Stones were flying through the air, hitting Grainne Gallagher as she walked to the Belfast hospital where she was in training. There was no way the attackers could have known she was Catholic.
However, the young man she was walking with had a symbol on his bike, giving away his Catholic heritage. The attackers were at most age 10, yet Gallagher recalled, "It was very frightening."
While overt political and religious unrest in Northern Ireland has mostly diminished, the aftereffects of centuries of conflict continue to creep in, born of prejudice often handed down by parents much like a birthright.
Gallagher said she believes the animosity, distrust and even the violent clashes between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland have had very little, if anything, to do with differing religious belief systems. Rather, she said, it is conflict that can often stem from lack of understanding.
One way to help increase compassion and tolerance is through the Northern Irish Peace Project, also known as the Ulster Project. When Gallagher was 15, she was a participant, coming to the United States as one of 12 Catholic and Protestant teens to learn how to get along.
Now, almost six years later, Gallagher has returned to Salt Lake City to participate again, this time as a counselor.
This year's Irish participants are all from Omagh in Northern Ireland, the city that just 10 years ago was victim to the bombing considered by then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair as an "appalling act of savagery and evil."
However, the oldest teens participating in the Ulster Project would have been age 5 at the time of the bombing and none seem to consider Omagh a dangerous place to grow up.
The teens recognize conflict between Catholics and Protestants exists, but to them it is the way they were raised, a prejudice that is ingrained in the population by their parents' beliefs. "... You don't really know why. You just do what your parents teach you," explained Lynn Watson, an Irish Protestant participating in Ulster.
Joel Chesters, 15, an Irish Catholic, explained his parents are a bit more open-minded than most. "I wouldn't have ever said there was anything wrong with anyone that's Protestant. It was never a problem for me."
The Ulster Project brings 24 teens six Irish Catholics, six Irish Protestants, six American Catholics and six American Protestants together for one month each summer to help them learn to work together through service and fun activities.
"We've found that if we can get them at about 15 years of age, the kids haven't built up their prejudices yet," Greg McDonald, Utah Ulster Project Board chairman explained.
However, participating teens explained that they would not have applied to participate in the Ulster Project if they were not at least tolerant of other religions and beliefs. To the Northern Ireland teens, the project is a tool for them to be educated on other beliefs and bring back what they've learned to their peers and friends.
Emily Burchett, 15, an American Catholic, explained that the project taught her a lot about the conflict in Northern Ireland and said the only differences she saw between the teens had nothing to do with religion. "Their accents, their language and phrases are different," she said.
"People do mix," she emphasized. The Northern Ireland teen staying with her family is Protestant. Both families had to give permission to have a mixed-religion household for the month of the Ulster Project. The biggest difference Burchett has seen since the beginning of the project has been the ability of the Northern Ireland teens to joke about where they are from, whether they consider themselves British or Irish, she said.
"We're seeing past religion and looking at personality," Burchett said.
"There's an awful long way to go. It's still baby steps. But there has been change already," Gallagher said.Both Burchett and Gallagher noted that if change is going to occur in Northern Ireland, it will start with these teens participating in the Ulster project. But the change will not happen for years. Gallagher expects the change to happen when the teens grow up, start their careers and families, and then teach their children of the similarities between Catholics and Protestants rather than the differences.
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