‘The only Protestant at Ballyharry Primary’ urges us all to educate together

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At a recent meeting in Belfast the words of David Montgomery – chair of the Integrated Charter for Choice Campaign, came back to me prompting me to recall my own school days – when he said “that Northern Ireland’s children are being deprived of the basic right to share each other’s company because of rigidly segregated education.

“In later life, more and more of us have grown to deeply resent this system that has robbed us of friendships and the chance to experience and understand the other side’s culture and community.”

Then the words of my four and a half year old granddaughter, following her first day at school confirmed for me the true value of childhood friendships.

“She is my best friend for ever, and ever and ever,” she told me.

We can only marvel at the ability of young children to form instant friendships, no inhibitions; decisions taken at face value.

Thoughts of my early days at Ballyharry, school, just half a mile away from home, came back to me.

My first day at Ballyharry, school, was daunting to say the least.

It was mid-October, when all the infants had been at school weeks ahead of me.

But standing outside the door in the early morning sunlight on that cold October morning I felt frightened, trying to suppress the urge to run back home.  

Just then the teacher appeared and led me inside.

When she introduced me to the other children, saying my name was Hazel, I could hear the older boys whispering and stifling giggles behind their cupped hands. ‘Hazel Nut’, Hazel bush’ then more stifled giggling from behind.

“Behave back there boys or you will be sorry. Hazel’s a lovely name and if I hear anymore noises from you I’ll come with the cane.”

Then turning to me she said, “You can sit beside Maureen here.”

A littler later she announced prayers…”You can wait out in the porch,” she said to me, leading me out by the hand.

“I’ll call when its time to come in again.”

I vividly remember standing in the cold porch feeling totally alone; a funny name and the only Protestant in the school.

I remember vividly feeling the odd one out and again had to fight the urge to escape as tears ran down my face.

Back once more seated beside Maureen and supplied with play-dough, for making shapes, I dried my tears.

Later Maureen nudged me, and with a smile and a sparkle in her green eyes, she handed me a crayon and a leaf from a copy book.

I had made a friend! At break times we walked arm in arm around big sycamore tree…oblivious to all around us.

As the days and months wore on I got to know all my peers; new friendships were made as time passed.

I was beginning to feel a sense of belonging and not “the other.”

Of course, children as children through the ages can verify, we can be cruel to each other at times.

Name calling; from my own recollections it was Hazel Nut, tree, bush and occasionally the ‘orange’ reference. I learned to give back as good as I got; any defect from teeth to hair colour was thrown back at the opponents.

But these skirmishes seldom lasted more that a few days, friendships restored. Schooldays were tough back then, corporal punishments the norm.

The dreaded stick used liberally, giving us all a strong sense of “being in this together.”

Looking back, I thank the wisdom of my parents in sending me to my local school; it gave me that special knowledge of belonging, a shared time and shared experience and most of all friendships that have lasted a lifetime.

Oh, the joy of meeting up again following long absences!

Those early days at the local school gave me a sense of belonging to my own place and community.

One of the more frightening aspects of human nature is a tendency to gravitate towards ‘us’ and against ‘them’.

Worse, ‘us’ versus ‘them’ disputes have a natural tendency to reach down the generations, leading to vendettas of frightening historical consequences.

Children separated out into groups in early childhood with labels only see the other group verses them. As history tells us,these can become surprisingly vicious.

A book I read recently entitled, ‘Moving beyond Sectarianism: Religion, Conflict and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland’ is the fruit of a major research project sponsored by the Irish School of Ecumenists into the role of Christians, and the Christian churches, in sectarian troubles in Ireland.

The study took six years to complete, and the book which is its principal fruit is meticulously researched and compellingly argued.

Cecelia Clegg is a Roman Catholic sister; Joseph Liechty, is an American Mennonite.

Their different perspectives are in fact complementary and contribute to the depth of insight for which the book is notable. 

Liechty and Clegg are not afraid to explore the enormous influence of Christianity in sustaining and manipulating division...

But they also recognize that there are now powerful forces in the churches, and among Christians, seeking ways of overcoming and “moving beyond sectarianism”.

Did I learn anything from this exchange of faith back then?. I did. I learned that when it comes to joy, life, love and death, we each share the same experience.

I learnt most of all - that those things we had been taught in the Catholic faith were anathema and were to be feared, were rather traditions resting on faith.

They are rich, meaningful and comforting and cannot in anyway threaten the faith that we as Protestants possess.

I learnt also, that in sharing with someone of another faith I in no way neither lost or compromised any of my own beliefs . 

Instead, I was enriched by the things we shared and by the commonality of pain and hope we each shared when faced with life’s joys and sorrows. 

Of course, I had a head start. I already see the world through Irish cultural eyes, and so was devoid of some of the prejudices I am supposed to embrace.