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Copyright 1999 Plain Dealer Publishing Co.  
The Plain Dealer

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March 21, 1999 Sunday, FINAL / SOUTHEAST/NORTHWEST


LENGTH: 595 words




Mentor resident Michael J. Whitely tried last night to build peace in Northern Ireland from the sand at Headlands Beach State Park.

Whitely used the cold, deserted beach as a location for filming his musical portrayal of the Nativity, the birth of Jesus. He supplemented a cast of 15 volunteer actors with three camels, a donkey, goats, sheep and chickens, all borrowed from an owner in Madison.

The film will guide producers in Coleraine, a town of 20,000 in County Londonderry, Northern Ireland, as they bring Catholic and Protestant children together next Dec. 16-18 to perform Whitely's musical.

The traditional and contemporary Christmas music will unite a chorus of 90 children from three Protestant schools and three Catholic schools, and each evening will end with a town social. That goes well beyond symbolism in a province long torn by religious strife and Catholic objection to British rule.

Desmond D. Hasson, principal of Protestant-dominated Ballysally Primary School, said he hoped the musical would set an example.

"There is a willingness to come together," Hasson said. "I think what we've lacked up to now is the opportunity. No one has ever attempted such a big event."

Whitely, 36, is a guitarist and singer. The 1981 graduate of Mentor High School is a graduate student in educational psychology at Kent State University. He owns Inspirational Media, a nonprofit company that delivers entertainment with messages such as the dangers of drug abuse.

He created the musical after visiting Northern Ireland for research on how children cope with violent surroundings. School officials asked him to plan a "cross-community event."

"They said, 'What do both groups agree on, that there isn't going to be any debate on?' It was decided that if anything was going to pull people together, it was the Christmas season,' said Whitely, whose doctoral dissertation will focus on using music to break cultural barriers.

Coleraine has largely avoided the sectarian violence that defines the country. The six schools have collaborated on activities, but not on the scale of the Nativity production, which could draw up to 2,000 pupils and 4,000 parents over the course of four performances.

"There are parents who may object," said Hasson, who oversees 270 pupils ages 5 through 11. "It's very much voluntary participation, but I don't see any problems in that area."

A nearly year-old peace agreement calling for joint Protestant-Catholic rule in Northern Ireland has strong public support, Hasson said. The British government has made April 2 the latest deadline for transferring power, but the two sides still disagree over disarmament for the pro-Catholic Irish Republican Army.

"There is a clear mood of optimism amongst the people that this peace agreement will last. There is no other solution," Hasson said.

The musical's organizers in Northern Ireland are trying to raise 10,000 pounds, or $25,000 in U.S. currency. The money would cover costs, including rental of a public sports complex for the event, and establish a fund for cooperative activities in Northern Ireland.

Whitely and arranger Thomas A. Todd of Eastlake also hope to sell broadcast rights for the tape, helping them recapture an estimated $10,000 in time and money spent on the musical.

Hasson and Whitely are soliciting endorsements. Marjorie Mowlam, British secretary of state for Northern Ireland, sent Whitely a letter of support in January.

The musical made its debut Christmas Eve during a packed Mass at St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church in Mentor.

GRAPHIC: PHOTO BY LONNIE TIMMONS III / PLAIN DEALER PHOTOGRAPHER; Lisa Hanusosky of Zoo-4-U in Madison handles a camel near Headlands Beach State Park, where a musical video of the Nativity is being filmed by Mentor resident Michael J. Whitely for showing a Northern Ireland.

LOAD-DATE: March 22, 1999

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