By JOEY REISTROFFER
SPARTANBURG — Twenty Irish youths flew into Spartanburg for the summer to forget about the violent, factional fighting back home. Protestants and Catholics just can’t get along in Northern Ireland. The hatred is deep and has been passed along to the children for generations. But now some have had enough of the killing and the fire bombing. They want peace, and they want it to start with their children.
Both Protestants and Catholics are sending their sons and daughters to America together in a project called the Irish Children’s Program for Peace. The program is designed to place Protestant youth in Catholic homes and Catholic youth in Protestant homes. Then let them play together for the entire summer. Sooner or later they discover that they can get along. They can live side by side in peace. Their ancestors were wrong.
That is what the Irish Children’s Program for Peace has been doing for 14 years, and the fruits of all that labor is beginning to blossom.
Steve and Mary Alice Corso can see it working in their home. They are a Catholic couple from St. Paul’s who are sponsoring Stephen Maguire, a 9-year-old Protestant from Northern Ireland. The Corso’s have three young boys about Stephen’s age and these age mates have bonded. “It’s been one long slumber party,” Mary Alice said. Then she explained.
The children went to Camp Wayfarer in Tryon, N.C. When they got back, all four wanted to stay in the same room. “You can hear them chatting and giggling all night,” Mary Alice said of her three sons, Matthew, David, Michael, and their young Irish guest. “They get along great,” she said. “Sometimes you can hear things escalate, but they solve things among themselves.”
The program is working. These children don’t care about being Catholic or Protestant. They care about being kids.
That is what Tracy Carney loves to see. Acting as the chaperone, she is in charge of the program in Spartanburg. Carney said 20 Irish youths have come to Spartanburg this summer, sponsored by Our Risen Savior Catholic Church. There are 10 Protestants and 10 Catholics, divided evenly between 10 girls and 10 boys.
At the Corso home, Steve and Mary Alice have kept Stephen and their three boys busy. Camp Wayfarer was just the tip of a fun summer. They went to a Greenville Braves game, the Carolina Panthers football camp, the pool, the beach, historic Walnut Grove, a rodeo, a Shamrock’s soccer game and the bowling alley.
“The time has just sailed by,” Mary Alice said.
Of course, the summer is not all fun and games for Carney and two of her other chaperones, David Moore and Gary Annett. They have the responsibility to make sure that these young up-and-coming children of Northern Ireland realize why they have come to America. They are the front-line sources for future peace back home.
“I’m here to be around the kids and make them feel comfortable,” Annett said.
Carney was more to the point. She must make sure everything runs smoothly, and the youngsters get along with their host families. She keeps track of medical records and passports, and ensures that parents back home don’t worry too much about their offspring in America.
“I’m a surrogate mother to these 20 kids,” Carney said as she leaned over to show a couple of her new gray hairs. However, these gray hairs are worth the effort because it could mean peace and bring a calm to Northern Ireland.
“Stephen is coming out of his shell,” Carney said. “He had a little homesickness the first week he was here.”
“He was a little quiet, but now he talks all the time!” Moore agreed. “It was quite a culture shock at first, but now he just talks all the time. He’s a natural entertainer.”
The Irish Program for Peace is not just a one-shot goal. When the children get back from their summer in America, they get together once each month in Northern Ireland to continue the process. Protestant children play with Catholic youth and vice versa. These children have gained the support of their parents, who witness the changes America has on their sons and daughters.
Strangely enough, the support program in Northern Ireland is called MADCAP, and it’s gaining strength. Carney said 350 to 400 children show up at the monthly meetings. And maybe, in a MADCAP way, peace will come to Northern Ireland.