Celtic Junction Arts Review

A Summer to Remember

Jane Kennedy

 The author will be teaching a one-session hybrid class, Children Saved: Marking the 50th Anniversary of the Children’s Program of Northern Ireland, on April 29 from 1 – 2:30 p.m. as part of Irish Arts Week.

The waiting at Minneapolis -St. Paul International Airport that late June afternoon was becoming almost too much. Some 59 families, armed with balloons, flowers and welcome signs, were growing increasingly anxious as it seemed to take forever for a plane-full of children arriving from Northern Ireland to pass through the “international arrivals” door.

It was 2002 and the Children’s Program of Northern Ireland (CPNI) was enjoying its 28th year. Each year since 1973, Midwest families – mostly from Minnesota, but bordering states as well – applied to host a child from Northern Ireland. The process involved being interviewed then approved by two CPNI board members, paying a program fee, waiting for information about your child, contacting your child’s family and then awaiting arrival day.

Image from http://www.projectchildren.org/history

The Program originated because of a Belfast mother’s plea in 1972 to U.S. newspapers imploring for an opportunity to get her nine-year-old son away from the raging conflict – “the Troubles” – that didn’t spare children. That year, 495 people died in Northern Ireland stemming from the violence.1

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Program; while it ended quietly in 2012 after operating successfully for 40 years, the life-changing impact it had on children and host parents alike is easy to measure.

These are how several children from Northern Ireland described their 2001 summer in Minnesota:

“It was the best summer ever. It went too fast.” “My family was so cool.” “I would like to say that it was the trip of a lifetime and that it was so much fun and that there was not one thing I didn’t like (except green olives).”2

The toll on children

Close to 6,000 children3 from Northern Ireland took part in the Program, an equal number each year of Catholics and Protestants. They came from Belfast and outlying towns as well as a variety of economic and social classes. The CPNI host family handbook noted, “Economic position has not sheltered people from the Troubles. All our children have been affected in some way by the civil unrest and tension of the past years.”4

Black and white photo of smokey area with people milling around, including a child on a bike. Taken before a riot.
Shaftesbury Square, Belfast, 1974. Photo by John Gilbert.

Between 1969 and 1998, there were 1,533 deaths of people under the age of 25, with 257 of those killed under the age of 18 due to the conflict in and around Northern Ireland.5

CPNI worked with the principals of participating schools in Northern Ireland who knew the children well and were able to discern those who would benefit most from a summer away from the Troubles.

For host families, the Program’s handbook served as an excellent reference. As a host family, and prior to the arrival of our Irish child, my husband, son, and I read the handbook from cover-to-cover. It not only answered many questions, but it included “recipes like mum makes” – think champ, sausage rolls and mince – as well as suggested resources on Northern Ireland and an “absolutely unofficial” Irish-American dictionary.

Catholic children were paired with Protestant host families and vice versa. Also, visiting children were accompanied by Irish chaperones who would check in frequently with host families to answer questions and make sure things were going smoothly

While many children were assigned to metro area families, others were scattered throughout parts of rural Minnesota and bordering states. It wasn’t uncommon for some Northern Ireland children to end up on a farm.


Matching approximately 100 families with Irish children each year was never an exact science and there were occasions when a pairing didn’t work out from the beginning. Such was the case with the first Irish child Mike Wiley and his wife hosted.  He received a call from the CPNI board chair around 1999 asking if his family would be willing to take in an Irish child for five weeks when the match with the original family didn’t work out. It was the start of an incredible experience Wiley and his family enjoyed over the next decades. The Wiley family eventually hosted what Mike refers to as “my Irish daughters,” four in fact – Jo Marie, Aine, Judith, and Sarah, the latter being a second-generation child whose mother had come to Minnesota in the early years of the Program.

Aine, Bridget, Lauren

Not only did the first hosting experience turn out exceptionally well for the Wileys, but they established such a bond with Jo Marie that they flew her back to Minnesota for her 16th birthday. Wiley would go on to take an active role in CPNI, serving as chair of the Board of Directors, as well as vice chair and general board member.

In his capacity as board member, Wiley traveled to Northern Ireland on multiple occasions to learn about the Program from the other side of the Atlantic and to assist with orientation for the Irish students and their parents. “What always impressed me is that they (the Northern Ireland parents) are trusting people who they don’t know to care for their kids,” explained Wiley.

Aine flew in to surprise Bridget for her wedding

He recalled taking his daughter Bridget to Belfast on an orientation assignment. They, along with their Irish child, took a trip to visit Giants Causeway in County Antrim. “We were sitting in the car, and they were chatting away,” recalled Wiley. “They came from different economic backgrounds and different religions… it was very special.”

His thoughts echo that of Sheila Dols, Minneapolis, another former CPNI board chair and host parent along with her husband to three Northern Ireland girls – Christine and Elaine, sisters, and Anne. “The CPNI tagline was, ‘The time we share together can only last forever,’” recalled Dols. “That certainly has been true for our family and our continued friendship with Christine and Elaine.”

Graeme holding a fish in Northern Minnesota
Graeme McCormick near Bemidji, MN

Like Wiley, Dols described Northern Ireland families as “brave” when you consider they sent their children as young as 10 and 11 to live with people they didn’t know.  “But,” noted Dols, “CPNI had a solid reputation in Northern Ireland as a well-run organization with fine host families and strong, years-long ties with Catholic and Protestant schools in Belfast and surrounding towns.”

My experience as a host parent may have differed slightly from other families. Our boy, Graeme, from Newtownards, a town roughly 10 miles east of Belfast, was full of adventure and came prepared to make the most of every minute of his five-week visit.  A year older than our son, 11-year-old Graeme was a bundle of energy who threw caution to the wind.

Author’s son Joe and Irish son Graeme at Camp Snoopy, MOA

While host families were discouraged from spending an excessive amount of money on their Irish child – “riding bikes, playing outdoors after dark, and having the freedom to be a child become some of the child’s best memories”6 – most ignored the advice and planned frequent outings throughout the five-week stay.

For us, that meant attending a Minnesota Twins game (Graeme came to idolize Torii Hunter), the Mall of America, the Minnesota Zoo, and a fishing trip “up north” among other things. There wasn’t anything he wouldn’t try except for certain food items. Like all host families, there are things today in recalling Graeme’s visit that still make us laugh. For us, it was his love of hot dogs and corn along with his independent streak.

Planning for a harmonious future

A cross-community program is an essential component of CPNI. In 1994, the program started an initiative to bring 24 Protestant and Catholic children to work on conflict resolution and reconciliation skills to “foster the belief that Catholics and Protestants can live and work together in an atmosphere of trust and security.”7

Northern Irish children, Highland Park. July 2002.

Once selected, and prior to coming to the U.S., the children from both sides had met, worked, and played together. During the summer program, this effort culminated in a picnic where the children reunited with one another, one of only two times during their Minnesota stay, and entertained their host families with singing and dancing. In addition, all visiting children left their families for a retreat-type experience where they lived together and worked on conflict resolution skills.

Wiley’s Irish daughter Aine and his daughter Lauren

During the children’s visit, families were encouraged to take plenty of photos to be used in a scrapbook that was to go home with the child. It was a fun way for the young visitors to recall happy times with their Midwest families.

What is a reasonable method to ultimately measure the success of CPNI? Wiley speaks proudly of his “Irish daughters.” He noted that Judith was very introverted. But as she got older and became employed as a cashier, she worked her way to a management position. The company selected to send her to the U.S. as a representative from Northern Ireland for a convention of store associates from around the world. Regarding these achievements, Wiley said, “This is not something that I expected of her. She blossomed into an amazing woman. I think (the Program) opened her eyes to the possibilities.”

Dols is equally proud of the young girls she hosted. “I have stayed in touch with Christine and Elaine who are now in their 50s,” said Dols. “Christine is a community activist, feeding the homeless and organizing for groups she values. Elaine owns her own business and lives in Portaferry where she promotes community organizations. They are both amazing women!”

It wouldn’t be difficult to imagine the many success stories other host families could share about their Irish children. But whether they became business owners or window washers, the important thing is that for five Minnesota summer weeks over a span of 40 years, the Northern Ireland children were kept safe from the conflict at home.  

Noted Dols, “One of the Irish chaperones told us that the Program saved hundreds of lives during the Troubles, a testimonial that is truly amazing.” Aye, what could be more brilliant!


 1Burger, Kevyn. “‘We became sisters’: Minnesotans took in kids from Northern Ireland in the ’70s — and changed lives.” Star Tribune, March 14, 2022.

 2Friends of CPNI Newsletter, November 2001, Vol. 13, no. 3, p. 1


 4The Children’s Program of Northern Ireland Host Family Handbook, 2002.

 5Fay, Marie-Therese, Mike Morrissey and Marie Smyth, Northern Ireland’s Troubles: The Human Costs (London: Pluto Press, 1999), p. 180-192.