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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.
Football was the main activity of the afternoon and it served as a good introduction to both sides. But it wasn’t until that evening that many in the group realized that they were on more than just a holiday – this was a journey of discovery. It may be hard for those outside Northern Ireland to accept but it was very possible and actually likely that children could grow up in their own area and never meet a Protestant if they were Catholic, or vice versa. Consequently, many of my generation grew up with total misconceptions of what the ‘other sort’ were really like.
The evening programme was geared towards making two points perfectly plain. (a) The people you were playing football with this afternoon don’t belong to the same religion as you. (b) They aren’t all that different from you.
My introduction to Corrymeela and my interviews with those youths from both sides of the divide, took place more than three years after they first met and played football together. This group had volunteered to meet together at Corrymeela’s Belfast office on a weekly basis, and had been meeting together ever since, by which time strong bonds of friendship had developed. Eyes had been opened and true reconciliation had taken place.
I left Corrymeela that night wondering how it had taken me so long to discover it. How could I work in the media and not even be personally aware that behind the headlines of another shooting, bombing, murder or riot, there was another story happening. How could the BBC, with its reputation for journalistic professionalism, have overlooked the good that was happening under their noses? Most of all, with what I had just witnessed, could I still write Northern Ireland off as a hopeless case?