The Ulster Project was founded in 1975 by a priest in Northern Ireland in an effort to ease tensions between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. An equal number of 15 year old Catholic and Protestant boys and girls are brought from Northern Ireland each July to live with American host teens and their families. The Northern Irish teens are specifically 15 because they are young enough to not have formed unchangeable prejudices, but old enough to benefit from the experience. Also, the month of July is chosen specifically because it is when the battles of William of Orange are celebrated by Loyalists and much of the violence occurs. (The other time being March when the Republicans celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.) Ulster Project has grown to over 30 host cities (although all don’t host every year) and each city hosts between 8 and 18 teens each summer.
The Madison Ulster Project was begun in 1999 and this year we have hosted over 200 teens from Northern Ireland during the last 12 years. During July, the American and Northern Irish teens participate in a whirlwind of activities. The program’s core is centered on peace education (called Times of Discovery), service projects, team and trust building activities, religious services, and FUN! Almost every day in the month is scheduled and the teens fill every open moment with more time spent together bowling or swimming or going to movies, etc. The teens are chaperoned by 4 adult counselors – 2 from Northern Ireland and 2 from the US.
The relationships built between the American and Northern Irish teens can last a lifetime, resulting in many American teens visiting Northern Ireland. More importantly, the relationships built between the Catholic and Protestant Northern Irish teens last beyond their time in Madison. Once home, they introduce their UP friends to their school friends, their families become friends and the boundaries between “our side” and “their side” are dropping. Our teens tell of changing attitudes; how it’s more common to see “mixed groups” out in town and how it’s more acceptable. (It was common to be called a traitor or other names if people of your “group” saw you out with people of the other “group”.) But we’ve found that it’s not just about being an agent for change in another country. The American teens have been challenged to think about how they treat people who are different and we have success stories of Ulster alumni standing up to bullies or making efforts to be more inclusive.
With all of the talk in the news about self-rule and less talk about violence in Northern Ireland, we feel the Ulster Project is needed now more than ever. This time in Northern Ireland can be compared to our own history after the Civil Rights Act was signed. Things are happening politically and legally, but the attitudes and prejudices of the population aren’t changing as rapidly. Everyone knows someone who lost someone in the troubles. The Northern Irish towns that participate have all been chosen specifically because they were victims of bombs or other violence. Those wounds will need generations to heal and the Ulster Project is helping to change the attitudes of the next generation. The teens chosen from Northern Ireland go through a rigorous application and interview process and are specifically chosen because they are seen to be leaders in their community.