Did we send a little peace to Ireland?

Tuesday, April 14, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Is it unbearably provincial to try to find a place for Cincinnati in the latest word of peace in Northern Ireland? Or worse, to use this historic moment as an excuse to brag about a local institution that doesn't get much attention?

Maybe. OK, probably.

But when word came Friday that political leaders appeared to have agreed to end decades of violence, next to the tired faces of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern, I pictured the tired faces of three Irish women who came here for help. And got it, I think.

While Mr. Blair and Mr. Ahern were negotiating a political resolution to the "troubles," as the Irish carefully call the violence that has cost the country 3,353 lives, this trio from County Tyrone were asking a Cincinnati woman named Rachel Burrell how they could help Ireland's grieving children.

They came to the right place. It's the same place that helped people in the little town of Montoursville, Pa., after 16 kids there died in the crash of TWA Flight 800.

International reputation

After the Gulf War, the Israeli minister of defense asked for and got help from Mrs. Burrell. She answered a plea from school officials in Paducah, Ky., after three girls were shot and killed in December. And, later, another call came from Jonesboro, Ark.

Rachel Burrell is the founding director of Fernside Center for Grieving Children in Norwood, one of the first places of its kind in the United States. Six staffers and 125 trained volunteers serve children 4 to 18 years old. Free of charge. All you have to do to get help at this place is to ask.

"Children are the forgotten victims of all of it," said Grainne McKenna, a social worker from the Irish county in central Ulster. "Everything has been swept under the carpet. The kids don't get a chance to talk about it. Now we're beginning to see the aftereffect. We want to know how to help them."

The women were part of an official delegation from Northern Ireland that met with educators, church leaders, social service experts and law enforcement authorities. At Fernside, they also met two kids whose father was murdered.

The discussion was raw and honest and -- the women say -- absolutely invaluable. "It's easy to despair in our work, but the people we have met here have given us encouragement," said Libby Keys, who works at an Irish bereavement center much like Fernside.

I don't know how former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, who mediated the talks in Northern Ireland, kept up his strength for the marathon sessions. But at Fernside Center, everybody ate LaRosa's pizza. And talked and took notes.

Nobody looked at her watch or talked on a cell phone in the corner. Every person in the room was determined to send every single useful piece of information, every instructive piece of paper back to Ireland with the visitors. Time was short and none of it wasted.

Of course, the Fernside visit by these three women is just a page in a long chapter of violence. But I do believe that there is something magical about this place with its scarred desks and its pizza and its unabashed warmth. This is a place that likes kids and isn't embarrassed to say so.

The Irish women say they'll take back what they've learned here. "We want so much to help our children feel safe again." And they would like to set up international links.

Surely, it will help these visitors just to know the basic lesson of Fernside, repeated to every child and adult who comes there -- from Northern Kentucky, from Fairfield, from Oakley. From Ireland. You are not alone, Rachel Burrell says about a dozen times a day. So the women talked on, long after I left, long after they'd planned to leave. They were looking for peace. And they weren't afraid to start small.

Latest update from Northern Ireland from Associated Press

Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at laurapulfer@enquirer.com