Irish leader offers words of peace

Mayor plays city host to president for stops at church, reception

May 16, 2000|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

When Ireland's President Mary McAleese toured Baltimore yesterday, she stepped into a tiny West Baltimore outreach center able to speak firsthand on the lesson of anger management and conflict resolution.

McAleese, comfortably crouched to sit on the tiny chairs at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, attempting to plant a seed of peace in shy schoolchildren from dangerous neighborhoods where youths are frequently victims of gun violence.

"Love isn't always a warm and fuzzy feeling," said McAleese, the first Irish president from war-torn Northern Ireland. "Love sometimes means holding your tongue, sometimes turning and walking away."

McAleese, a Roman Catholic, spoke from experience. Her father's Belfast pub was once bombed by British loyalists, leaving her family seeking shelter. She spoke yesterday as her homeland struggles to hold together a fragile three-year peace.

In the past 10 years, Baltimore has recorded more than 3,000 homicides, many of them attributable to an illicit drug trade estimated at $1 billion a year. In Ireland, 3,600 people have been killed over the past 30 years of civil strife between British loyalists and those who seek independence in Northern Ireland.

"Her campaign in Ireland was about building bridges," said Mayor Martin O'Malley, who accompanied McAleese. "Ours wasn't dissimilar."

The Rev. Frank M. Reid III, Bethel AME's pastor, conceded that the West Baltimore children probably failed to grasp the historic nature of a visit from an international dignitary, much as he did as a 10-year-old meeting the Rev. Martin Luther King more than four decades ago.

"Twenty years from now, they'll look back and say, `I was important enough for the president of Ireland and the mayor of Baltimore to visit my neighborhood,' " Reid said. "That's the beginning of empowerment."

McAleese visited Baltimore -- and specifically O'Malley, whose grandfather emigrated from Ireland -- as part of a five-day tour to draw attention to an Irish arts festival in Washington.

The Republic of Ireland's embassy in Washington has been tracking O'Malley's progress and put the new mayor on McAleese's agenda, crediting him with renewing Irish-Americans' interest in Baltimore.

"There was such mutual enthusiasm," said Adrian O'Neill, an embassy spokesman.

"The election of a new mayor gave visibility to the Irish dimension and made it a bit more obvious than it had been all along," said O'Neill.

O'Malley, who moonlights as leader of the Celtic rock bandO'Malley's March, started his day greeting the Irish president and her husband, Dr. Michael McAleese, outside City Hall.

He offered a short, impassionedoral history of Baltimore's ties to Ireland, including references to Irish Catholic and Scotch-Irish Protestant immigrants who united to help build Baltimore and a mention of James McHenry, the Irish namesake of Baltimore's Fort McHenry.

Referring to the city's current largest ethnic group, blacks, O'Malley also recalled the special bond between Baltimorean Frederick Douglass, a former slave and abolitionist, and Daniel O'Connell, the Irish emancipator who refused contributions from American slave owners.

Later in the morning, McAleese spoke to about 300 Irish-American residents of Baltimore at a Walters Arts Gallery reception, noting the historical ties between Baltimore and her nation and speaking of a new Ireland.

McAleese commended O'Malley's vision for reinvigorating Baltimore and extending the blessings for Baltimore that she said are coming to fruition in her nation.

"Ireland is blessed with wealth, blessed with growth and, God please, blessed with peace," she said.

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