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Students meet Nobel winner in Ireland

April 6, 2006

A UW-River Falls professor and students took a trip to Northern Ireland over J-term, and had the opportunity to meet a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

English professor Ken Olson led the trip, and arranged for students to meet Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Corrigan Maguire. It was both Olson’s and the students’ first time meeting her. Olson said he had not originally planned for he and the students to meet Maguire, but his friend Gerry Miller was able to make arrangements.

“I told him I was really interested in meeting Maguire. He was instrumental in setting this whole thing up,” Olson said.

Olson said he had wanted to meet Maguire for several years but wasn’t able to because of her busy schedule. His studies in Northern Ireland informed him about the troubles the region faced, and the significance of Maguire, along with others, in efforts for peace.

The group didn’t find out about the chance to meet Maguire until the day of the meeting. Sheila Hubbard, a student who was on the trip, said the group cancelled everything they had planned that day.

“We had no idea we were going to meet her. The day was supposed to be a day of sightseeing, but it turned into an emotional day of listening to what Maguire did and went through,” she said.

Hubbard said she didn’t really know much about Maguire, but was excited to meet someone of her status. Olson said he was surprised by how enthused students were to meet her.

“I have not seen an event like that with how impressed and how excited students were to meet her,” he said. “I was overwhelmed. It was a fantastic experience to meet her.”

Maguire told students about her emotional story, describing why and how she got involved in peace efforts, Olson said. Students were allowed to stay and ask her questions after she told her story.

Hubbard said listening to Maguire’s story changed her by making her “realize that things can be handled in a more peaceful way as opposed to violence.”

Maguire, Betty Williams and Ciaran McKeown founded the Community of the Peace People in 1976. Shortly before, Maguire’s sister was severely injured and her three nieces and nephews died after they were hit by a car whose driver was shot. Years later, haunted by the images and emotions of losing her children, her sister committed suicide.

Peace People has worked hard to promote peace through an active democratic citizenship program, particularly among young people.

The same year the Peace People was founded, Maguire and Williams won the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to focus peace and reconciliation in response to the significant violence that arose in Northern Ireland in 1968 between the Republicans and the Unionists.

Olson said, “What impressed me about these women were they were two regular women who won the Nobel Peace Prize.”

He said he admired their dedication to promote peace and end violence.

Maguire is still actively involved in peace efforts both locally and nationally.