Over a forty-year period—an NYPD bomb disposal expert, Denis Mulcahy, brought over twenty-three thousand children from the worst areas of the troubles in Northern Ireland to America for a summer of getting away from it all. The story of Project Children is told in the documentary How to Defuse a Bomb.
In 1975 Mulcahy who had immigrated from Ireland, decided he couldn’t stand idly by whilst Northern Ireland blew up on his nightly news bulletin. Along with his family and neighbors in small town New York he started a scheme that would ultimately see twenty-three thousand children escape the worst of the violence and in the process discover they had more in common with the ‘enemy’ at home than they thought. From the seemingly intractable conflict of the early seventies to the signing of an historic agreement in the late nineties, the documentary charts the story of how Mulchay’s approach to reconciliation paved the way for peace in Northern Ireland.
Anthony Massey, the project children co-coordinator for Colorado says the goal of Project Children was to bring catholic and protestant children out of Northern Ireland during the marching season which at the time was extremely violent. “You saw bombings, shootings, knee cappings…children seeing friends assaulted. It was a very difficult time in Northern Ireland in many of the towns so the concept of Project Children was to bring the children out to America because generally when the marching season started was when their school session ended. And so the summers were largely efforts to avoid conflict and they were locked into many of their neighborhoods by barriers. The soldiers and the barriers and the police forces were locking down neighborhoods to keep the rioting from spilling over so a lot of the children were largely kept sequestered in their neighborhoods. The concept of bringing them to America was to not only get them a relief from almost a war type setting but also to perhaps seed a concept of understanding that perhaps the other side was not so different, and that’s really what the vision of it was all about.”
The marching season happens in Northern Ireland in early July and centers on the Orange Order holding marches celebrating their own loyalist/protestant culture and history. The marches often went through catholic/nationalist neighborhoods, leading to a lot of conflict and violence.
Massey says that children as young as 10 years of age participated in the program and they were often shocked by the lack of segregation in neighborhoods in America. “they were used to living in catholic neighborhoods and protestant neighborhoods, there was no mixing…no walls…but there was also a difference in that their schools were different there, they would go to a catholic school or a state school and there was no mixing at the education level until they went to University…coming to America was not only an awakening moment of understanding that we didn’t live in separate worlds like that but also our perspective of judgement, of saying that we can’t understand your side of the conflict.”
There is a free-screening of How to Defuse a Bomb on Thursday March 16th at 7.30pm at Broomfield Auditorium at 3 Community Park Rd., donations are welcome.