I attended a lovely event in Monaghan town this month. It was the last showcase presentation of the Immigration Emigration Racism and Sectarianism (IERS) Schools Project, which is funded by the EU Peace Programme and managed by the Centre for Cross Border Studies. This project brought eight primary and four secondary schools in Counties Antrim, Londonderry, Louth and Monaghan together to learn about the immigrants and emigrants who have always flowed in and out of Ireland and Northern Ireland over the centuries. The aim was to teach the children that since every Irish family has experienced immigration and emigration, racism and xenophobia are not good ideas. To hate the Africans and Indians, Poles and Lithuanians who have enriched our societies in recent years is to hate a bit of ourselves.
The event was a play The Four Rivers, written and choreographed by two teachers from Castlenock Education Together school, and performed by children from Monaghan Model National School (Church of Ireland) and St Patricks National School in Clara (Catholic), two of the participating IERS schools. It was a moving occasion, funny and instructive, with wonderful samba drumming and an inspirational story about river people who traditionally never talked to each other coming together to defeat a marauding dragon. Some parents and teachers were in tears at the end of it. The children had a ball.
This has been an exemplary project. It has brought teachers and children from the unionist heartlands of Ballymena, Antrim, Cullybackey and Coleraine together with their neighbouring Catholic schools and with Protestant and Catholic counterpart schools in Dundalk and Monaghan for two years of fun they had overnight residentials in the spectacular surroundings of the Donegal Mountains and the Fermanagh lakes and (for the teachers) difficult, sensitive work in learning, with skilled facilitators, how to face up to the twin afflictions of racism and sectarianism in their own attitudes.
The project coordinator, Marie Hoeritzauer, says that for her the most impressive outcome was the personal development the participating teachers experienced by making themselves deal with these controversial issues, and learning how to tackle them with the children in the classroom. She produced two superb booklets of guidance materials People are People All Over the World which at least one education and library board in Northern Ireland is now planning to distribute to all its primary schools.
The pupils made friends not only with African and Indian and Eastern European children from other schools, but with Protestant and Catholic children from schools in the other Irish jurisdiction as well. One often forgets two things in these North-South educational exchanges. The first is that it is the small things which make a difference: one principal of a Southern border region Church of Ireland school recounted how she had learned to play the tin whistle in Armagh during a predecessor to the IERS project and as a result the tin whistle until then seen by her co-religionists as a Catholic and Gaelic instrument was now played regularly in local Church of Ireland church services, particularly on Childrens Sunday.
The second thing is the sheer pleasure the children experience through these cross-border, cross-community exchanges. To watch them samba-drumming in Dundalk or doing Indian dances in Ballycastle or banana boating on Upper Lough Erne is to see the shyness disappearing, the confidence growing and the understanding and respect for cultural difference starting to dawn in quite young children. To see such happiness in the eyes of children makes the work of those of us who try in a small way to cross the barriers of religion and nationality that have cursed this island for so long seem all seem worthwhile.
The IERS project also made a big difference to the newcomer children taking part. A Polish interpreter who accompanied some Polish pupils to one of the residentials wrote afterwards: For the Polish girls it was a very special time. They had an opportunity to meet new friends and feel just like at home. Because they are children of migrant workers, they need to feel they are not isolated from Irish society and an outing like this should improve their ability to settle in their adopted country. For the Irish children it was a great opportunity to share activities and to learn to cooperate with another country.
So I just want to say a huge thank you to Marie Hoeritzauer (who inevitably, because the EU money runs out next month, is starting a new job in July) for all her extraordinarily hard work on this project; and to the 12 schools, their principals, teachers, pupils and parents, for contributing so much to the projects success. The other participating schools were Cullybackey High School, St Louis Grammar School in Ballymena, Antrim Primary School, St Marys Primary School in Cargan and St Johns Primary School in Carnlough, all in County Antrim; Ballysally Primary School in Coleraine, County Londonderry; and Dundalk Grammar School, St Marys College in Dundalk, Louth National School and St Nicholas National School in Dundalk, all in County Louth.
Andy Pollak retired as founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in July 2013 after 14 years. He is a former religious affairs correspondent, education correspondent, assistant news editor and Belfast reporter with the Irish Times.