In the summer of 1998 Katie McMahon was in Belfast following the peace process and completing her study on the political murals. It was there, on a littered soccer field, that she received her calling.
“Hey Missus! Give us a go on yer bike!”
A group of young boys had caught sight of her on her silver mountain bike. After talking with them a while, Katie asked if they had ever played soccer with Protestants. One boy pointed towards a brick wall, “No, but they live there.”
That’s when McMahon resolved to show children a world without walls, show them that they weren’t all that different.
She returned to U.S. with an idea for a scholarship that would bring one Catholic and one Protestant student to complete a postgraduate year of study at the reputable boarding school where she was teaching, Lawrenceville School. Lawrenceville was receptive and gave the go ahead, provided she came up with the money.
The road would be hard and the journey long. It would lead her along mail and phone lines in search of benefactors and back to Belfast to find eligible students. In her pursuit she gained the endorsements of Nobel Peace Prize Laureates David Trimble and John Hume, but the supply was reaching exhaustion; there just was not enough money. McMahon didn’t lose faith, however; she sent out her last two requests for endorsement and her prayer was answered. It came in the form of Californian Tom Tracy, benefactor of The American Ireland Fund and another generous soul who wished to remain anonymous.
That May, Katie called on Andre McClean of Bangor and Barry McErlean of Derry, telling them to pack their bags; they would be attending Lawrenceville in the fall.
Both went on to have an extremely successful year at Lawrenceville. Barry was outstanding in his AP American History class and Andre received one of the only two A+ ever given by his professor of English. Barry intends to continue his studies in computer programming and Andre looks forward to a career in law.
The boys were stellar athletes as well. Andre anchored defense on the soccer team and Barry was kicker on the (American) football team.
And there was yet one more field the boys excelled in: life. The boys were able to learn, compete, and live with the other international students attending Lawrenceville on similar scholarships.
“All I was used to at home was Catholics and Protestants,” said Barry, “for the large part it was Catholics.”
Andre had a similar experience, “My social circles back home are confined mostly to Protestants.”
Not only did they learn about other cultures, but they learned about each other too and saw that the person on the other side of the “wall” was not so different after all. The two boys, bound by their common status as Northern Irish, decided to room together (not a necessary condition of the scholarship).
By the end of the year Barry and Andre had formed a close friendship that Andre said “was one of the most important aspects of the scholarship. We will be sure to continue our friendship when we return to Northern Ireland.”
Barry is also aware of the future impact of the past year, “Two communities have been bitterly separated for the past thirty years in violence but it’s changing. For me this change has come quicker and been even more radical because of my experiences at Lawrenceville.”
That was McMahon’s goal; “when Protestant and Catholic kids laugh, learn, and play together – they can work together for a brighter future.” She says, “Andre and Barry are doing amazingly and I get emails from both reporting on the other!”
This year Katie made two more calls to ecstatic students, Rachel Lammey of East Belfast and John Heany of Maghera in Derry. Both said they look forward to sharing their culture and to disproving the stereotypes of the Province. It promises to be another great year. According to McMahon, both “are getting on brilliantly…they are like siblings!” But McMahon is not resting. Although she has since left Lawrenceville and now works in Japan, she still serves as director of the Northern Ireland scholarship and is seeking benefactors to insure the scholarship’s continuance. There are many more lives to effect in Northern Ireland, more minds to open and wounds to heal. ♦