Project Children’s 40th anniversary celebration in Washington D.C. in September brought to a close an important chapter in Northern Ireland’s struggle for peace. For decades, this all-volunteer organization has been bringing children from both sides of the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland to spend the summer with a family in the United States as a respite from violence of the Troubles, but last summer was the final program.
The organization was founded in 1975 by Denis Mulcahy, a member of the New York Police Department Bomb Squad. After watching too many news accounts of violence, the Cork native reasoned that if Protestant and Catholic children could spend time together in an environment that was not toxic with war, they would be less likely as adults to hurl bombs at each other, and Project Children was born. That first summer, he and his wife Miriam brought six children, three Protestant and three Catholic, to spend the summer with them in their home in New York State.
Since then, the program has brought 22,000 children from Northern Ireland to spend the summer with 1,500 host families in the United States.
William Crawley, now an award-winning journalist and broadcaster for the BBC, spent the summer of 1979 with a Catholic family in New York.
“It was more than a summer of peace for me, it was a lifetime change,” he recalled. “I was right in the middle of the killing zones in North Belfast during the Troubles. I would cycle past bombs going off. I had an alcoholic father. I had a mother who worked three jobs as a cleaner. I had never been out of Belfast.
“The first night I got to the home I was staying in, I shared a room with a little boy who was the same age as me. These were the first Catholics I had ever met in my life. That night, the father, Frank came in, and before he turned the light out, he put the mark of the cross on his son’s forehead and then put it on mine. I couldn’t ever remember being touched by my father. The mother was a primary school teacher and she taught me the importance of education. I was the first kid in my family ever to go to university. I went to Princeton and eventually got a Ph.D. I worked for the BBC. I became a philosophy professor. I don’t think any of that could have happened without the intervention that I got that summer. It enabled me to see that there was a possibility beyond what I had.”
Patricia MacBride spent the summers of 1985 and 1986 in New Jersey. “It was a very difficult time for my family,” she recalled. “Just before Christmas, before that summer of 1985, I had lost my brother in very violent circumstances. He was the eldest. My dad had died when I was three years old. He had also been shot. So my mother was struggling. She had just lost her eldest son and she had five other children at home.”
MacBride described the prospect of leaving home for six weeks as “daunting,” but recalled that she was embraced by Joe and Pat Barry and their children immediately.
“Joe was a councilman, he was a union organizer. This was a family that was very engaged in their community and it was a family where social responsibility and activism were seen as a moral duty. Their involvement in Project Children was just an extension of what they thought was their mission to be socially responsible, to be activists, to be agents for change,” she said.
“What Project Children did, and I think this was the success and the magic that Denis and Miriam and everyone who was involved created, was that they didn’t force anything. There was no sitting down in little circles and talking about where you were from or what your background was. It was just very gently creating opportunities for everyone to be in the same space. It was gently encouraging people to do things that they mightn’t have done otherwise
“I’m absolutely a different person because of the encouragement,” MacBride asserted. “I wouldn’t have seen activism as something that I could pursue, as something that I could do in my own community, because I didn’t have that level of encouragement at home.” MacBride became an expert in governance and change management, working with charities and NGOs throughout Ireland to develop rights-based strategies for positive change.
While the summer children’s project draws to an end, the organization’s internship program, where mature students are brought to the U.S. during the summer to work and live, will continue. Now running for almost 20 years, over 600 students have taken part in the program. It has grown from the initial 10 students per summer, to over 45 students per summer.
The organization uses its large network of co-ordinators and host families to provide valuable work experience in many fields ranging from law and politics, to medicine and engineering. And it’s all thanks to one man, Denis Mulcahy, who decided to see if he could make a difference.
To learn more about Project Children, as well as how you can get involved, visit www.projectchildreninterns.com