“The Troubles” always struck me as an oddly quaint way of describing the deadly sectarian violence that for decades gripped Northern Ireland, as if the bombings, shootings and knee-cappings were a minor inconvenience rather than a horrendous storm of blood, bile and ancient animosities.
But the Troubles is what they were called. All Sharlene Loughins McGivery knew when she was a little girl growing up in Belfast was that she was supposed to hate Catholics and that Catholics were supposed to hate her.
When Sharlene was born, her family lived in a house that was next to a pub popular with pro-British paramilitary groups. It was blown up by an Irish republican group. Well, half the pub was blown up. The bomb ended up leveling Sharlene’s house, instead.
Later, the family lived not far from one of the famed “peace walls” — another euphemism — that separated her Protestant Shankill Road neighborhood from Catholic neighborhoods. Kids Sharlene’s age were enlisted to throw rocks during Catholic marches.
“It was getting worse and worse,” Sharlene said. “You couldn’t go anywhere. Big, armored trucks were everywhere. Every sidewalk had army men. You didn’t feel safe anywhere you went, even if you went downtown, which was supposed to be neutral.”
Then, in the summer of 1986, when she was 11, Sharlene went to a place that seemed like a paradise: Washington, D.C. She was the guest of the Belfast Children’s Summer Program, an organization that placed Catholic and Protestant children from Northern Ireland with host families in the Washington area.
Sharlene thinks she stayed somewhere in Maryland with a couple named Bob and Sandy, who had a son named Justin and a daughter about her age named Jennifer. “And a wee dog, Toby,” Sharlene added.
The experience changed her life.
“These people were like the Brady Bunch,” Sharlene said. “They’d come and tuck you in at night and give you hugs. Not to say my parents weren’t loving. My parents were. They just had such a different lifestyle. . . . It wasn’t till I got to Washington that I [saw] a different side of life.”
For the first time, she could sleep peacefully at night.
The host family threw a party for Sharlene’s birthday, the first time that ever happened. And when they saw that she was being stung by jellyfish on a swim (in the Chesapeake? the ocean? Sharlene can’t remember), they bought her some Nike running shoes to wear in the water.
The next day, Sharlene went back in barefoot. The family asked why. She told them that the shoes were so nice she wanted to take them back to Ireland in their original condition.
The year after she returned from Washington, Sharlene’s family moved to Canada, where her stepfather had relatives. Her mother and stepfather had been wanting the family to emigrate, but Sharlene’s father had insisted that she be allowed to decide on her own.
“When I got home that was the first thing I said: ‘I’m ready. If we want to move, I’m ready.’”
Sharlene is 39 now, married, with a boy and a girl about the age she was when she visited Washington. They live in Toronto, where Sharlene works for a natural gas contractor.
“I’m sure they don’t realize the impact they had on my life,” she said of her host family. She wants to thank them, but she doesn’t know how. They stayed in touch for a while but lost contact. The D.C. Friends of Ireland, which sponsored the trips, no longer has records from that era.
So I’m telling Sharlene’s story. If you are Bob or Sandy, Justin or Jennifer (you’re unlikely to be Toby), send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I would love to thank them for making me want more for myself,” Sharlene said. “I didn’t realize people could be like that, that places could be like that.”
Sharlene sent me a copy of the photo I’m publishing with this column, taken the day she arrived from Belfast nearly 30 years ago.
“I have it in a frame in my bedroom,” she said.
About seven years ago, the Belfast Children’s Summer Program merged with a similar group based in New York called Project Children. Kids from Northern Ireland still stay with families in the New York area, but not around here. Now that the Troubles are in the past, there isn’t as much of a need, said Jim Kennedy Jr., president of the D.C. Friends of Ireland. Also, he said some Irish families are worried about violence in the United States.
Maybe it’s time for us to send some of our kids over there.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.