the long-time hub of Protestant activism. There the students would reflect on what they learned that day before turning in for a few hours of sleep and another day of discovery.

VISION trips typically involve a lot of manual labor, but the Northern Ireland venture focused more on intensive learning about the Troubles – the struggle between Catholics who want a united Ireland and Protestants who favor loyalty to Great Britain. Jacob Cunningham ’99, who spent two years as a volunteer with Youth Initiatives (YI) in Belfast before returning to St. Thomas in 2002 to run VISION, believed a January Term trip would be rich with potential.

“I have a lot of respect for YI and its work,” he said. “My experience as a volunteer changed my life in terms of relationships and the impact that Belfast kids had on me, and I knew it would be a good program for St. Thomas students, too.”

Seniors Sarah Quinn and Maureen Degnan were the student leaders. They were VISION veterans, each with six January Term or spring break trips, and Cunningham implicitly trusted them. Quinn brought the benefit of having studied in Northern Ireland during spring semester 2006, and she returned to Belfast last month to work as a YI volunteer for a year.

“It’s fun and it’s challenging,” Quinn said of her leadership role. “It takes a lot more energy than I thought it would. It’s constantly thinking, ‘Are we all getting along? Is everybody happy?’, and still having a good time myself.”

"There is a lot of pressure,” said Degnan, who cut her trip short by 10 days because of her grandfather’s death. “I love being able to implement what we have talked about as being most important, as well as just step back and be a participant with everybody else.”

The group began preparations last fall on campus and met several times to learn more about each other and the Troubles. All but two students – Mariah Wescott and Sara Hillesheim – had been on VISION trips, and all were women except Jon Barnes. “That’s OK,” he said. “I grew up with sisters. Waiting for the bathroom? I’m used to it.”

Despite the preparations, most of the students were surprised, after spending time in Belfast, how much they had misunderstood the Troubles.

“I knew there was all this stuff going on between Protestants and Catholics,” said Katy Hanson. “But I didn’t realize how deep it was and that it really wasn’t about religion – it was about politics.”

Kristen Lynn agreed and compared the conditions to living in a war zone. “Looking around, there is razor wire everywhere and murals everywhere. I definitely was not expecting it to be as evident and visible.” The extent of segregation surprised her, too: “It’s just a part of life. It’s acceptable, almost.”

Casie Reiss encountered poverty in both of her VISION trips – Belfast, and along the Texas-Mexico border at El Paso and Juarez in 2006. “You could touch it there,” she said. “Here, it’s not necessarily something you can see. The biggest thing is ideas – and you can’t use weapons to fight ideas.”

The conflict is most apparent on Falls Road, a longtime Catholic area where murals and graffiti pop up everywhere. One block-long stretch has 15 murals, and the targets aren’t just Protestants – one mural castigates President George Bush as “American’s greatest failure” and others comment on Iraq, Palestine and Cuba. The side yard of a home is dotted with plaques that commemorate martyrs, prisoners of war and innocent civilians who lost their lives during the Troubles.

While touring Falls Road, the contingent stops at Milltown Cemetery and finds a row of graves of “volunteers” who died during the Troubles, including hunger striker Bobby Sands in 1981.

The tour has a sobering impression on the students, and none more so than Julia Rogers. Her grandmother immigrated to the United States but two brothers remained in Northern Ireland and were members of the Irish Republican Army.

“I have a lot of family history in the conflict,” Rogers said. “I wanted to come here to look at it from a different perspective.” Her conclusion: “Both sides have definitely done a lot wrong. I can understand why if you were that oppressed by a government, you would resort to violence,” but at the same time she found some of the IRA’s tactics “brutal” and “excessive.”

Rogers recalled her emotions in walking the Bloody Sunday route in Derry, and how “I was really angry. I had to stop and pray for a little bit of forgiveness and help in letting go of that,” she said, “because hate doesn’t get you anywhere.”

The opportunity to work on positive projects at Edenbrooke – painting the mural, serving breakfast and participating in a forgiveness curriculum – became a balm for students.

“I loved interacting with kids,” Mandi Campeau said of serving 8 a.m. breakfast at Malvern School. “They’re all so cute. They brighten my day. I’m not a morning person at all. I don’t like getting up that early. But every time I leave there, I’m a happier person.”

One morning at Edenbrooke, several St. Thomas students sat with six and seven-year-old youths and talked about forgiveness.

Johnny Clark, who directs Youth With A Mission in Belfast, led the discussion and asked one girl to define forgiveness. “It means if you are mean to somebody, you say you’re sorry.”

He nodded and said, “Wouldn’t it be great if everyone in Belfast was nice to each other?”

The girl replied, “Yeah, and if it wasn’t so rainy.”

Students used Play-Doh to mold impressions of forgiveness – a heart, a dog and a man helping someone who had fallen down. One boy molded Play-Doh into brains and a heart – the first, he said, was to know you were wrong and the second was to feel it.

Whereas the Edenbrooke students were Protestants – most schools in Belfast remain segregated – the St. Thomas group witnessed a “cross community” experience earlier in the week with 10- and 11-year-old children who later spent five summer weeks in Minnesota as part of the Children’s Program of Northern Ireland (CPNI). The program was established in the 1970s to give children a break from the Troubles and to see how people from different religions can coexist peacefully.

The purpose of the January CPNI meeting at Brooklands School in Belfast was to bring together for the first time about 25 of the 75 students who would travel to Minnesota. The group was mixed – Protestants and Catholics alike – and for two hours they engaged in communication exercises. The students would reconvene three more times before departing for Minnesota in late June.

The St. Thomas students became so enamored with the cross community spirit that they told Cunningham they wanted to host the Belfast-area children during the summer. They spent July 12 at St. Thomas, engaging in activities that demonstrated that religion, race and ethnicity should make no difference in people’s ability to get along.

The VISION trip allowed Cunningham to renew friendships formed during his two years as a volunteer with YI, which helps teenagers and young adults learn life skills and develop personal values and beliefs. St. Thomas students spent many hours at the YI Project Center in west Belfast, cleaning, painting and meeting with Belfast teens.

Tony Silcock, 29, was one of those teens when he joined YI in 1994. He later spent two years in Detroit with Youth Works, another youth agency, before returning to Belfast in 2000 and now works with 15 to 20-year-olds in YI’s Lifeline program.

Dozens of Lifeline participants participate in seven six week modules a year, with two weeks on faith and God, two weeks on life skills and two weeks on relationships. Boys meet three evenings a week and girls, two. It’s a significant time commitment, Silcock admitted.

“Many of these kids won’t finish high school,” he said. “They need direction. A lot of them come from working class families, probably with single parents, and have low selfesteem.”

Peter Desmarais worked as a YI volunteer for a year after graduating from Trinity High School in Bloomington. His father, Gordon, a 1984 St. Thomas alumnus, is the founder of St. Paul’s Outreach, a lay ministry that works with college students and young adults.

“It’s all about relationships,” said Desmarais, a freshman at St. Thomas, when asked about the value of his YI work. “It means a lot when they see someone their age who has come from halfway across the world to help out.”

One evening, the St. Thomas contingent met with YI members, the women meeting in one building and the men in the center. The men divided into teams and played a series of games meant to enhance trust and communication.

In one game, a youth had to fall backwards into the arms of his team, trusting that he would be caught. The atmosphere was raucous, with table pounding and hooting when a youth peeked to see if he would be caught or if he buckled his knees. During charades and a riddles game, the youths were good-naturedly merciless in teasing whoever was in the spotlight.

“Three months ago, these guys wouldn’t have sat at the same table,” Silcock said afterward. “It’s a gradual process. They learn the importance of teamwork – that without it, nothing will be achieved, and that they need to communicate with each other and respect each other.

“A lot of friendships formed here will last a lifetime. We have an atmosphere where we don’t judge people. We just love them.”

Love: It was a word spoken often during the trip, and in different environments and contexts – at YI by battle-tested youth workers like Silcock, at the New Life Community Center when St. Thomas students convened for late-evening reflections, and at Edenbrooke during a forgiveness discussion.

“What kinds of things go with forgiveness?” Clark asked the little kids, and hands shot up. “I’m sorry,” said one. “Thank you,” said another. “I love you,” said a third.

Quinn saw that love in Belfast and Derry, just as she saw it during her five other VISION trips.

“There are amazing and beautiful people out there, and they have the biggest hearts,” she said. “Through the worst and best situations, they do nothing but love and care in any way that they can. You can just see the love in their eyes.”

And in a mural painted by visitors who wanted to make their own mark and to say thanks.