The Ulster Project

The Ulster Project

Some years ago, as a therapist at a mental health center, I was part of a team that led a group for Irish students brought to the United States to give them some respite from the war within their country and to foster understanding, communication and the potential for reconciliation between the Catholics and the Protestants.

The troubled and tumultuous history of Northern Ireland is well documented,
and was played out in newspapers and on television screens across the globe.
At the height of the violence, known as “The Troubles”, the Ulster Project came into being. Every year since 1975 the organization has been working with teenagers in Northern Ireland and the United States, to educate them and develop them as leaders to effect change in their communities.

Originally known as “The Irish Children’s Project,” The Ulster Project had its origin in the imagination of The Reverend Stephen K. Jacobson, D.Min. He became rector of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Manchester, Connecticut in 1974 and soon discovered that 30% of the local community traced their ancestry to the town of Portadown in Northern Ireland. They came to Manchester to work in the Cheney Silk Mills as weavers. St. Mary’s parish had been organized by immigrants from St. Mark’s Parish in Portadown. Fr. Jacobson had been active in the American civil rights movement and was appalled by what was happening in Ulster. The year was 1974. He asked himself if the people of Manchester might make some small contribution for the cause of peace and reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants; in Ulster and in Manchester.

A year earlier he had become acquainted with The Reverend A.T.Waterstone, rector of St. Catherine’s in Tullamore, Republic of Ireland. Jacobson had advertised in The Church of Ireland Gazette inviting clergy to exchange pulpits with him in Middlebury, Connecticut. As a result, Waterstone spent two months in America and Jacobson spent two months in Ireland. The collaboration expanded from there.

The Ulster Project is based on a simple idea of sharing experiences. Catholic and Protestant teenagers are hosted by American families of the same religion and with a teenager of the same age and gender. In this manner, friendships are created immediately to provide a safe and trusting atmosphere. The teens meet daily in structured activities designed to foster trust between the different cultures represented in the project.

Though the Belfast Agreement, also known as the Good Friday Agreement, came about in 1998, the Ulster Project has continued.  The agreement is so named because it was reached on Good Friday, 10 April 1998. It was an agreement between the British and Irish governments, and most of the political parties in Northern Ireland, on how Northern Ireland should be governed. The talks leading to the Agreement addressed issues which had caused conflict during previous decades. The aim was establish a new, devolved government for Northern Ireland in which unionists and nationalists would share power. The two main political parties to the Agreement were the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), led by David Trimble and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), led by John Hume. The two leaders jointly won the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize.

Margaret Meade was right: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

May we be bearers of hope, the “wait staff” of Hope’s Café for each other and all those we encounter.  Shalom, Kate

Hope’s Café Bonus:  An excellent 2021 movie is Belfast, set in the early years of “The Troubles.” There was a movie I watched a few years ago about the secrecy of the negotiations between Trimble and Hume that was quite fascinating, but I have been unable to search it out.

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