Project Children Draws to a Close

From left: William Crawley, a Project Children Alumnus; Project Children alumna Patricia MacBride; Norman Houston, director of the Northern Ireland Bureau; and Denis Mulcahy, Founder and Chairman of Project Children all speaking in Washington, D.C.

By Sarah Buscher, Contributor
February / March 2015

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.

Denis Mulcahy (center) with Padraig O’Hara, of Newton Abbey, and his host brother Matthew Savage Aibel.

Denis Mulcahy (center) with Padraig O’Hara, of Newton Abbey, and his host brother Matthew Savage Aibel.

“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.

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To learn more about Project Children, as well as how you can get involved, visit www.projectchildreninterns.com

6 Responses to “Project Children Draws to a Close”

  1. Pat Corcoran says:

    What a wonderful tribute to Denis and Marion Mulcahey! And to everyone who has been involved in any way in Project Children It is a perfect example of what one person can do with his heart in the right place. I grew up with Project Children all around me and knew it was a great thing for us-great and fun to have these kids in our house every summer, I knew in my heart it was doing something very good-perhaps an unquantifiable thing. Reading this article about these 2 children’s lives forever changed makes it quantifiable. The difference between hell on earth and heaven on earth is to reach out and do what you can to help another in whatever way you can. To show love for each other makes all the difference to everyone. It gives to the giver as well as to the receiver. Childhood is such a short precious time-perhaps all the ills of humanity could be helped if each of us reaches out to help in whatever way we can one day at a time. God bless the Mulcahys and everyone who has worked for Project Children!

  2. Seanmar says:

    This was truly a great program thanks to Denis Mulcahy.

  3. Seanmar says:

    Denis Mulcahy deserves a Nobel Peace Prize for this great work.

  4. Roisin Bigg says:

    I went to New Jersey in 1988 I believe and spent an amazing 6 weeks with a host family that I still keep in touch with now. I watched the Project Children documentary tonight and it brought back a lot of memories for me. The documentary also highlighted for me something that I hadn’t realised before and that was when Denis Mulcahy received his Top Cop award. I was in Virginia at the time helping to build houses for Habitat for Humanity and I believe our group of students attended that ceremony and I never realised it until now who that Cop was. Denis is truly an amazing man and has done so much for Irelands children including myself and I will always be grateful for the opportunity he gave me. Xxx

  5. Brian kiernan says:

    This has been a beautiful story about compassion and love for our fellow creatures and I think Denis should most definitely be awarded the Nobel peace prize . I think that we are all responsible for each other ,and I think that Denis is a perfect example of being a great philanthropist.godbless you denis

  6. Tom Loughlin Jr member AOH Oneida County NY says:

    Happy to know these folks. Exemplary people..

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