Irish children’s program breaks down literal, figurative walls

CHARLESTON — The Irish Children’s Summer Program is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year with 24 Catholic and Protestant children visiting Columbia from Northern Ireland.

The program was begun by Mary Ellen O’Leary and Katie Herbkersman as a way to offer the children a chance to escape their divided world and learn that all people are the same, no matter what their titles are.

When the group visited Charleston on July 17 to eat lunch at the Hibernian Society and take a boat cruise around the harbor, the children, ages 9-11, had already embraced the “one world” concept.

Rachel Hill, 11, made her first visit to a Catholic church and decided that it had things in common with her Protestant church back home, except for the kneeling part.

“They have to knee[l] and it hurts a bit,” she said.

Another little girl spoke animatedly to Fiona Rainey, one of the chaperones from Ireland, about her host family and the fact that they were all Catholic, even the in-laws. Then, in apparent wonder, she exclaimed, “They’re all quite lovely!”

This is what the program is all about.

“Just wee things like that are the step forward we love to see,” Rainey said.

Although relations have improved in Northern Ireland, Catholics and Protestants are still divided by a wall and decades of prejudice and violence.  

The ugly history can be dated back to 1170 and the Norman Invasion, when Henry II of England attempted to claim Ireland as part of his kingdom. As the centuries passed, the Catholic Irish were forced out and English colonists, mostly Protestant, took over. Ireland was divided, with Northern Ireland going to England.

Resistance brewed, and those seeking a unified Ireland and those loyal to Britain met in repeated, violent clashes. In 1969, British troops were deployed to stop the violent attacks against Catholics and the burning of their property. What was supposed to be a six-month deployment ended just last year.

“There’s still a whole lot of segregation, especially in big city areas,” Laurence Rainey said.

Fiona and Laurence Rainey are one of the many success stories from the Irish Children’s Program. They each attended the program when they were young, and continued on later as chaperones. Now married, the couple is responsible for organization at the Belfast end. They work with the schools to find qualified candidates, and in January start bringing the Catholic and Protestant children together for monthly meetings and a retreat.

Once they arrive in Columbia in June, the children and host families are involved in five weeks of constant activity.

“When we get to bed, it’s instant snoring,” Teri Grant said with a laugh. She and her husband Christopher are hosting Rachel Hill and Shannon McIlwaine, who is 9.

Shannon, whose mother attended the program in 1991, said she enjoyed the water park and the Carolina Opry in Myrtle Beach.

“It rocked,” chimed in 10-year-old Gerard Marley as he sang snippets of songs and bounced his head to remembered music.

The children still have many activities to go, including a trip to Carowinds, which Herbkersman said is a crowd favorite.

After a lunch of hamburgers and hotdogs at the Hibernian, the group sang “Band Us Together, Lord,” and another song to thank Hibernian members for their sponsorship. The Hibernians donated the food, the boat ride and $250 to help pay for the trip to Charleston.

Herbkersman said they would not have been able to come this year without the cash donation. In addition to high gas prices, airline costs more than doubled from last year.

“The airline rates are really hurting the program,” she said. “As prices go up, we get smaller.”

One of their fund-raisers this year was selling bricks. Herbkersman said they are building a wall in honor of a poem written by one of the Irish children’s mothers, and at the end of the program they will tear it down.

The poem relates the story of two girls who were strangers and wary of one another until they were united in America.
“The people they went with, wanted to break down these walls, … slowly it dawned on them, that they were both the same. The wall to them, it came down. It was far away in Belfast town.”

Each year when they return to Northern Ireland, the Raineys continue to tear down the wall, at least figuratively, by holding monthly meetings for all the children in the program, dating back to 2005.

“They realize they have a lot in common,” Mrs. Rainey said. “Catholic, Protestant, Irish, British. It’s only a title at the end of the day.”

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