Bridging A Divide

For 44 years, Irish teens have visited Delaware as part of the Ulster Project, exploring friendship, peace and tolerance


“T
he Troubles” was the name given to the conflict between Catholics and Protestants that plagued Northern Ireland from 1968 to 1998. The religious and ethnic struggle resulted in bombings, assassinations and political maneuvering that dominated Irish society. As the violence dialed up, it spilled out of Northern Ireland into cities in England and the Republic of Ireland to the south.

One positive result of The Troubles was The Ulster Project. Initiated in 1975, the organization works with teenagers in Northern Ireland and the United States to educate them and develop them as leaders to effect change in their communities. Every July, Northern Irish teens between the ages of 14 and 16 travel to communities across the United States in an attempt to bridge the divide between their religious and political ideologies. All told, 25 communities in 17 states participate in the month-long exchange program.

Among those 17 states, Delaware can lay claim to the longest continuously-running project. Ulster Project Delaware (UPD) began in 1976, working with three Northern Ireland towns in two-year rotations: Portadown in County Armagh, Banbridge in County Down, and Coleraine in County Derry.

This year’s participants will come from Coleraine, and their month here will be packed. Plans call for day trips to Philadelphia, Washington D.C., New York City, Hershey Park, and the beach, and there will be service projects with places like the Mary Campbell Center and Bellevue Community Center. Delaware-focused events like the tour of the Air National Guard and canoeing down the Brandywine are among the more popular events with the teens.

To reinforce religious tolerance, UPD participants also tour houses of worship, including Catholic and Protestant churches, a Quaker meeting house, a synagogue and a mosque.

The activities are part of UPD’s Discovery Program. Amanda Finn, the Delaware coordinator, says, “Each Discover Day is designed to foster teamwork, to build confidence and leadership, and to cultivate understanding and acceptance.”

Rocky Start to Rousing Success

Especially during The Troubles, participating Ulster Project states like Delaware became a neutral territory where the teens could come together without the fear of sectarian violence that dominated their home lives.

The fear was well-grounded. Finn recalls a somewhat alarming start to the program. “The group traveling to Delaware from Portadown had to leave in the middle of the night because families didn’t want their neighbors to know that their children were participating in a cross-community project for fear they might be targeted.”

According to Mary Kate McKenna, co-chair of UPD’s Recruitment and whose son Patrick hosted a teen in 2016, the hope of the program from the beginning was to “send [Northern Irish teenagers] back with a newfound sense of peace and understanding.”

By all accounts, UPD’s efforts are working. Sally Milbury-Steen was the executive director of Pacem in Terris (UPD’s umbrella program) for 27 years, retiring in 2012. In March of 2013, she traveled to the three participating towns in Northern Ireland. “In the town of Banbridge,” she says, “as a testament to [a] greater sense of collegiality, they started having a community-wide service to mark the week of Christian Unity each year. They said this would not have been possible without the influence of UPD.”

What’s more, no UPD member has ever gone home to join a paramilitary group—no small feat for a program that ran for the majority of The Troubles.

Generations from Both Sides of the Water

The Delaware project’s long duration has benefitted from participation across generations, with American and Irish families returning to the fold as hosts, participants, program volunteers and board members.

One such family is the Higleys of Wilmington. Tom Higley, a participant in UPD in 1982 when he was 14, knows about the power of UPD and its potential to span generations. His summer with Martin Donnelly, the Northern Irish teenager assigned to the Higley household, proved to be formative.

“My family and I were fortunate to forge a friendship that continues to this day,” he says. “As a matter of fact, [all 14 of the Higleys] will be heading to Portadown this summer to attend Martin’s son’s wedding.”

Which would make it the second Donnelly wedding Higley has attended. In 1989, Donnelly married Catherine Reynolds, another Northern Irish teen from the 1982 exchange, and Higley flew over to be Donnelly’s best man.

In Higley’s family, besides himself, three of his four children, his sister, and his nephew have all hosted teens, and his mother has served in leadership roles. “The thread of UPD continued,” he says.

Elizabeth McCormick, of North Wilmington, was a host teen in 1984—and a reluctant participant at first. “I had no desire to participate in UPD but was forced into it by my mother,” says McCormick. “It ended up being a positive experience. Friendships were made and barriers broken.”

McCormick’s experience helped attract her three younger brothers to the program, as well as her own three children.

Ulster Project kids participating in a running event in Trolley Square. Photo courtesy of Ulster Project Delaware

McCormick’s daughter, Kiera, is the most recent host teen in the family. “The girl I hosted, Freya [Stevenson] became my best friend very quickly,” she says. Like many hosts before her, Kiera is planning a trip to Northern Ireland to reconnect with her Northern Irish teen. Thanks to apps like Snapchat, Facetime, and WhatsApp, she says, “I’ve stayed in contact with Freya and talked to her every day since she left.”

An Evolving Purpose

The end of The Troubles did not end the Ulster Project. “This sanctuary of space and time has changed and developed over the course of these decades,” says Amanda Finn. “But what remains consistent is a month grounded in friendship, the exploration of peace and tolerance, and a discovery of self and community responsibility.”

McKenna has seen the way these principles affect her son Patrick and the Northern Irish teens, and she praises the slowly evolving benefits. “It’s not a lightning bolt kind of a thing,” she says, “but it’s those subtle messages you hear over and over of peace and inclusion.”

Those messages are apparent in Kiera McCormick’s memories of her month with Freya Stevenson and the other Northern Irish teens: “I remember going to Hershey Park and going on a kiddie roller coaster more than three times because [they] hated the big ones. I remember the last dance the night before [they] left, how every single person in the program danced for the full three hours. I remember standing in a circle with everyone in the program singing ‘Riptide,’ our unofficial UPD song, and sobbing right before [they] went back home.”

For more information on how to become a host teen or volunteer with Ulster Project Delaware, visit ulsterprojectdelaware.org.

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