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Crossing the divide: We catch up with people who took part in a very special project

More than 30 years on, Maureen Coleman meets the men and women who took part in those special trips

They lived in one of the most volatile interfaces in Belfast, a place divided by religion and a long history of hatred. But, in the 1970s and 1980s, a group of children found common ground on a remarkable series of visits to Holland.

During the 1970s and early-1980s, at the height of the Troubles, hundreds of Protestant and Catholic schoolchildren travelled from Northern Ireland to Holland to take part in a cross-community project aimed at breaking down barriers and empowering both sides to work together.

The initiative was organised by Northern Irish youth workers and HUNI (Hulp Noord Ierland), an amalgamation of Dutch churches, keen to provide the children with a neutral sanctuary to meet. Scores of young teenagers from sectarian interfaces in the flashpoint north and west Belfast areas particularly benefited from the exercise. Before taking part in the trips, many had never had the opportunity to meet someone "from the other side".

In the summer of 1980, 80 children from the streets surrounding Duncairn Gardens in the north of the city - one of the most violent interfaces in Belfast - were taken to the Netherlands for three weeks. Some six years later, that trip helped instigate the setting up of the Duncairn Playscheme, a cross-community project run by local people and international volunteers.

It also formed the basis of a Masters thesis put together by one of the youth workers involved in the Dutch venture, former Belfast school teacher Sean Nellis, which featured interviews recorded in 1991 with people involved in the trip.

"Taking them (the children) out of the Northern Ireland situation is essential," he wrote in his study. "Although cynics argue that this created an artificial environment and that any resultant change in attitude is only temporary, the reverse is actually true - the environment of sectarian interfaces in north Belfast is the exception and extraction is simply an opportunity for normalisation.

"If all of us grew up living on a sectarian interface, there is little likelihood that anyone would realise it was possible to live any other way."

Participants from those Dutch trips recently held a reunion at the 174 Trust at Duncairn cultural and arts centre in Belfast, where a photographic exhibition, documenting the various trips, is now running at the complex.

Decades on, we talk to five people who took part in the cross-community project over the years to find out how those experiences shaped their lives.

'We were too busy having fun to talk about home'

Marie-Therese Cleary (51) from the New Lodge works as a school dinner lady. She says:

Back in 1978, I was going to a community/youth club in the New Lodge called the Recy. I had met some Protestant people through cross-community events organised by the club.

It was at a bad time in Belfast and to be honest, I probably would have had a hard time having Protestant friends, it would not have been the thing to do back then. In a way, we probably saw them as the enemy because there was a lot of rioting in the area at the time. I knew people killed in the Troubles, everyone did.

In Hazerswoude, the Dutch town where we stayed, there were about 40 of us and I shared with a girl from Tiger's Bay. We got on well, and there were no problems at all, though it was a long time ago and I can't remember her too much. We spent a lot of time with the rest of the group and we all got on great.

The family we stayed with were lovely too. They had two daughters and treated us well.

While we were in Holland the subject of the Troubles never came up, we were all too busy enjoying ourselves and having fun. We went sightseeing, went to discos, we were all over the country. At the weekends we stayed with our host families. When I came home, I stayed in touch with one of the guys from Tiger's Bay and got to know his mum and sister pretty well. I came away from the trip having changed a bit.

I realised that 'the other side' were not monsters after all, that they were just like us. Even now, I still bump in to some of the group from time to time and we'll stop and have a chat. I do have Protestant friends now, including one who works with me. It was a very worthwhile exercise.

Growing up in north Belfast at the height of the Troubles, it was a hard place to be and it helped being taken out of the situation. There were no fights or fisticuffs, we all got on well and I think it probably helped everyone."

'We hadn't seen each other for 40 years, but we'll keep in touch now'

John Crawford (52) is from the Ardoyne area of north Belfast, and is a retired tiler. He says:

During 1975, I went to a place in Holland called Ede with a lad called Sidney Young. We were both about 13 or 14 at the time. I'd never been outside Northern Ireland before and I had no Protestant friends. I was at that age when you're not really aware of those things, anyway.

I'd only started secondary school and wasn't aware of any differences. There were 13 of us in our family and we were pretty low key when it came to all that sectarian stuff. There was never any hassle with us, we just kept away from it all.

My dad used to say to me that we didn't know how lucky we were to live through the Troubles because we knew lots of fellas who were killed back then. In fact, there are some lads in the photographs in the exhibition who are no longer here.

Growing up in the New Lodge, we were used to our parents telling us where we could and couldn't go and never to cross the barricades.

When those trips were taking place, Sean Nellis was doing what the politicians are trying to do now. The trips to Holland were very successful and the similar ones they did to the US should have been organised the same way.

In the US trips, the kids were mainly one-to-one whereas we all spent time together as a group, five days a week. Then we stayed with our host families at the weekend. That was how we got to know each other better.

We stayed with a brilliant family and we got on very well. There was no hassle, or bother, and we had a great time there. We went horse riding, bowling and played football.

It was the first time I'd seen a real horse. The only time I'd seen one before was on the television at the Derby.

It was an unbelievable experience and the youth workers from both Northern Ireland and Holland were amazing.

We were catapulted into this whole different world in Holland, hanging out with everyone, playing football in the street. It was great craic.

Me and Sidney did try to keep in touch but there were no mobile phones back then. Now that we've met up again almost 40 years on, we intend to stay in contact this time."

'The trip to Holland was a life-changing experience'

Sidney Young (53) is from the Lower Shankill area and works as a home delivery driver. He says:

I grew up in the Brown Square area and had no Catholic friends at all. We were in the throes of the Troubles at the time and the only experience I had of Catholics was when we went to the local chippy and bumped into some from the Falls Road.

When I look back at how Belfast was then, it was another lifetime ago, another country. We were very much confined to the areas we were living in and never went across the divide.

I got involved with the Holland trip through Sean, who was making peace here long before the politicians could spell it.

I stayed in a house in Ede with John (Crawford) and we got on well. There were no real differences between us, except the church that we went to at the weekend.

For me, going to Holland was a life-changing experience and it really broadened my horizons. For example, the family we stayed with had an annex in the house where their grandmother lived. She had a tattoo on her arm and I'd never seen anything like it before. It turned out she was a Jew and had been in a prison camp during the war. Things like that opened your eyes up.

We all got on great on the trip and had a lot of banter. When I came home I was asking myself 'What is Ulster? What is Ireland? Why are we fighting over things like this?' I think the trip certainly changed me and when I came home, I thought a lot about the people I'd met.

It's a pity that me and John didn't keep in contact, but Belfast was such a different place back then. I couldn't have left the Shankill, John couldn't have left his home. We had no mobile phones, there was no such thing as Facebook.

It was a different time, a different place. I'm pleased we've got together again and I'm definitely going to meet up with him in the future. Thirty-nine years is a long time not to be in touch!"

'They realised they'd more similarities between them than differences'

Catherine Hall (63) was a voluntary youth worker who took part in the trips as a leader. She is originally from Tiger’s Bay, and now lives in New Mossley. She says:

The first time I got involved in the trips to Holland was in 1978 when I was 26 and working in a community centre in Tiger's Bay. 

I went three times to Hazerswoude and once to a town called Sassenheim. It was mainly teenagers I took out, but on one of the trips, I accompanied a group of six to eight-year-olds.

When I was growing up, the New Lodge area of Belfast was mixed. My aunt actually lived in Spamount Street, so I knew many Catholics.

I went to the Girls' Model secondary school at the time and some of my school chums lived in the New Lodge. But for the children we took out to Holland, it was different. By that stage, everybody was living in their own wee enclaves and the community was divided.

They were reaching that age when they were going to start thinking about leaving school and finding work and would be meeting and mixing with people from other communities and religions. I like to think of the trips to Holland as a stepping stone into adult life for them.

On the journey out to Holland, there would always be questions asked by each side, as they tried to find out a bit more about each other.

I remember, for example, some of the Catholic kids asking the Protestant kids about their confirmation names and being surprised that they didn't have one. It was just wee things like that, that came up. But they soon realised that they had the same issues, the same insecurities going on. And they all got on very well.

For me personally, working as a youth leader on those trips was a very worthwhile and rewarding experience.

I must have grown up with rose-tinted spectacles on, because I never had any problems with the whole religion thing. In fact, the only time I was ever asked what religion I was when I went to Manchester.

And I definitely think it helped the young people who took part in the trips. It opened their eyes to the fact that fundamentally, they had more similarities than differences."

'The experience made me a lot more open-minded'

Joe McCafferty (51), is originally from the New Lodge, and works for Belfast City Council. He says:

In 1980, while I was a pupil at Bearnageeha in north Belfast I went to Holland. I stayed with a guy called Geordie from Tiger's Bay. We were both 16 at the time and from what I can remember, we were the oldest in our group.

Just before we went away, I was helping out with a summer scheme in the old Star of the Sea boys' school in the New Lodge. Sean Nellis had arranged this cross-community venture between our area and Tiger's Bay and that's how I got involved.

We stayed in Hazerswoude, with a family called Bekkering. They were lovely and I still get a Christmas card from them every year.

At that time back in the 1980s, people tended to stick within their own communities. We had our own shops, clubs, bars and didn't dare go into the city centre.

At that age we didn't have Protestant friends, but then again, we didn't care about that kind of thing.

My family was non-political. The only experience we had of people from Tiger's Bay was that they lived on the other side of Duncairn Gardens and at the weekend there would be riots in Lepper Street and Halliday's Road.

Geordie and me got on brilliantly. I don't think we had any preconceived ideas about each other, we were just two individuals talking about football and things we were interested in.

What we did discover was that we had a lot in common. We both had our bands and parades and we both came from working-class communities with similar problems, like unemployment and housing. We just happened to be divided by religion and one road, which was a sort of No Man's Land.

Everyone got on well on the trip. In fact, one of the Protestant fellas ended up marrying a girl from the New Lodge.

I stayed in touch with Geordie for a while but as you get older, some friendships just fade away.

After a few days away, religion just wasn't an issue, there was no divide.

One memory I have is when we all went to Legoland and there was a bit of a confrontation between a group of young Dutch lads and a few of our boys.

There wasn't one single person on our bus who didn't want to get off and help our boys.

The cameraderie was there. That summed up the trip.

Overall, it was a wonderful experience and I'd like to think it made me more open-minded."

How visits gave us Dutch courage

For many of the children who took part in the programme, visiting a foreign country like Holland provided the chance to enjoy everyday past times and fun events away from the pressures of the interfaces they had grown up in.

Activities that the groups took part in included swimming, roller skating and day trips to tourist attractions, and many still have the scrap books they compiled of their visits.

There were plenty of light-hearted moments during even these most day-to-day of activities. In his study on the trips some years later, Sean Nellis recalls one amusing incident during an arts and crafts session.

"There were sufficient Dutch leaders and people specialising in art and crafts to supervise the children and we weren't really needed for the activity so we went to relax upstairs and have a cup of tea for a minute," he writes.

"We consented only to be called down in a short time to restore order, as some of the kids were painting tricolours, others were painting Union Jacks, and it had turned into a paint fight with some kids smearing each other with paints.

"It was good-natured, almost slapstick comedy, which was surprising considering the only time these children had met, if at all, before going to Holland was when stoning each other over the barbed wire between Unity and the Shankill.

"We soon restored order, but I think the Dutch were naturally quite surprised and were maybe beginning to appreciate just what sort of venture they had taken on."

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