Two Worlds Meet Through Belfast

19 Nov

The first Irish person I ever met was actually in my small American hometown of Weston, Connecticut. His name was Marty and he was staying with a friend of mine for the summer from Belfast, along with a number of other boys, to play basketball. The program they were with was called Full Court Peace, started by a graduate of my high school, bringing kids from Belfast together through basketball to bridge the gap and create peace between Protestant and Catholic kids.

Mike Evans, the founder of the program, traveled to Belfast and witnessed the separation of the youth, specifically in their neighborhoods and in their school systems. He was determined to bring these students together and end the segregation plaguing the city and decided to use basketball, a neutral sport, to do so. As he taught gym in the Catholic and Protestant school, he connected with about five students in each and eventually pitched the idea of creating an integrated team, an idea the boys originally were originally hesitant to. The plan was that the boys would alternate practicing the sport at each other’s school where they would be able to focus on learning and playing the game rather than the past trouble that still lingered in their lives. As they got into the sport, guards were quickly let down and the boys quickly became a unified team and more importantly, friends. They had been promised that if they could play basketball together they could come to the US for a summer to play against high school teams, and that’s just what they did. Despite frequent defeats in the US, their playing and traveling together was what really counted. Many families of my high school’s basketball team housed players from Belfast during their visit which is how I was lucky enough to witness first hand just how unified this team was all through this idea of sports diplomacy.

I’ll be honest, though, at the time I didn’t quite understand why they needed to create peace; I had this image of Ireland as a friendly place, definitely not somewhere ridden with a history of aggression or disputes. But from what I was being told, there was a need to bring these kids together to make peace with each other and become friends.

Visiting Belfast finally brought me more clarity to what the program was doing. I got to see first hand the area that had so many past troubles and began to understand how there could still be differences and separation between Protestants and Catholics. It wasn’t necessarily that they had reasons to dislike each other, but these boys were being raised in a city full of old tensions and were bound to be affected by it. I saw first hand the walls that were still up, marking the extreme separation there once was between these religions and realized that despite being in peaceful times, there were constant reminders of the troubles throughout the city. The murals were also fascinating to me, depicting historical people and events throughout their troubles; I found it amazing that these beautiful works of art could cover the city telling the stories of what Belfast had been through.

I was also captivated by the fact that we were getting two tours of the city, one from a nationalist perspective and the other from a loyalist perspective, and both by men who had served time in jail due to the political troubles in the past. I found it incredible how much someone’s perspective could have on the way they portrayed something to others. I appreciated their disclaimers that, yes, they would be giving biased opinions of the events, but the facts were all true. Not only did it help me to understand exactly what the troubles were all about, but it also helped me understand the differences between the loyalists and nationalists and how it was different today.

My mind still spins when I think about this trip and the troubles that faced Northern Ireland and the way they have changed. I had never imagined that a place as lovely as Ireland could have fostered such tensions, but it does bring to light just how important peoples’ beliefs are to them and the extents they will go to protect them. I admire the fact that they have since made peace, but then think about the boys playing in Full Court Peace and it is very bittersweet. I love the fact that these kids from such different backgrounds were able to come together despite ancient tensions and make lasting friendships through such a simple thing as basketball, but it also saddens me to think about how although the troubles are over, they still linger in the city and affect younger generations. They may not be raised to hate each other, but they are raised separately; they attend different schools, there are sports that are representative of the different religions and the walls are still up. I hope that the reminders of the troubles and union of younger generations continues to bridge the gap, because Belfast is truly an amazing place that I am thankful for having the opportunity to visit. It put a lot into perspective for me regarding problems throughout the world and how close they really are to me.

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