US detective who gave 20,000 Troubles kids taste of a more normal life

A former New York bomb squad detective credited with helping to save children's lives during the Troubles is the subject of a new documentary.

Thursday, 22nd September 2016, 1:07 pm
Updated Wednesday, 5th October 2016, 2:20 pm
Former New York bomb squad detective Denis Mulcahy (right) with just some of the children he brought over from Northern Ireland to the United States as part of Project Children

Denis Mulcahy founded Project Children during the darkest days of violence in Northern Ireland, bringing young people from both sides of the divide to the United States for peaceful summers.

During the course of 40 years more than 20,000 children from some of the worst-hit areas of Belfast and Londonderry spent six-week stints with American host families, far from bomb blasts and riots.

The tale of how Cork native Mr Mulcahy launched Project Children with willing family and friends in 1975, is told in the film How to Defuse A Bomb: The Project Children Story, narrated by Ballymena-born actor Liam Neeson.

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Denis Mulcahy (right) with former US president Bill Clinton

President Clinton, who took Mr Mulcahy to Northern Ireland as part of his official delegation for a historic visit in 1995, described the father-of-four as “a good man doing a good thing”.

He said: “He knew then that if he did it enough he’d not only save some individual lives and create some different futures but it might move the country.”

On meeting him and hearing about his efforts he said: “I thought that he symbolised so much the hope that I had for the peace process, for what could happen.”

The documentary, which has contributions from many of the children, now grown up, recounting the effect the scheme had on their lives, has been selected for the United Nations Association Film Festival and will have its world premiere at the Irish Film Festival on Sunday.

Denis Mulcahy (right) with former US president Bill Clinton

Having started out with an idea and $50 in the pot Mr Mulcahy said he never thought of the scheme lasting four decades, but said its simple premise helped it work.

The 72-year-old, who emigrated from Ireland to New York aged 17, told the Press Association: “The secret to our programme was putting kids into families and treating them just like another member and living in a neighbourhood, where you had people from all backgrounds – Irish, Jewish, Italian, black, white. And everybody could live together.”

The two-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, who was awarded an OBE last year, said the documentary was a tough watch in parts but reminded viewers of the bleak reality of the times.

He said: “It was an education for a lot of people to look at it. There’s some very powerful images. It’s not a movie so it’s not make-believe, it’s real, it happened.”

At least seven of the children who were part of the scheme later died in the Troubles after they returned to Northern Ireland.

Director Des Henderson said he was inspired to spread the word about the “extraordinary” actions of Mr Mulcahy and other volunteers within the charity.

He said: “You think growing up with the Troubles that you’ve heard all the stories you’re going to hear, the stories you’ve heard, read and watched have all been retold in some manner, but then you hear of Denis and it reads like the plot of a movie.

“Denis’s programme didn’t have a grand scheme in mind when they started, they were ordinary people compelled to do something, and to a great extent they didn’t know what they were doing, they just wanted to help, in any way they could.

“That was interesting to me, ordinary people, mothers, fathers, neighbours, doing something extraordinary.”

• How To Defuse A Bomb: The Project Children Story is part-funded by the BBC and is due to be broadcast later this year.