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The Sensory Garden

Brief History of Harmony Community Trust and Glebe House

Harmony Community Trust provides opportunities for groups of people from different backgrounds to come together in a unique residential setting where they live, play, work and relax together, and cooperate in creating an environment in which differences and distinctiveness are acknowledged, accepted, respected, explored and valued. The Trust caters for people of all ages but has a particular focus on meeting the needs of children, young people and adults from disadvantaged and segregated areas of Northern Ireland. The Trust is based at Glebe House, Kilclief on the County Down coast near Strangford.


SCI and Rotary

In 1971 the Northern Ireland Group of International Voluntary Service UK, started a programme of cross-community holidays for children from Belfast and Derry. IVS UK, was a branch of an International Peace Organisation founded after the First World War and called Service Civil International. By 1972 the Northern Ireland group in cooperation with IVS-UK and the Irish Branch of SCI, VSI, had developed a full programme of holidays, with 360 children going to England, Scotland, France, Holland, and ROI. They all came from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds and areas where violence and the effects of the “Troubles” were greatest. The scheme continued in 1973 and 1974, and expanded to include Switzerland and Germany as venues for the holidays, though the bulk were in Britain and Ireland.

In 1973, the newly appointed coordinator for IVS NI, Sean Armstrong, was shot dead on returning from his honeymoon. IVS in Northern Ireland had by this time felt the need to work with the children and community groups in a permanent centre in Northern Ireland, on a year round basis, rather than just organize holidays. They also were keen to re-direct their energies to developing a supported teenage workcamp programme, which fitted in more with the SCI traditional method of achieving peace and reconciliation. The idea of purchasing a house and setting up a permanent children’s centre was first formulated in 1973, the major problem for IVS being funds, and also there was the feeling that this should be set up as an independent organisation with IVS support and involvement. As a small group of young, idealistic and probably left wing volunteers, they were not in a position to raise big money, but they did have the expertise of working with children and carrying out cross-community work.

Dr Hylda Armstrong, who was the mother of Sean Armstrong, who was killed in 1973, was the International President of Inner Wheel, and through her connections with the Rotary Club, she knew that the Rotary Club of Belfast was thinking along similar lines, i.e. to set up a permanent centre for Peace and Reconciliation, rather than continue with a programme that they had been running of holidays for children and young people.

Hylda acted as the marriage broker between the Rotary Club and IVS. Bringing together two such disparate organisations to set up Harmony Community Trust, which was probably the most difficult piece of Community Relations work.

A steering group was set up in 1974 of 3 Rotary representatives and 3 IVS representatives.

The steering group, later to become the Council of Management of HCT, was charged with the task of setting up and running a holiday centre for children and young people from both sides of the community and from areas or backgrounds of deprivation/social need, where they could learn to understand and appreciate each other and thereby, hopefully contribute towards a better and more peaceful future for Northern Ireland.

There were arguments, agreements and disagreements and endless discussions which seemed to get nowhere.

As said the cultural differences between Rotary and IVS were as great as those between the Catholic and Protestant communities. The group greatly benefited from the experience, commitment and contacts of Dr Harry Corscadden who was propelled into the role of Chairperson on the untimely death of Billy Doran, the Rotary instigator. Harry sadly died in December 2008 having celebrated his 101st Birthday that year. The cultural mix has been the strength of Harmony Community Trust over the years.

After a long search the length and breadth of Northern Ireland, Glebe House, a former Church of Ireland Rectory, was found in the Spring of 1975, and thanks to both the cash made available from Belfast Rotary and a generous loan from the Ulster Bank negotiated by Harry, the centre was purchased, with possession on 1st July 1975 and the first group of children moving in on the 13th. In the years since that time, Glebe House has seen more than 20,000 children and young people from all sections of the community in Northern Ireland pass through its doors, as well as those from the Republic of Ireland, Great Britain, Europe and further a field. Many of the children have returned as volunteers, staff, committee members and parents of a new generation of children.

Through all the many ups and downs of the early years, Glebe House was always assured of Harry’s wise counsel, constructive criticism and support, even in the unconventional nature of Glebe House and its work. The Trust benefited from his business expertise and dare I say nerve. The financial situation was always precarious, as it still is today, but it never stopped the Council under Harry’s watchful eye from moving forward with necessary improvements and developments to the property and facilities and developing the programmes to meet the changing needs of the community.


Harry was just one among many unsung heroes of the peace process in Northern Ireland. We have had many others at Glebe House. Betty Miller first came as a volunteer with a group of children from East Belfast in 1976 when she was 60 yrs old. She remained a tower of strength until her death at the age of 86, roping in her family and friends as volunteers and fundraisers. Betty made curtains, duvet covers, patched sleeping bags and scoured the shops for bargains as well as collecting clothes, furniture and other goods in her back kitchen. Jean O’Reilly was another volunteer, who brought children and young people to Glebe House from Unity Flats, she was a long standing IVS NI member and also volunteered with other groups, she helped with fundraising and was a member of the programme committee and very much a hands on person. Jean died early in her life in 1998 but her spirt lives on, as a champion of our volunteers, Jeans family donated funds to build the sauna dedicated to Jeans memory. Another stalwart has been Paddy Malone from the Mary’s Mansions/Summerhill area of Dublin. He has been bringing children and young people to Glebe House since 1981, a time when cross-border connections coupled with cross-community work was seen as most difficult. The Dublin connection has brought us many benefits. It widened the horizons of young people from the North. It brought the Northern children together with an idea of shared identity, but above all it emphasised the fact that children are children no matter where they come from. We have also benefited from a steady stream of volunteers from the South. So many children, young people and adults have benefited from their experiences at Glebe House and the fun and friendships made there and this would not have been possible without the input of volunteers over the years. In the early days we relied on long-term volunteers who came for a year, were resident and worked for board and lodging and pocket money. We have had volunteers from USA, Nepal, France, England, ROI, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Holland, Germany, Bangladesh, Nepal, Malaysia, India, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Italy, Poland, Russia, Belarus, Estonia and Switzerland, to name a selection. There have also been many volunteers from Northern Ireland working on weekends, evening activities, fundraising, holidays and so on, as well as committee members. We still rely on volunteers for the programmes at weekends, evenings and in the longer residentials. Most of the international volunteers are recruited through IVS/SCI. We now recruit international volunteers for 2-3 months in the summer. We also have had international workcamps every year since 1975, to help with the maintenance and development of the property.

Today’s challenges

Times have changed too in terms of the property and facilities we have at Glebe House. From the first extension to the old house in 1977, we have added on buildings to meet the programme demands, and taken some down too. We now have an activity barn for wet weather play, the Rookery building now our main accommodation area which sleeps 40 plus. The arts and crafts room, the self-catering cottage, the computer suite and sauna and the latest building, the Orchard, which is a self-contained conference/workshop facility. The original Glebe House is still the core of the facility, with the dining rooms and main kitchen. We may have had to give up on the farm, but with our donkeys, the nature and wild life areas, donkey trails, garden, and sensory garden, we still have lots to offer in the 16-acre site.

There is still work for Harmony Community Trust to do, and a role for Glebe House in the future. The role will need to change to adapt to the current needs of society in Northern Ireland, the inclusion of people from a wider variety of backgrounds, the increasing gap between the “haves” and “have-nots”, the needs in recruiting volunteers, the reduction in funds particularly from statutory providers and the declining interest in Northern Ireland from abroad. We are ready to meet the new challenges as we have done over the years, without losing the sense of purpose and the ethos on which the organisation was founded in 1975. Apart from extending our outreach to include children, young people and adults from across the sectarian, racial and national boundaries in our society, we will also be concentrating on providing a much needed respite and therapeutic experience for children and young people “in need “ or “at risk”, a role we have been playing to an increasing extent in the past 10 years; providing opportunities and training for volunteers and welcoming the local community to make use of our facilities.

Why Harmony Community Trust is still going

Since the 1994 ceasefires Northern Ireland has seen remarkable progress. Comparing the footage from then and now you see striking changes, not only in terms of the violent conflict but also in the emerging political agenda and growing economic prosperity.

Even the amount of news coverage given to Northern Ireland’s conflict has dropped: the very scarcity of headline stories can give the impression that the Troubles have been fixed.

With economic growth we are becoming a more cosmopolitan society, with people coming from many parts of the world to work and settle here.

In fact the garden is looking fairly rosy now, apart from the occasional reminder that the old fault-line is as sharp as ever, and that, now that we have the opportunity, we’re discovering our capacity for racism and xenophobia.

The features in the foreground may have changed but much of the picture is still characterised by indignation, anger, distrust, fear, loss, grievances, segregation, the marking-out of territories, zero-sum politics, what-aboutery, us and them.

And we have our share of those problems that are not peculiar to Northern Ireland, such as persistent poverty, the decline of traditional industries, generational long-term unemployment, and growing social inequalities.

Ours is still a deeply divided society, where politics is organised along the fault-line; where individual’s choices are limited too much by their background, and where identity and cultural differences give rise to suspicion rather than respect and celebration.

We have really only started work on the job of creating a society that is peaceful, fair, cohesive, at ease with itself, outward-looking and optimistic.

The historian Jonathan Bardon, in his History of Ulster, describes one prehistoric site with these words: “here is a place where successive peoples and cultures have met, clashed and blended.”

At Harmony Community Trust, our optimism comes from over thirty years’ experience of building trust, cooperation and respect: we believe that children, young people and adults don’t have to be victims of history but can be agents of change.

Deeds not Words

Glebe House 1975
Glebe House 2012

Harmony Community Trust / Glebe House

Harry Corrsaden
Hylda Armstrong
Jean O'Reilly
Fearghal McConnell

Briege Dempster
Betty Miller
Paul Button
Denis Harrison

kilclief beach
Harmony Community Trust, Glebe House, 23 Bishopscourt Road, Strangford, Co. Down, BT30 7NZ
Tel: 028 4488 1374          Email:
Registered Charity I.R. No. XN48510      Company Limited by Guarantee No. N.I. 010639