Ulster Project unites Northern Ireland, U.S. teens

East Tennessee families host Northern Ireland youth and see the bonds and friendships that form 

 By Gabrielle Nolan

Northern Ireland has a storied past of violence known as The Troubles, an ethno-nationalist conflict that lasted around 30 years from the 1960s to the 1990s. The population was divided, largely between Catholics and Protestants, concerning whether Northern Ireland should reunite with the Republic of Ireland or remain in the United Kingdom.

In the 1970s, a Church of Ireland (Anglican) clergyman named Rev. Kerry Waterstone believed that teenagers from Northern Ireland might be positively influenced by the American way of life in the “melting pot” society of various races, religions, and ethnicities.

Rev. Waterstone received approval from Anglican church leaders and began to implement a plan that focused on addressing the prejudices and stereotypes of the time, and the Ulster Project was born in 1975.

Various programs now exist throughout the United States, from Ohio to Texas to Wisconsin to Arizona. In 1985, the Ulster Project came to East Tennessee, with the first group of teens arriving from Northern Ireland in 1986.

John Hough, a current board member and former president of the Ulster Project of East Tennessee, currently serves as the chairperson of the board that oversees interactions between projects in the United States and projects in Northern Ireland.

Teens from the United States and Northern Ireland gather for a photo at St. Mary Church in Oak Ridge during this summer’s Ulster Project experience.

“I’ve been involved with the project for 15 years this year,” Mr. Hough said. “I started out as just a host. I hosted counselors, so people who were coming over from Northern Ireland and needed a place to stay who were the adult leaders who were coming with the teens. I joined the board the next year, and then for seven years I was the president of the Ulster Project, first in Oak Ridge, and then in 2012 when we merged with Knoxville to become the Ulster Project of East Tennessee, I was the president of that group for, I think, three years it was.”

Mr. Hough, who is a parishioner at St. Mary Parish in Oak Ridge, said that Catholic teenagers participated from numerous parishes around the diocese, including St. John XXIII, the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, All Saints, all in Knoxville, and St. Mary.

Christina Adams, a parishioner at St. John XXIII and a board member for the Ulster Project of East Tennessee, has been involved since 2017.

“I’ve had both my kids participate in it; my daughter did it twice,” Ms. Adams said. “I will tell you, the first day or two can be pretty awkward, and then when they go home at the end, at the airport I will tell you there is not a dry eye. The bonds between them that are formed, all the teens, not just between the U.S. teens and Northern Irish teens but within the Northern Irish teens. You have in Northern Ireland that Protestant and Catholic teens for the most part attend different schools and live in different neighborhoods and don’t necessarily interact all that much with each other. It’s definitely beginning to change more, but there’s still definite barriers, and the friendships that are formed—a lot of teens will tell you that before they participated they never necessarily had a meaningful conversation with someone from a different faith tradition.”

Ms. Adams noted that the host families are critical to the mission of the Ulster Project. Both Catholic and Protestant churches are involved with hosting the teens from Northern Ireland.

“We couldn’t do it without them because the way the Ulster Project works is that… teens come over from Northern Ireland for three weeks, and they are paired with teens here in the U.S. who are about the same age. And then the whole group, both the U.S. teens and the Northern Irish teens do activities throughout the three-week period together. There would be no Ulster Project without hosts,” Ms. Adams said.

There is a screening process before the Northern Irish teens are placed with their host families.

“There’s a basic criminal background check; we do a home visit just to make sure that the house meets standards of safety, cleanliness. The basic question that we ask ourselves is if we’d be OK placing our own teenager in this home,” Ms. Adams said.

This summer, host families also provided leisurely activities and trips for their teens during their stay, and highlights included group trips to Dollywood and whitewater rafting on the Ocoee River.

In addition to their fun and games, the teens were also involved in various service projects. They visited the soup kitchen at Church Street United Methodist Church in Knoxville and the food pantry at St. Mary Church in Oak Ridge (a ministry of St. Vincent de Paul), and they provided waters with the Knoxville Track Club for a race in Alcoa.

“Our goal is to have them interact with the neighbors that they’re helping,” Mr. Hough said.

Lighted candles sit on top of the flags of Ireland and Northern Ireland and represent the Ulster Project’s motto: “Creating unity amidst diversity.”

Additionally, the teens met for discovery sessions, where they talked about hard cultural topics, such as racism and sectarianism.

“The time of discovery is intentionally named in that we’re not teaching kids what to believe, we’re exposing them to facts and concepts and then letting them discover what it is they believe. We talk about things like who matters in the world, and who’s sitting on the margins in the world, and we talk about sectarianism, which is sort of their version of racism. We talk about racism, and we talk about all of the churches’ positions on these topics. We pull out some church documents from the Catholic Church, Methodist Church, Presbyterian Church, here’s what people believe about these different things. Here’s what we’re told, which is not always necessarily how we act; it’s how we’re supposed to act because we’re imperfect,” Mr. Hough said.

Evan, a 16-year-old from All Saints Parish, was a host teen for the second time. He was inspired to participate in the Ulster Project because a family friend did it a few years ago, and it sounded fun.

He said he enjoyed meeting new people and creating friendships, and his favorite part of the experience was the all-day fun at Dollywood.

Another experience also stood out to Evan: the soup kitchen.

“The soup kitchen is good so you can learn about the homeless people and how a lot of them are just going through a bad time right now in their life and not addicted to drugs, alcohol,” he said.

Evan believes that, going forward in his life, the Ulster Project will have been an important part of his formation.

“It’s taught me a lot about racism and sectarianism and how you can combat them and help stop it,” he shared.

Lucy, a 15-year-old Northern Irish Protestant, said she would do the Ulster Project again.

Her favorite part was “getting to know so many new people; I definitely wouldn’t have met any of these people without the project. I think it’s really nice to get to know those people and make lifelong friends.”

The teens write farewell letters to each other.

The most challenging part for her was being away from home, but her host family “made me fit right in and just took me in as one of their own, so they made it pretty easy for me.”

Lucy said the project showed her peace in America.

“We learned lots of new things, so it’ll help all of us take that home and bring it home because there’s lots of conflict, so bringing all that peace home and seeing how it should be,” she said.

It’s been 48 years since the Ulster Project first began, and some may wonder: is its mission still relevant today?

“It’s still very relevant,” said John McCloskey, a Northern Irish Catholic who served as a first-time counselor for the Ulster Project this summer. “Obviously, the ’70s was a very dark time for Northern Ireland and… Ulster Project first of all was a part of the peace process, and they’re all children of the peace process, and we see now when we come to the meetings, they already know each other from Protestant schools and Catholic schools, and it’s so important to just give them a chance to keep meeting with each other and keep knowing each other and obviously just because of hundreds of years of troubled history back in Ireland and Northern Ireland, it’s always just so important to focus on cross community.”

“If you want to Google peace walls of Northern Ireland, it’s an interesting trip,” Mr. Hough shared. “They have neighborhoods with 30-foot walls between them… We can’t go over and tear down those walls… But maybe we can take somebody from each side of those walls and bring them here where they can get to know each other and find out, in fact, they’re really not that different from each other. They like the same TV shows; they like the same musicians; they like the same sports teams.”

“There’s many stories of people who have gone back, they remained friends, and they go to college together and they know each other, so they build some trust,” Mr. Hough continued. “There’s still lots of distrust, and that’s not really different than over here, and so we need to keep doing it, to keep sort of building it, but there’s still distrust politically.”

Mr. McCloskey said he sees the fruits of the Ulster Project in his country.

“The Ulster Project was one cog of a fantastic peace process machine. It’s been unbelievable,” he said. “I compare what I’ve grown up with compared to what my parents grew up with: it’s a different life. And that’s what the dream was in the Good Friday Agreement, and the Ulster Project was a part of that thinking and frame of mind. So, I would say 100 percent Ulster Project has allowed kids back home to grow up in a much safer and a much happier Northern Ireland.”

His favorite part of the summer was the fellowship among the teens.

“It’s been incredible watching these young people grow and really seeing the friendships they’ve made over the last few weeks; it’s been an unbelievable experience. When we started, they were all very nervous, but they’ve been so brilliant with each other; they’ve never left anybody,” Mr. McCloskey said.

“I’m a strong believer that if you give young people a chance, they can do something fantastic, and really I’ve just learned so much from them the last few weeks,” he said.

To learn more about the Ulster Project of East Tennessee, visit www.ulsterprojecteasttennessee.org.

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