A new documentary recounts the founding of Project Children and the strides the all-volunteer organization made toward helping Northern Ireland achieve peace.
“It’s simple, it’s not rocket science.”
Denis Mulcahy is reflecting on Project Children’s 40 years of service to Protestant and Catholic children of Northern Ireland. It’s a story of turning points, of lives redirected, of second chances at childhood. It’s the story of humanity at its best – selfless and generous.
Mulcahy, a native of Cork, his brother Pat, and a group of friends founded the project in 1975 while sitting around a dining room table in the quiet town of Greenwood Lake, NY, about 60 miles northwest of New York City. At the time, Northern Ireland was a cauldron of sectarian violence.
“The Troubles were on the six o’clock news every night. The bombings were 24/7,” Mulcahy recalls. “In one 24-hour period, 15 places were blown up in Belfast. Anyone could be a target. No place was safe.”
The Protestant and Catholic communities of Northern Ireland were polarized, with both sides living in different neighborhoods and children attending segregated schools.
In 1975, Kevin Brady was the oldest of eight children in a Catholic family living in an apartment block on New Lodge Road in Belfast.
“One of the first memories I have is of the army shooting tear gas up the stairs at my brother and I when we were kids. There was massive rioting going on all the time. I remember looking out the window and seeing four or five places that were on fire.
“When I lived there we would play football on the street, we would climb into old buildings and we would riot. Rioting was what all the kids in the neighborhood did. Those were my memories.
“There was a bar in our neighborhood,” he continues, “McGurk’s bar, where Loyalists just threw in a bomb and 16 or 17 people died and there were numerous shootings. I sort of envied my parents because they remembered a time when it wasn’t that way, but that’s all that I can remember. That was my childhood.”
William Crawley, a Project Children alumnus and now a commentator for BBC Northern Ireland, describes Northern Ireland as divided by a “mythic sectarianism.” Mulcahy set out to combat the fear and misunderstanding that perpetuated it, by providing both Protestant and Catholic children a safe place in the States where they could just be kids. Children were placed with families or other children from Northern Ireland who represented the other side of the sectarian divide – Catholic children were housed with Protestant families and, vice versa.
As a nine-year-old, Brady was part of the first cohort of children from Belfast Project Children hosted in the States. “I was really, really excited. It just exposed a whole new world to me. I had never seen anyone with black skin. I had never been close to any Protestants, let alone people who were Jewish or Muslim. I knew that world existed on TV, but actually being there and seeing that there was another world, gave me hope.”
Fast forward 40 years: Project Children has hosted 22,000 children from Northern Ireland and evolved from an organization that hosted young children for a summer to a young adult internship program that partners with Habitat for Humanity and brings Protestant and Catholic children from the Republic and Northern Ireland to spend a summer in the U.S. to develop job skills.
The launch of the documentary How to Defuse a Bomb: The Project Children story has recently thrust Mulcahy back into the spotlight, a place he’d rather not be. In fact, he agreed to the film because he never thought it would happen.“When I gave the go ahead,“ Mulcahy points out, “I never thought they’d get the funding and put it out of my mind.” This is typical Mulcahy – too busy to rest on any laurels. He’s also quick to deflect praise for his vision or stewardship of the organization. “We’ve done incredible work,” he admits, “but it’s not me. It’s the host families.”
“The one thing about the program,” Mulcahy reflects, “was it attracted the greatest people in the world. The most generous people, the most understanding people.”
What seems to elude Mulcahy after all these years is how he embodies the qualities he admires in others. In describing the taciturn Cork-native, Brady, now a journalist living in Florida, points out, “I think that’s one of the reasons that Project Children was as successful as it was because he never forgot names, and he never forgot people and he never forgot to thank people.
It’s because of Mulcahy’s aversion to accolades that the film’s director, Des Henderson, describes Mulcahy as “a nightmare to interview.”
“Denis is a cop, a stereotypical Irish cop. He doesn’t give much away.”
Yet there’s nothing typical about Mulcahy’s career. While stewarding the all-volunteer organization, the father of four also spent years as a decorated member of the New York Police Department’s elite bomb disposal unit. The same patience, courage, and tenacity it took him to approach and dismantle a bomb were the same qualities that may have helped Mulcahy turn the tide of the Troubles.
As word of Project Children spread throughout the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, more and more families signed on to host children out of Northern Ireland. The program branched out along the East Coast, eventually reaching the homes of power brokers in Washington, D.C. Well-connected people like Kitty Higgins, then assistant to President Bill Clinton and cabinet secretary, hosted children. When Mulcahy visited the White House to receive an award for his service in the NYPD, Higgins pulled Mulcahy back into the Oval Office after the ceremony to tell the president about Project Children. Clinton went on to invite Mulcahy to join him on both of his trips to Northern Ireland.
The former president plays a prominent role as a commentator in the film, which is narrated by Liam Neeson. Henderson recalls, “It was obvious that they both have huge respect for Denis and the work he has done over the years. They really wanted to be involved.” Other luminaries in Mulcahy’s orbit are the actor Michael Keaton, who hosted children from Northern Ireland, and Roma Downey.
With success also came heartbreak. Project Children alumnus Seamus Morris was shot and killed in the streets of Belfast years after his summer in America. Young Bernadette McDonnell’s Project Children summer was cut short when her father Joe died on hunger strike. Some joined the violence that surrounded them.
Yet, for as many tragedies the project experienced, there were countless success stories: Michael Mullan, who, as part of his Project Children summer, received the surgery that would allow him to walk, and Catholic Kevin Brady and Protestant John Cheevers, who, years after their summers together on Greenwood Lake, would go on to serve as best man at each other’s wedding. Another Project Children alumna, Patricia McBride, whose father and older brother were killed during the Troubles, went on to a life of activism, serving as Northern Ireland’s victim commissioner.
At Project Children’s 40th anniversary celebration in Washington, D.C., McBride recalled, “What Project Children did, and I think this was the success and the magic that Denis and Marion and everyone who was involved created, was that they didn’t force anything…. 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.”
And so it went, building understanding, child by child, year after year, until the dream was realized – a ceasefire in 1998, followed by the Good Friday Agreement and a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland between nationalist and loyalist parties. The work of reconciliation continues.
In reflecting on the Troubles, Denis states, “If you were to ask back in those days if we would be where we are now, I would have said forget about it.” Yet the contrast from the Belfast of 40 years ago to today is a stark one. Kevin Brady asserts, “When you would walk downtown in Belfast, [during the Troubles] you always looked down. You wouldn’t look people in the eye, but then when I went back a few years ago, about ten years after the ceasefire, people were looking each other in the eye and they were smiling and they were saying hello. I saw the change immediately and I said to myself, there’s hope here.”
As How to Defuse a Bomb is being rolled out in the states, many U.S. citizens, on the right and the left alike, feel increasingly disenfranchised from the political system. When I ask Henderson why he thinks this is an important story for the current times, he adroitly sums up the power of the film and the power of Project Children itself: “Ordinary people do have the power to change the world for good. Denis was an ordinary NYPD cop – an immigrant to America – who took it upon himself to change the way the world worked. It’s inspiring and should remind us all that change starts with an idea and the bravery to see that idea through, even when others aren’t supporting you.” ♦