BRYANSFORD, Northern Ireland — From this forested patch of paradise, you could hear the car bombs.
Even the beauty of Northern Ireland’s Tollymore, a lush, green campground dotted with Gothic arches and stone bridges, failed to provide escape from “The Troubles” — bloody years of conflict between Protestants loyal to the British crown and Catholics who sought unification with the Republic of Ireland to the south.
Joe Bright, who served as a missionary here in the mid-1970s, remembers lying in his tent at Camp Shamrock — a week-long youth retreat sponsored by Churches of Christ — and listening to explosions in the nearby village of Newcastle.
“During the first days at camp, the Protestant kids were singing unrepeatable songs about the pope, and the Catholic kids were singing equally unrepeatable songs about Protestants,” Bright recalled.
“Within days, however, these two groups had forgotten the hatred they had learned from their parents, and they left camp as fast friends.”
Campers and counselors gather around a monument at Tollymore Forest Park and prepare skits to demonstrate a Bible lesson at Camp Shamrock. (PHOTO BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD)
Four decades later, sword fights are the only armed conflicts in Tollymore, captured by film crews for the medieval drama “Game of Thrones.”
No bomb blasts are heard at Camp Shamrock — just the shouts of boys, ages 8 to 16, playing soccer behind a uniform row of white tents.
At times, the match gets a wee bit heated, and a few of the lads let fly words not commonly heard at church.
The goalie, Roy Angell, does his best to keep the ball out of the net and the boys out of each other’s faces.
Roy Angell monitors campers as they play a hunting game at Camp Shamrock. (PHOTO BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD)
“This may be the only place they get to see an example of godly people trying to live godly lives,” says Angell, who served in Northern Ireland for two years as part of Adventures in Missions, a program of Sunset International Bible Institute in Lubbock, Texas. Now attending college in Lubbock, he scrapes together his own money and donations for plane fare so he can volunteer as a counselor at the camp.
Across the field from the soccer pitch, Angell’s mentors, Bert and Doreen Ritchie, and a cadre of volunteers prepare steaming trays of lasagna and shepherd’s pie for dinner.
The couple, along with fellow members of Churches of Christ in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, continues the camp’s 47-year mission to teach Jesus to new generations — to foster unity and trust.
“They begin the week not knowing each other,” Bert Ritchie says. By the time they realize they’re on opposite sides of the debate over Northern Ireland, “it’s too late because they’re friends.”
BIBLE SKITS AND HARD QUESTIONS
After soccer and shepherd’s pie, the boys play halfhearted games of chess. Kevin MacSweeney, a red-haired counselor from Cork, Ireland, tries desperately to explain how the knight moves, which few of the boys seem to know, and to keep one of them from stuffing his mouth with pawns.
Kevin MacSweeney shows his frustration after attempting to referee a chess match at Camp Shamrock. (PHOTO BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD)
The next morning, the campers awake to the bleating of sheep in a nearby field. Angell leads the youngest ones up a grassy hill to a stone monument, where he tells them the story of Noah and his faithfulness to God. The boys prepare skits illustrating the lesson — most of them with elaborately choreographed fights.
Though they come from Protestant or Catholic traditions, many of the children arrive at Camp Shamrock with “a jaded sense of God,” mired in politics and mistrust, Angell says. The counselors try to present Bible lessons in a way that encourages them to study on their own.
As the young campers — and their counselors — take turns rolling sideways down the grassy slopes, a group of teenage boys sits around the remains of last night’s campfire. More counselors, from Ireland and the U.S., read questions the campers submitted.
“Does God really care for us all?” one asks. “Will Muslims go to heaven?”
“If Jesus is the king of the Jews,” asks another, “why didn’t he protect the Jews from the Holocaust in World War II?”
“Is God racist?” another asks. “Why did he put all the black people on one continent?”
Bibles in hand, the counselors do their best to help the boys find answers, stressing that God is no respecter of persons and seeks a relationship with everyone. They quote Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
When Irish Christians and missionaries, including Jack Exum, launched Camp Shamrock in 1966, they intended it as a Bible-based holiday for church members’ children, says Leslie McKay, one of the camp’s directors and a member of the Church of Christ in Coleraine, Northern Ireland. Those early campers invited their friends — many of whom didn’t attend church regularly — and the camp took on a new purpose.
“The unchurched kids, at least in a week here, they see something different,” McKay says. “They keep coming back, and there must be something they’re coming back for.”
Dylan, a 12-year-old camper from Northern Ireland, is here for the fourth year. He loves the swimming, sports and games, he says, but he also enjoys the Bible studies and devotionals.
When asked why he comes back to Camp Shamrock, he puts it simply: “Because a lot of questions I can’t ask at home get answered.”
CAMPFIRES, SHOWERS, BAPTISMS
After a day of skits, tough questions and water slides, the boys gather around the campfire for a devotional.
As the counselors sing “There’s a fish in the nets in the hands of the men in the boat on the Sea of Galilee,” some campers sing along and mimic their hand motions. Others sit and watch, a bit perplexed.
“By the middle of the camp, they’ll be singing along,” says McKay’s wife, Janet, who also volunteers at Camp Shamrock. “It’s like a big family by the time they go home, singing and taking part. They never get embarrassed.”
Campers and counselors gather around a fire for a devotional at Camp Shamrock. After the weeklong camp for boys ages 8 to 16, volunteers host a week of camp for girls. (PHOTO BY ERIK TRYGGESTAD)
Some even get baptized and return to the camp as counselors. Sheba Clinton started coming to the girls’ camp, which follows the boys’, when she was 9. Now she’s one of the camp’s directors and a member of the Coleraine Church of Christ.
Clinton, who grew up in an era of bomb scares and anger in Northern Ireland, says the camp has played a small role in creating understanding among people who grew up thinking the worst of each other. Camp Shamrock teaches that “there should be no reason for us not to get on,” she says.
For Kelly Thompson, a visit to the campsite brings back “just good memories from my childhood,” she says.
“It was just good fun,” she recalls, at least “until somebody made me get a shower. I was the dirty one.”
The lessons she learned here convinced her to take the plunge and be baptized. Now she attends the Church of Christ in Holywood, just south of Northern Ireland’s capital, Belfast. She brought her 5-year-old son, Billy, to see Camp Shamrock. In a few years, he’ll be a camper.
“I probably wouldn’t be a Christian if I hadn’t come here,” she says
CATHOLIC, PROTESTANT OR NEITHER?
Kelly McKee, another Texan who served in Northern Ireland with Adventures in Missions, saved for years so she could return and serve as a cook and counselor at Camp Shamrock.
“The most heartbreaking thing I had to do was get on the plane and leave here,” she says. She’s seen campers grow and mature at Camp Shamrock, including her friend Jessica Brown, now a fellow counselor.
Brown, 18, was born just before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, which signaled the end of The Troubles in Northern Ireland.
“It used to be rare to see Catholics and Protestants walking down the street,” says Brown, who attends the Coleraine Church of Christ. “It’s different now.”
When asked if she considers herself a Protestant, Brown pauses.
McKee chimes in, “I think she’s just a Christian.”
With a wee grin, her friend nods.