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'Better to light a candle than curse the dark... and Project Children lit up 23,000 of them'

Extraordinary Irish brothers who brought Troubles kids to the US. Maria Herlihy reports

Published 08/10/2016

Denis Mulcahy meeting the former US President Bill Clinton
Denis Mulcahy meeting the former US President Bill Clinton
Irish immigrant Denis Mulcahy in his days with NYPD bomb squad
Pat Mulcahy
Denis Mulcahy

Back in the 1970s two Co Cork brothers based in New York were struck by the pain and suffering caused by the Troubles in Northern Ireland, with scenes that were making headlines on a daily basis Stateside.

Working the beat in America's busiest city, policemen Pat and Denis Mulcahy encountered violence on a daily basis.

But it was back to home soil and the Troubles raging in Northern Ireland that the duo's hearts went out.

And it was the children affected by violence on the streets of Belfast, Londonderry and other towns and villages that they felt most for - so they decided to do something about it.

Fast-forward 40 years and the brothers have helped over 23,000 children, Catholics and Protestants, bringing them from Northern Ireland to America where religious differences were left at the front door of the host family home.

The visionary brothers set up Project Children, which provided a once in a lifetime opportunity for children of the Troubles to spend six weeks of the summer in America.

Now, their story has been told in a documentary called 'How To Defuse A Bomb'. It is narrated by Liam Neeson who, as a fledgling actor, regularly performed at Belfast's Lyric Theatre at the height of the Troubles.

The name of the documentary is indeed apt, as Denis worked as a bomb disposal expert at the New York Police Department.

The impact of Project Children speaks for itself. Denis has been nominated twice for a Nobel Peace Prize and also received an accolade from former US President Bill Clinton.

Last year he received an OBE from the Queen for services to peace-building and youth development in Northern Ireland, and in the same week was presented with an honorary doctorate in Philadelphia.

Both brothers received the Republic's People of the Year award in 1989, as well as a medal from Pope John Paul II.

Bill Clinton also speaks in the documentary about the work of the men from Duhallow, a region in north-west Co Cork.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness comments too, saying the two brothers "started a peace process long before they (politicians) did" in Northern Ireland.

How To Defuse A Bomb features footage from a 1970s American TV film made about Project Children, and there are also contributions from many who experienced the programme as children.

Ultimately, what Project Children did was to forge lifelong friendships which wouldn't have been cemented on home ground because of the religious differences. These children quickly found out that they had far more in common with their perceived enemies than they initially thought.

Pat Mulcahy, who is now back living in his native Rockchapel, Co Cork, says with a beaming smile that when he went to see the documentary in New York six weeks ago, he felt "quite nervous" as he wasn't sure what would unfold.

But any jitters were soon put aside as the documentary screening got underway, revealing the history of Project Children and its impact on the thousands of children who took part.

"It was marvellous and to see 40 years of work up on a screen with so many people whom I knew, it was just humbling and emotional," he recalled.

"I just thoroughly enjoyed the documentary.

"For me and Denis what we did was, we both walked that line between unionist and nationalists.

"For us, it didn't matter what religion a child was, they were still children.

"They deserved to see the world and be away from the harsh environment they were in. At the end of the day, a child is a child and must be taken care of."

Last weekend, the documentary was shown in Dublin at the Irish Film Institute.

Up to 400 people attended, with many of the former youngsters who had been part of the Project Children programme turning up for the event.

"There were times during the screening where there was absolute silence and tears," Pat added.

"There were also times when there was laughter.

"For me, it was very emotional, as I had my family around me and so many friends from Rockchapel."

There was terrific feedback from the floor, and an at times emotional response from many who had benefited from Project Children as, no doubt, memories came flooding back.

With a devilish smile, Pat added: "I had to wait until I was 75-years-old to make it to the big screen."

Of the 23,000 children brought over to America by Project Children, seven were ultimately killed in later years in Northern Ireland as the Troubles raged.

But it took blood, sweat and more than a single bucket of tears to fundraise the money to bring children from here to the USA.

As Pat explained in the past, to bring 900 children of both Catholic and Protestant faith over to America meant a price tag of $1m per year.

But the brothers did it. In addition to raising this money, they had to find host families and all had to be vetted. Pat, a gifted story-teller, spoke about two teenagers who were brought Stateside in the 1970s and who feature in the documentary.

John Cheevers and Kevin Brady were of different religions and happened to be put next to each other on the plane over.

They reached Kennedy Airport and both believed that they wouldn't have to set eyes on each other again until they were boarding the plane home.

Imagine their shock when they found out they were staying with the same host family.

However, the six weeks together meant their perception of the 'enemy' was left by the wayside, so much so that in later years they were best man at each other's wedding.

Their paths wouldn't have crossed back on home ground and, if it did, it would have been fraught with tension and negativity.

Pat frequently said that it was the children themselves who drove the project to be the success that it was.

Pat and Denis may now have hung up their NYPD hats, but their own children have followed in their footsteps.

Pat has three children, Ellen Lynch, Donna McCann and a son, Pat, who is a lieutenant in New York.

Denis's daughter Cara works as a court officer, his other daughter Maureen is a lieutenant and his son, Sean, is also a bomb disposal expert.

Pat strongly praised Denis for all the work he did over the years as Pat was injured at work in New York and had to retire in 1977 - just as the project was taking off.

However, despite being so far away from New York, Pat wasn't left idle as he would get phone calls from Denis saying that passports needed to be sorted for some of the children taking part in the trips to the States.

"Off I'd go and sort out passports and then would take a train to Belfast and, along with six to seven adults including teachers, we'd board a jammed 747 heading for New York," he recalled.

After 40 years, Project Children was brought to a close but Denis is still continuing with an internship programme.

Students from Ireland work with politicians in Washington along with policy law-makers, and students also go to the Irish Echo newspaper for six to eight weeks of work experience.

Denis now has a security firm and is also running a B&B in the beautiful surroundings of Greenwood Lake in New York.

With a smile, Pat again said how much of a drive his brother has.

"Even though he is retired from the bomb squad, he is busy with his B&B. I was only talking to him the other day for over an hour on the phone and he said to me he was changing bedsheets with his granddaughter," he added.

"Well, changing sheets on a bed would be a lot safer than diffusing a bomb."

As the interview drew to a close, he explained how, on more than one occasion, it was the children who drove the project onwards. He stopped and said with some emotion: "Isn't it better to light a penny candle than curse the darkness. When you light 23,000 penny candles you have a massive light."

Wise words from a wise and brave visionary.

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