The Ulster Project celebrates 20 years fostering peace, friendship, and understanding

Joan Kurkowski-Gillen


North Texas Catholic

May 30, 2013

Clare Hennessy,  gives Northern Ireland teen Deirbhile Savage a congratulatory hug after a softball game held during the 2012 Ulster Project Arlington
Clare Hennessy,  gives Northern Ireland teen Deirbhile Savage a congratulatory hug after a softball game held during the 2012 Ulster Project Arlington 

Soon we were a group; individuals no more, 
With a vital agenda to settle a score, 
To attempt to bring peace to our violent nation, 

With no more hatred, division or segregation.

(A poem written by Matthew 2006)

For decades, news stories have chronicled Northern Ireland’s sectarian violence known as “The Troubles.” But Michelle Hennessy never understood the depth of distrust, hostility and segregation that exists between the country’s Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods until she met a boy named Peter.

The Belfast teenager lived with her family for a month during the summer of 2006 as part of the Ulster Project Arlington.

“He came with his tri-colored (Republic of Ireland) flag and put it up on the wall as soon as he got here. It’s considered a Catholic symbol,” remembers the St. Maria Goretti parishioner. “Organizers plan a lot of pre-trip gatherings for the teens. We were told he resisted communicating or making friends with any of the Protestant kids.”

Peter’s behavior was typical. Living in Northern Ireland where your religion determines everything from your social standing to the soccer team you support, young people grow into adulthood with the same prejudices and stereotypes that shaped their parents and grandparents.

The international Ulster Project tries to break the cycle of fear and distrust by exposing new generations of Irish to America’s “melting pot” society. Every summer, an equal number of Protestant and Catholic young people from the Belfast area travel to U.S. cities where they are greeted by a host family with a child of the same age, gender and faith.

Carefully screened by program organizers for leadership potential, the 14 to 16-year-olds spend the month performing community service projects, attending social events, and participating in small group “discovery” sessions with American teens. The encounters are designed to foster a level of friendship and understanding that is impossible to achieve in the walled enclaves that divide Catholics from Protestants in Northern Ireland.

Hennessy and her husband, Kevin, have welcomed six Ulster Project youngsters into their Arlington home. Each teen benefited from the experience but Peter’s transformation was especially profound. The mother of five recalls how surprised the visitor was by the friendliness of mall employees here. In his country, people don’t talk to strangers for fear of speaking to someone from the other side of the “faith line.”

“He went home with different opinions,” she explains. “The program had such a big impact on his life. He applied to become an Ulster Project counselor last year.”

One of 15 U.S. chapters currently involved in the peace initiative, Arlington joined the international Ulster Project in 1994 under the guidance of St. Vincent de Paul parishioner Joe Francis. It will celebrate 20 years of sponsorship with a huge gathering of alumni and supporters at Blessed Sacrament Church on June 20. A commemorative slideshow, video greeting from Belfast founder Rev. Kerry Waterstone, and keynote address by Father John Forsythe, head of the Ulster Project's Belfast Center, will highlight the anniversary dinner.

Forsythe, involved in the Ulster Project since 1978, will discuss the program’s success and how it’s changing the political and social landscape of Northern Ireland. The bombings and bloodshed that made Belfast a center of terror from 1969 to 2002 is still a vivid memory for the Catholic priest.

“I was appalled by the terrible violence in our streets. It was vicious,” remembers the pastor who screens Irish candidates for the program. “Within a year or so of working with the Project, I was struck by the really positive effect it was having on young people—particularly the tremendous confidence it instilled and the enduring friendships it encouraged.”

Protestant alumni of the Ulster Project have become government officials and now work to bring employment opportunities to the disadvantaged areas of Catholic West Belfast. The police service—once perceived as pro-British Unionists—is also radically transformed. Recruitment is done on a strict 50/50 basis and Catholics trust the hired officers.

“Belfast is still a deeply divided city but the Ulster Project is a leaven in our community—working for peace before it became fashionable,” Fr. Forsythe points out.

If the program’s success is measured by the enduring goodwill and tolerance it creates, Gavin Robinson is a shining example of the influence one person can have on a city. An Ulster Project alumni, Robinson is the Lord Mayor of Belfast and someone “who has shown himself to be a courageous, welcoming and open-minded person. He has won the respect of all,” according to Fr. Forsythe.

A member of the Ulster Project class of 2000, Robinson stayed with the Bruss family in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He still communicates with his American hosts via Facebook.

“The Ulster Project gave me the opportunity to engage with children of another faith I would not have had the opportunity to meet otherwise,” he told the North Texas Catholic. “Whilst we shared the same city, we lived completely separate, insulated lives.”

Free from the restraints imposed by his country’s socio/political norms, the Ulster Project alum could explore each participant's identity apart from his or her family history and religion.

“It allowed me to broaden my understanding of others and, in turn, honed my own political views and aspirations,” Robinson explains.

The Lord Mayor, a Protestant, recently voiced his support for revitalizing “Folktown,” an old Belfast neighborhood that is home to the city’s first Catholic Church, St. Mary’s. The chapel was built and partly funded by a neighboring Presbyterian church.

“If there is a chance to support and build on the good cross-community and cross-cultural relations …I think there’s huge potential for Folktown. It’s something I am keen to support,” he said in a May 8, 2013 article published in the Belfast Telegraph.”

Belfast teens enjoy participating in Arlington's 4th of July parade. Pictured with them is Troy Anderle from St. Vincent de Paul parish.

More than 8,000 teens from Northern Ireland have experienced the Ulster Project since it started in 1975. According to organizers, no former participant has joined a paramilitary group or engaged in sectarian violence.

American youngsters, who experience “hands on” peacemaking, also benefit from the program. Toby Gilman, current president of Ulster Project, joined the organization in 2006 when his daughter, Candace, was paired with an Irish teen. The Gilmans also hosted youngsters in 2007 and 2009 when sons Andrew and Thomas were involved in the program.

“For our kids, it opened up their world view and allowed them to form friends on the other side of the ocean,” says the Blessed Sacrament parishioner.

The project also develops leadership skills. All of Gilman’s children became class officers at Lamar High School.

“From a maturity, growth, leadership standpoint, the Arlington teens—like the Irish—end up becoming community leaders,” he adds.

One young Irish guest became such a close friend of the Gilmans, he returned the following summer and will attend the 20th anniversary celebration with his family. The Ulster Project Arlington president has also visited Ireland twice and describes the people as welcoming. But the hospitality he witnessed doesn't match the battle scars that still mark the streets and sidewalks of Belfast.

“It’s still a very segregated community with Catholic schools and Protestant schools and 20 ft. walls with barbed wire separating neighborhoods,” he explains.

Controversy over which flag to fly over city hall led to the recent deaths of two Belfast police officers. Renewed sectarian violence even touched Fr. Forsythe’s parish where church personnel found three small bombs hidden under the pews around St. Patrick’s Day.

“The Ulster Project has made a difference but there are still tensions,” Gilman admits. “There is still work to do.”

For decades, news stories have chronicled Northern Ireland’s sectarian violence known as “The Troubles.” But Michelle Hennessy never understood the depth of distrust, hostility and segregation that exists between the country’s Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods until she met a boy named Peter.

Published (until 12/31/2030)