For Arlington teen Sam Shar, the animosity between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland
seems hard to understand. For eight Northern Irish teens, the animosity between races in the United
States seems bizarre.
The teen-agers mixed and mingled for three weeks this summer in Arlington as part of the Ulster
Project, finding their similarities and talking about their differences.
When the Ulster Project began in 1975, the Catholic and Protestant teens from Northern Ireland came
to the United States to play, pray and meet people from different religions.
“The original idea was to bring Catholic and Protestant teen-agers to the United States for them to have
a safe place to interact with each other,” explained Michelle Hennessy, president of Ulster Project
Arlington. “In Northern Ireland, they would never have a chance. They did see a difference. It worked for
the kids that came.”
Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, has been divided between the Catholic
Nationalists who want a united Ireland and the Protestant Loyalists who want to remain part of the
United Kingdom since the country was formed in 1921. From the 1960s through the 1990s, violent
demonstrations and terrorism claimed thousands of lives in Northern Ireland.
“It’s not even really about the religion, it’s about politics,” Hennessy said.
But things are changing, the teens say.
“I would never not be friends with someone because they were Protestant,” said Aoife, a 15-year-old
Catholic from Belfast. “It’s more of a political stance.”
Aaron, 21, a Protestant from Belfast who was serving as a counselor for the Northern Irish teens, said
religion is complicated in Northern Ireland.
“Church is seen as so divisive back home,” he said. “It’s become easier for young people to not be
And things are still difficult, even through the Ulster Project teens don’t show it.
“What we bring here are a group of really good kids,” he said. “A different group of kids from Belfast
might not have the same answer. This group of kids when they go back will change things.”
In 2023, the divisions between the teens are similar are split like those of most 15-year-olds – between
male and female – instead of by religion. But they all agreed that they had gotten a lot out of the Ulster
Project, including the five Arlington teens who participated.
“Now it’s about leadership and realizing we’re all the same, giving back to the community and self
growth,” Hennessy said.
And the teens get plenty of chances to do that, serving at Mission Arlington, the Arlington Life Shelter,
Tarrant Area Food Bank, Prairie Paws and Clayton Youth Enrichment. They also attended Catholic and
Protestant religious services.
They also had four discovery times, where they shared their opinions on leadership, mental health,
prejudice and reconciliation, and performed improv to get comfortable speaking.
And they had fun, kayaking, marching in the Arlington Independence Day Parade, and going to San
Antonio to see the Riverwalk, Fiesta Texas and floating the Comal River.
“I thought it would be a waste of my summer,” said Lewis, 15, a Protestant from Belfast, who admitted
his family forced him to come, but he was glad he did. “It made me less shy and able to talk to people. I
made new friends.”
The Northern Irish teens admitted they were surprised by a lot of things in Texas, starting with the
“As soon as we walked off the airplane, it was like a hairdryer to your face,” Aoife said.
And they were all shocked that by the race problems and school shootings in the United States.
“Having gangs in school is crazy, you’re not allowed to have gangs (in Belfast schools),” said Maeve, a
15-year-old Protestant from Belfast.
But Northern Ireland also marks the 12 th of July, when Protestants celebrate a 17 th Century victory over
the Catholics, and sometimes the celebrations turn violent.
The Belfast teens couldn’t fathom that Sam Shar, a 14-year-old from Arlington, has to go through
multiple shooting drills every year at his school.
“It’s crazy,” Maeve said. “They go to school and they could die.”
For more information about Arlington’s Ulster Project, go to upatx.com.