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When I left work that evening I had Corrymeela’s Belfast address firmly implanted in my mind. I didn’t expect anyone to be there at that time of night but decided to ring the doorbell just in case. To my surprise, there was. The door opened; but I could never have guessed the surprise I was in for during the next hour.
When a young man opened the door of 8 Upper Crescent, I was a bit shocked, considering it was after 9.00 in the evening and this was an administrative type building. I announced that I had “just called to find out what Corrymeela was all about.”
He led me to an upstairs room where around 15 – 20 youths were seated, mainly on beanbags or just sitting on the floor. My host simply introduced me with, “this fellow’s just called in to find out what Corrymeela’s all about”. The reception was casual and friendly – as if it was a perfectly natural thing for a total stranger to walk in off the street because he wanted to satisfy some sort of curiosity.
If I had any feelings of awkwardness or embarrassment they were soon swept away as I began to chat with these young people. I soon realized that there was a huge contrast between the upbringing these youths had had and the comparatively sheltered background which I’d enjoyed.
The mix was around 50/50 protestant and catholic. But what they shared in common was that the areas they came from were right in the thick of the troubles, in other words, their housing estates, or ghettos, were very regularly in the News because of rioting and other violence.
I listened intently as one young man from a Republican background told me that in his household, if a News bulletin had announced that a British soldier or policeman had been killed, he, along with other family members would have jeered. He had personally been a regular petrol bomber and rioter – it became a way of life and was considered noble behaviour in his community.
From the protestant youths, the stories they told demonstrated equal levels of hatred and acts motivated by extreme sectarianism.
So what happened? How come they were meeting together mid week with people from the ‘enemy’s estate? Well it seemed that a few years earlier, an educational initiative had led to pupils from two segregated schools, coming together to spend a weekend at the Corrymeela Centre at the seaside resort of Ballycastle. Some of these kids had never ever seen the sea before.
With its location on a cliff-top with a beautiful vista overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, when the weather is favourable, this is a place apart. I can imagine how it must have felt like coming to paradise, by contrast to living in a riot torn area of Belfast.