Skip to main content

Midvale Journal

Teens from Northern Ireland, Utah Foster Friendships through Differences

Aug 26, 2016 01:32PM ● By Travis Barton

Teens from Utah and Ireland work together to get through a high ropes course during Utah Ulster Project 2016. The project aims at building relationships despite differences. -- Utah Ulster Project

Twelve catholic and protestant teens left their homes in Northern Ireland and travelled to Utah for a monthlong peace project aimed at unifying their nation.
Northern Ireland’s conflict between its mainly protestant unionists and mainly catholic nationalists, referred to as “The Troubles,” officially came to an end through the Belfast Good Friday Agreement of 1998, but when the divide between the two sectarian groups continued, Reverend Kerry Waterstone founded the Ulster Project,  a program designed to bring future catholic and protestant leaders together through association with religious teens in the United States. Utah’s been part of the project for 30 years.
“You can definitely tell at the start of the month they are in the ‘impress phase,’” Adam Dahlberg, director for Ulster Project Utah, said of the 12 Northern Irish and 12 American teens who are part of the project. “They are just getting together, so they want to be cool, but by the end of the month that has faded and they are able to be themselves which is really hard for teens to do. It’s fun to see that transition.”
The Northern Irish teens–six Protestant and six Catholic–roomed with an American teen of the same religion and similar background from June 27 to July 22. The 24 participants had their monthlong schedule filled with service, outdoor and faith-building activities each day.
Maddie Bossarte, of Taylorsville, and Emma Hagan, of Omagh, Northern Ireland, barely spoke to each other when they first met, but by the second day Emma was braiding Maddie’s hair and Emma was helping Maddie to put on her shoes, said Ann Charat, Maddie’s godmother.
The two teens bonded as the group of 24 visited historical sites, rode roller coasters and slides at Lagoon and Seven Peaks, camped, went rafting, attended a REAL Salt Lake game, and volunteered at the Utah Food Bank, Humane Society and at Kauri Sue Hamilton School for students with disabilities, among other activities.
“We’ve become best friends,” Maddie, 14, and Emma, 15, said simultaneously when asked how they’ve changed since the first day of the Ulster Project.
“It’s like everyone here became best friends,” Maddie added. “I’ve really learned to talk with other people and be confident in what I say and to accept the differences in others.”
Emma, a Protestant, said she didn’t associate with Catholics very often before she came to Utah’s Ulster Project, but after a month of spending time with catholic and protestant teens from her own country and the United States, she said she’s ready to accept people no matter where they come from.
“At home we have separate schools for protestants and Catholics, and they don’t really interact much, but now when I get home, I’ll try to make an effort with the Catholics,” Emma said.
JP Murray, a 15-year-old Northern Ireland resident, said he believes the prejudice between Catholics and protestants will die off as his generation ages. While older people are prone to think of the divide between the group, the teenagers are “more chill” and want to get to know each other, he said. JP’s American roommate for the duration of the project was PJ Mannebach from Salt Lake City.
The directors must have had a sense of humor to pair them together, JP said. Despite the similarity in their names, the two 15-year-olds had many different interests that made their situation ironic, PJ said.
“At first, it was just really awkward, and I was thinking about what I got myself into,” PJ said. “Then I started talking with all the people in our groups, and I realized that all of these guys were pure fun. I used to avoid talking to people in group settings, but now I enjoy it, and that’s something that I’ll always carry with me.”
Aaron Smithson, a counselor from Ireland, said it was amazing to see JP and PJ’s self-confidence increase through the project.

“They used to be some of the quietest kids around here, but then they started being the loudest and most annoying, and that was a good thing to see,” Smithson said. “All of them have really opened up and have been able to see past religion and their cultural differences.”