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By Maria Weaver

 

Three Irish sisters are leaving today after three weeks in Hamilton. Last Thursday they took time for a little “crăic” about their visit.

Sisters Maria and Sheila McBride and Ann Blair have been staying with Pat and Gwen Kelly for the past three weeks. During that time, they also visited Comanche, San Antonio and Corpus Christi.

The trio was a hit in Hamilton and enjoyed the hospitality and friendliness of this community.

While in Hamilton, they enjoyed a golf buggy tour of the park and walked to town every day. They have eaten at Storms and El Jardin a lot and have spoken to everyone they’ve met. Most folks say hello, then ask them to talk some more. Their accents are beautiful and fascinating.

Back home, Sheila, the “matriarch” of the sisters, is retired from a children’s home.

“She takes care of us,” Maria said. “She makes us dinner and organizes stuff. She has beautiful qualities.”

Maria is a mental health worker who trains in recovery work.

“There is a very high incidence of mental health in Northern Ireland because of the Troubles legacy. There are a lot of mental health problems.”

Ann has a business doing public and domestic cleaning, responsible for several large public buildings, but her favorite job is “lollipop lady.”

The lollipop lady carries a metal pole with a round stop sign for school patrol.

“Only two organizations are allowed to stop traffic,” she said. “The police and the lollipop person.

“I work a busy road, and I enjoy it so much, seeing the children at the start of the day.”

They’ve known the Kellys for quite some time, as all three of their sons spent summers with them as part of Project Children, which for more than 40 years has given Northern Ireland children - Protestant and Catholic – a much-needed break from the grim politics of their own country.

Pat is a coordinator for Project Children, which every year sends 600 children to host homes in 20 states.

In 1975, Northern Ireland was a boiling pot of political violence, with armed soldiers, rolling tanks and surveillance cameras everywhere. People were dying, and children were growing up scared. The conflict was known as the Troubles.

More than 3600 were killed and thousands more injured, and over the course of three decades, violence on the streets was common and spilled over into Great Britain, the Republic of Ireland and as far afield as Gibraltar.

British security forces took over policing Northern Ireland, and there were riots, mass protests and acts of civil disobedience, which led to segregation and no-go areas.

“(Project Children) was started when the Troubles in Northern Ireland got fierce,” Maria said. “As part of that, they placed children with host families in America for six to eight weeks.

“It was mostly to stop the children from joining the Troubles, to get them away from it.”

The sisters recall when the Troubles started and growing up afraid.

They are from Newry, County Down, with a population of 150,000, which is a requirement for a community to be called a city. It’s a market city and a border town, just inside Northern Ireland.

“It’s never normal having the British army with guns patrol your town,” Sheila said. “You never get used to that.

“And having your bags searched and seeing your friends with their arms against a wall being checked. Thank God our family was indirectly in the fringes of things, but we understood, we knew.”

“It was a very Republican area, but Mother and Father kept us from anything,” Maria added.

“I wouldn’t want to go back to that,” Sheila said. “I’m glad to see the back of that!”

“This generation only knows what their parents and books tell them,” Maria said.

“Praise the Lord,” said Ann.

“Thank God,” added Maria.

“It is very generous of the American peoples to turn their homes over to strange children,” said Sheila, whose son John Paul was the first young man to stay with the Kellys back in 1995 when they lived in Corpus Christi.

“A lot of them hadn’t been on an airplane before,” Maria said. Her son Darren also stayed with the Kellys. “It was quite an adventure.”

The Kellys took their guests to see Schlitterbahn, where they had taken their sons when they visited.

“Can you imagine at 13 or 14 how big that was?” Maria asked.

The difference they’ve found between their home and ours is that everything is far away.

“We don’t see anybody walking,” Maria said. At home, everyone walks everywhere, wearing high-visibility jackets.

“The weather here, to feel it,” Sheila said. “There’s a lot of rain at home. Here, it’s lovely, but it can change!”

In fact, Ann met Hamilton’s Misty Wilson one day while she was out walking and got caught in a storm.

“She’s a lovely lady and works for a vet. She gave me a lift,” she said.

“The weather was very bad that day. There was a heavy rain, and she took me right to the gate. It was just five minutes of a journey for her, but it could have been really bad for me.”

Ann, whose son Brandon also was a guest of the Kellys as a teen, has kept a journal of their visit.

“My first impression of Hamilton is that there is nothing mean about your food portions,” she said, “and it is so good.

“You are friendly to visitors and take pride in feeling a part of your country. Between the young and old there is a great understanding of history and knowledge of how your country evolved.

“To sum up Hamilton, you put Christianity into action,” Ann said. “You don’t just pay lip service.”

In addition to Misty, Ann also was impressed by Kassidy Townsend at Sonic.

“It was a busy day, with plenty of cars at Sonic,” she said, “but he wanted to learn more about me and was open to sharing the differences.

“I suppose all in all, Hamilton has values as well as valuing a stranger. That means a lot.”

“Generally, people want to talk, and are generally happy to see you,” Maria said.

“Gwen’s friends are so good since we’ve arrived,” she said. “They’ve put together events to be part of our holiday.”

“Long life to Pat and Gwen,” said Maria. “We are happy to be here three whole weeks.”

“We’re thankful to Gwen and Pat for all they’ve done for us,” said Sheila. “We have happy memories of staying in their home and for the changes they’ve made in young people’s lives.”

At the end of the crăic, the sisters sang a beautiful Irish blessing:

May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face;
the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again,
may God hold you in the palm of His hand.

And Hamilton wishes them the same as they take a part of us with them to their home.

 

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