Since the creation of PeacePlayers’ blog, “From the Field”, American Fellows have used this space to say farewell and reflect on their two-year term of service. It’s a fairly daunting task to attempt to sum up such a unique experience in a short blog post, but this week, departing Fellows Rory O’Neil and Meghan Houlihan asked each other a couple of questions to wrap-up their time with PeacePlayers Northern Ireland.
Meghan: Rory, after two years in Belfast, you’re heading home to Washington, D.C. What will you miss most about Northern Ireland?
Rory: Certainly not the weather or the food. Northern Ireland is a great place. There are a lot of people who would read that and think I am crazy but it really is a place that is on the up and up. If you look at the progress that has happened in the years following the Good Friday Agreement and compare it to other post-conflict/conflict societies…it’s not even close. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a long road ahead, but I am always encouraged by the progress that Northern Ireland has made and this is something I saw everyday working for PeacePlayers. As weird as it sounds, I’ll always miss the sound of a school hall full of screaming, enthusiastic, kids running around. To some it’s the sound of mayhem. To me, it’ll always sound like peace.
Rory: What about you? You’ll be staying in Belfast, but what will you miss about working with PeacePlayers?
Meghan: No question. The kids. I couldn’t agree more. Their contagious enthusiasm made my job so much fun. I loved their little personalities, their questions, their senses of humor and, perhaps most importantly, their willingness try a new sport or make a new friend. I also know that I will miss the sense of fulfillment and purpose I enjoyed while working for an organization that is doing such great work.
Meghan:What are some of your best memories of your work with PPI-NI?
Rory: Northern Irish kids always found a way to put things so simply. I would try and make this lengthy explanation, and then one of our kids would jump in with a one liner that totally summed it all up. At the North Belfast Interface Games Camp, I was running the Community Relations station talking about symbols associated with each of the three sports (Gaelic, soccer, and rugby). I was trying to stress the point that just because you play one of these sports, it doesn’t automatically determine one’s religion or nationality. Then, wee Sophie Love looks me dead in the eye and says: “Rory, it doesn’t matter what sport you play. Anyone can play whatever sport they want to. It doesn’t matter what religion you are…..duuuhhh.” Only one of our kids could have put it so simply and with such gusto. Other favorite one liners I’ll always remember:
- “Coach, friends are friends”
- “Why isn’t the other school here? It’s more fun when they are here”
- “Coach Rory, can we do PeacePlayers…EVERYday?
- “We love the kids from the other school…they’re class!”
I will also always remember the parent I met at the Flagship event a few weeks ago who said that her twin boys were born in 1998, the year of the Good Friday Agreement and that at the time she never imagined her children would be playing rugby, soccer, and Gaelic with children from the opposite , and religion, in the Seaview football stadium, and having so much fun. She was so proud.
Rory: What have you learned from this experience?
Meghan: Over the past two years I have learned a greater sense of patience and understanding. We live in a society that craves instant gratification, and when you’re working with a peace-building organization, you gain an appreciation for small victories. For me, I saw that most often during our community relations discussions or the simple act of a genuine high-five. Like you said earlier, there are signs of tremendous progress, but there is still work to be done. The Troubles affected so many people on both sides of the community and it can be a slow healing process. While the political climate in Northern Ireland can be unpredictable, the ongoing support and dedication of the principals, teachers and parents of our participants represents the collective effort needed to achieve lasting peace. I am always encouraged by the resiliency of the children to engage with each other, and am continually inspired by the impact of integrated sports programs. Lastly, I have really enjoyed working with the local staff, living in a foreign city and learning about another culture. While Northern Ireland is probably the easiest adjustment (compared to the other PPI sites), I think every American can gain valuable perspective from living abroad.
Many thanks to everyone who made it such a special two years for both of us!