Belfast Clubhouse For Catholic And Protestant Youth Seeks To Overcome Historical Schisms

04/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This story was produced in partnership with Ireland's Ardmore Sound. Originally published on Youthradio.org, the premier source for youth generated news throughout the globe.

On Saint Patrick's Day, most Americans' thoughts turn to beer, parades, and leprechauns, but in the wake of two recent deadly attacks in Northern Ireland, it's a day when many will consider peace. Youth Radio's Pendarvis Harshaw visited the Belfast neighborhood that was the seat of power for paramilitary groups to check out the aftermath of the peace process for the city's young people.

By: Pendarvis Harshaw

Inside a Belfast classroom, a group of girls giggles and paints pictures of American celebrities. Their art covers the walls of a room that feels a lot like a teenager's bedroom. One girl talks about wanting to attend Harvard University when she grows up; another wants to be a pop star.

This working class part of Belfast has the same problems as any inner city: a high rate of teen pregnancy and young people at risk of drug abuse or even suicide. The classroom windows are covered with bomb-proof bars left over from the constant violence from a decade ago -- Catholic-Protestant violence known as the "Troubles".

Murals painted on almost every corner building depict war heroes and battle slogans, telling the story of why West Belfast is divided by a "Peace Wall".

"It took really long to build it and it would take really long to knock it down because it's really, really big and really, really long," says Leigh Hutchinson, an 11-year-old who goes to the Clubhouse Community Center in Belfast. It has two branches open for children: one on the Catholic side of the Peace Wall and one on the Protestant side. This is where Leigh lives.

"Even though we have a Peace Wall, there shouldn't really be one. Even though it does help separate the Protestants and Catholics and stops them from fighting, no other place really has one -- so it's a bit abnormal."

There are gates on both ends of the kilometer-long wall. Although they remain open during the day, there aren't many people going between the Catholic and Protestant sides. At night, the two neighborhoods lock the gates to prevent violence. Just two years ago, there were riots every night in West Belfast where Catholics and Protestants would hurl home-made explosives back and forth over the 20-foot barbwire wall.

In the wealthy neighborhoods of Belfast, the "Troubles" seem more like a historical tale. This area now enjoys a busy new mall downtown, a giant Ferris wheel next to City Hall and integrated schools. However, here in West Belfast the past is still alive. The children are living in a community where the "Troubles" influence their thinking even to this day.

Leigh Hutchinson's twin sister Laura thinks her dad grandstands about his involvement in the "Troubles".

"My daddy used to be in the army and he talks constantly about it. He just thinks he's the greatest because he was in the army and he just likes talking. He likes the sound of his own voice."

But Hutchinson's father did send her to a center that promotes reconciliation in the very same neighborhood where he once rioted, which says more about Laura's father than she might realize.

There are people in this Protestant neighborhood who hope for complete reconciliation, like Elizabeth Donaldson. She's from the Protestant Shankill Area and now works with young people at the Clubhouse. Even though there aren't many jobs in the area, the majority of the kids in West and North Belfast will try to find work close to home, and aren't likely to go to college, says Donaldson.

"The funny thing is, there are young people that feel the other side are aliens to them -- in proximity they're very close. In interests they're very close. And it's only when they get together that they realize that each other are not two headed monsters."

14-year-old Steven hones his computer graphic skills at the Clubhouse on the Catholic side of the Peace Wall. He says most of what he knows about the "Troubles" comes from YouTube, adding that his information from the most recent violence comes from his brother.

"My mom just sits and worries about him. Sticking up for the Catholic religion or something, over nothing. Sneaking out at night when the riots were actually on. I always tell him not to go."

When Youth Radio producers pulled into Belfast in January, our guide stopped at a red light and pointed out a fully armored Range Rover. He said 10 years ago, this was the only kind of police car in this city. Now, we only saw one bulletproof SUV our entire trip. But with two separate deadly attacks on British soldiers less than ten days ago, a visitor today isn't likely to have the same experience.

This story was produced by Youth Radio with Ireland's Ardmore Sound.

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