She is a child of Belfast, which means for the nine years of her life in the northeast corner of the Irish island she has known more of funerals, barricades and bullets than games or toys. In Ulster's war--a war between classes, gangs and neuroses--preadolescents are recruited to bigotry as though no age is too young to begin hating.
This summer for this child is different. Through Belfast Children's Summer Program, she has lived for six weeks with an American family in the Washington area. Twenty-two other Belfast children were also welcomed into Washington homes. Nationally, about 3,000 Catholic and Protestant youngsters--some of them members in neighborhood IRA clubs, others in The Junior Orange League--have been part of the program. A Rotary Club in Hibbing, Minn., began it in 1975. A group in Cape Cod duplicated it the next summer, and it has spread now to such cities as Wilmington, Del., and Greensboro, N.C.
The benign goal of this summertime displacement is nothing more than providing some kids with a six-week vacation from fear.
The Northern Irish girl I spoke with, a student at St. Catherine's school in Belfast and the daughter of a mechanic who repairs lorries and trucks, had reddish-brown hair and an open Gaelic face. She had been raised in, what Sean O'Casey said of his childhood, "the thick of the Catholic religion." But this summer she was in a neighborhood where no one spoke of the "dirty Prods." No one bothered with anyone's religion. The talk was of swimming lessons, bicycles and playground schedules.
If religion entered the discussion, it was the crazy-quilt kind. In one of the Washington families hosting a Belfast child, the mother is Catholic and the father Jewish. The husband accompanied his wife to Sunday mass, along with the children who are Catholic. The family chose a Protestant child from Belfast. For the past six Sundays, the Jewish mother-in-law took the boy to Protestant services. Perhaps the Belfast boy understood, recalling the lines from the Irish folk song: "Oh, it was the biggest mix-up that you have ever seen. My father he was Orange and my mother she was Green."
Follow-up studies have been made on the program. Thomas Craven, a Washington clinical mental health counselor interviewed Belfast teachers and learned that in the classrooms, at least, the children had higher levels of self-confidence. In the neighborhood, said Craven, they were "more open-minded to friends and strangers alike."
The studies are not conclusive. Changes in attitude between Catholic and Protestant children aren't likely to show up in measurable data that reveal that a rise in tolerance among the kids leads to a lowering in sectarian violence among the adults.
When Robert Coles, a Boston psychiatrist who has worked with the children of poverty for more than two decades, went to Belfast a few years ago he wrote that "a start might be made with the schools--not in the hope that a classroom of Protestant and Catholic children, sitting side by side, will give Ulster, at long last, its time of messianic fulfillment. But the children of Ulster are being systematically kept apart, even when they live near each other--kept apart in schools, and kept apart on playgrounds, and often enough taught a different history, a different series of social and political lessons."
Six weeks in the United States can't alter that instantly. It might induce a gradual change, though, which is about the most reasonable hope allowable in the context of Ulster's decades-long war. It may turn out that when the children who have stayed with American families reach their early twenties they will look back on their summertime experiences as useless kiddie games. This theory overlooks the reality at the core of Ulster: Its children have no childhoods. The war in Ulster matures them early. Northern Ireland's young, as Roger Rosenblatt writes in a new book, "Children of War," are "rushed into adulthood."
Instead of wondering too much whether the summer program will create peace in Ulster, when it has already brought peace to the hearts of so many of its participants, another question needs to be asked: Why aren't the young of other countries being as well served? If Irish Americans can have their program, why aren't Arab and Israeli kids or young Armenians and Turks having their chances to see that there is another way into adulthood besides hating?