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Arts, hearts and minds

Inspired by a 19th-century Russian poet, a scheme designed to encourage creative writing among children in Ireland is also bringing together young people from across the sectarian divide, reports Andrew Mourant

In a log cabin surrounded by trees in the middle of a sprawling country estate, a group of primary-aged children sit in a semi-circle around a crackling fire, the air rich with the smell of wood smoke. Outside, a landscape of woods, lakes, gardens and monumental buildings bathed in late autumnal sunshine create an atmosphere of peaceful contemplation.

The setting is Baronscourt, the Duchess of Abercorn's estate in County Tyrone, and for most of these eight and nine-year-olds it could hardly be more different to their usual urban surroundings on both sides of Belfast's sectarian divide.

Some of the 40-strong group are from Edenbrooke primary, its catchment area the implacably Protestant lower Shankill, beset with feuding paramilitary gunmen and racketeers. The rest come from Mercy, a Catholic primary for girls on the Crumlin Road, a mile or so from Edenbrooke, in a fragmented part of north Belfast that, like the Shankill, has endured more than its share of atrocities.

The schools are just two out of the 30 to 50 that take part each year in the Pushkin Prizes Trust awards, a creative writing and arts scheme that has been running since 1987, set up in memory of the 19th-century Russian poet Alexander Pushkin by the Duchess, his great-great-great-granddaughter.

It uses the natural world as a springboard to children's imaginations, providing cash for visiting artists and tutors to go into primary and secondary schools throughout the year and help children aged from nine to 14 to prepare work for the awards day in June.

The Baronscourt days are an undoubted highlight of the scheme. The estate, 90 miles from Belfast, could be in another world. Some who come here have never seen a field before. But this is more than a day of respite in the country for besieged children who normally would not mix. The Duchess, striking a note of informality by introducing herself as Sacha, hopes it will catalyse minds repressed by circumstance and what, in some cases, is an unworkable national curriculum.

Groups of children are brought together to explore the grounds and develop work with tutors on a chosen theme. This year's is "The River of Life". In the log cabin candles burn on a small table. "What does the candle see? What does it fear? What does it speak?" - questions that have no wrong answer; and to which, hopes Kate Newmann, the children's tutor in creative writing, there'll be no ordinary reply. "It sees the little pheasants," one child says. "It speaks like the breeze," another ventures. "It fears being crushed," says a third.

Later, the children are split into small groups. One departs with Larry Monteith, the head gardener, to learn about the woodland. At the base of a Californian redwood tree, he invites them to push their heads against the trunk, to feel for themselves the spongy softness of its bark. "I'm bringing some home for my mum - she'll love it," says one boy from Edenbrooke.

There's a hunger for souvenirs. "They want to take back leaves, buds; some have even tried carrying back frog spawn," says Edenbrooke headteacher Betty Orr. Meanwhile, as the ramble progresses, the group stumbles across a dead hedgehog. There follows a brief lesson about the redness of nature in tooth and claw. "The hedgehog's only predator is the badger," Mr Monteith explains. "It will have eaten the insides but can't eat the spiky skin."

The spectre of a carnivorous badger becomes the inspiration for afternoon sculpture supervised by tutor Kathryn Nelson. Two versions evolve, depicted in peat moss, bark, leaves, handfuls of gravel for the stripes - whatever is to hand.

Amid the rolling 5,000 acres of her estate, it is easy to imagine the Duchess and her family cocooned from brutality. But the bitterness of the conflict came home to her when the anxiety of her own children spilled over into vivid nightmares. This led her to ponder the lot of children locked in sectarian ghettos; and to devise ways of unlocking their creativity and emotions. "We weren't even in the front line," she says. "I thought, 'If my children are going through this, what must others be experiencing?'" That was in 1987. Then the Duchess decided to act, 150 years since the death of her illustrious ancestor. She contacted the Western Education and Libraries Board in Omagh, "wondering if we could use Pushkin to bring people together - to do something constructive with their feelings". It led to a pilot scheme based on creative writing, involving four Catholic and four Protestant schools.

The Duchess is practised at reconciling people with conflicting beliefs.

Having trained as a counsellor, she became involved in conferences at St George's House, Windsor, where people from all faiths - or none - can reflect on great moral and social issues.

"Two of us were brought in as a bridge between the worlds of religion and science - we had people on either side who believed theirs was the one truth," she says. She also worked for the Samaritans in the 1970s; and, as a governor of Harrow school in the 1980s, she devised a course that sought to introduce emotional intelligence into the life of the boys.

Soon after her visit to Omagh, a charitable trust was set up. And children have been coming to Baronscourt ever since. From literary beginnings the Pushkin Prizes Trust has expanded to embrace sculpture and the natural world. Each year a theme is chosen around which the imagination and all curricular activity centres. Last year's was "The Living Tree". The Duchess says: "It brought the children alive. They got into their roots and learned from their grandparents about the deep past. They open up through hearts and arts.

"The intensity of the paramilitary thing is horrendous - minds are blasted and blitzed. Children go home and are battered down. But nature means something to all of us. You watch the children and you see a light switched on."

This Baronscourt day has been more concentrated than most - the bus from Belfast broke down; an-hour-and-a-half was lost. Yet, says Ms Orr, it was fruitful. "The children got on so well that we're inviting them back with their parents. When that happens, we will have gone some way in community relations in Ireland."

For Cathal O'Doherty, vice-principal at Mercy, this was his first visit to Baronscourt. "We had two groups working together from different cultures but they were singing together on the way home. They've been talking about the things they saw - that's what learning is about. Pushkin is important because it delves into what reality should be."

The two schools have moved swiftly to cement relations. There's the involvement of parents, plus plans for a joint music project. But not all the sessions go smoothly: Ms Newmann recalls that at one, an invitation for pupils to express feelings was hijacked by a child who delivered a tirade of anti-Catholic abuse.

Reconciliation, if it is ever to be achieved, will be punctuated by steps backwards as well as forwards. At Edenbrooke, where one girl had an uncle shot dead by paramilitaries and a family has been hounded out of their home seven times, getting to the parents is fundamental.

Could such a cathartic exercise break the vicious cycle? The Duchess insists it is one way forward. "In some cases destruction is all the parents have known," she says. "You have to work from within. Once you tell your story, you can move on."

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