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Drawing on Irish history

An animation project explores images of cultural identity. Estelle Currie reports. Symbolism features heavily in Ireland's history, identifying Unionist and Nationalist, north and south, British and Irish. So it was especially appropriate that funding for an animation project on the theme of cultural identity in Ireland should come through on the day of the IRA's ceasefire.

The "Animagic" project has involved eight teachers and 32 students from both sides of the border in producing an animated film exploring how young people perceive themselves and those with whom they share the island of Ireland.

While the peace process in Northern Ireland continued in the glare of publicity, the Animagic scheme performed its own act of cross-border co-operation, with pupils in schools in Belfast and Dublin spending every other weekend sketching drawings for their joint production.

And as the "framework document" for a political settlement proposed "harmonisation" for the education systems in the north and south, the Animagic project straddled the divide, collecting Pounds 50,000 in funding from the education departments of both Northern Ireland and the Republic.

But, despite the symmetry of the symbolism, it wasn't this vision of north-south liaison that actually attracted the young people themselves. What initially drew them was the chance to produce an animation to professional standards, with deadlines and the lure of a public screening.

But as the project developed, so the participants' awareness of contrasting senses of identity steadily grew.

The project was run by the Northern Ireland Film Council and the Classical Animation Programme, at Ballyfermot Senior College, Dublin. This college is probably better known in Hollywood than in Europe, as it is rated as one of the world's leading centres for teaching animation for film-making and claims a 100 per cent employment record.

But how do you untangle the cultural identities of 32 youngsters, particularly in a country perpetually occupied by the question? Not only are there local factors of family, history and religion to consider; but there are international influences as well, such as American television and Japanese computer games.

As part of a brainstorming process to find visual images of how communities saw themselves, the young people were put on a bus and driven around Belfast to look at the Loyalist and Nationalist political murals. This "pressed a lot of buttons", said Larry Lauria, animation director of Animagic and co-ordinator of the Ballyfermot course.

Kenneth Marsden, a 19-year-old foundation course student at Bally- fermot, was so worried by the territory-marking murals that he wouldn't get off the bus. "I wouldn't live in Northern Ireland, but it has changed my thinking about the people, they're not all evil and they're not all against each other," he said.

He is working on drawings with another southern student, Anita Conway, using the traditional symbols used in the costumes of Irish dancers the Tara brooch and the Ardagh chalice.

To her the murals in Belfast highlighted the segregation of communities in Northern Ireland, creating identities which are "Irish, British or Northern Irish, but not as Irish as I am".

Representing these ideas about cultural differences and similarities, Nick Patterson, a student at the Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education, drew characters in egg cups, living side by side, who finally agree to share the same space.

Ciara Campbell, an A-level media studies student at St Louise's comprehensive school in Belfast, drew upon the American Indian idea that the land belongs to no single person or race. To illustrate this she used the motif of the ancient circles carved in the pre-historic Newgrange monument to show the never-ending cycle of life, before and beyond the present problems of Northern Ireland.

Weighing up the project, Larry Lauria said that not only did he see "night and day differences between their first and second attempts at animation", but also a marked development in their inter-personal skills.

Over the Easter holidays the participants gathered for a residential week in Dublin to stitch together their efforts into a single film. And with only the finishing touches to be made, the 12-minute film will be ready for showing later this year in the Dublin Junior Film Festival and the Cinemagic Festival in Belfast.

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