“It’s going to be special,” former New York City Police Department bomb disposal expert Denis Mulcahy says of the reception to honour him for his work in helping foster reconciliation in the North.
Cork-born Mulcahy, who was the driving force behind Project Children, which brought over 24,000 Catholic and Protestant children to the United States at the height of the Troubles, plays down his role in the scheme, paying tribute instead to the thousands of American host families.
“The host families were the backbone of our organisation – the greatest people, the most generous people. Sure, we brought over 900 kids on one given year and, over the years, thousands of families helped out and took kids for the summer to help them get away from the violence.
“And it wasn’t just Irish families. So many people here in the States, their ancestors emigrated here so there was always a welcome for the kids from the families, whether they were Polish or Jewish or whatever – there was always a kind of immigrant connection.”
The now 78-year-old was once that immigrant too. Leaving his family’s small farm in Rockchapel in the northwest corner of Co Cork, he arrived in New York as a 17-year-old in 1962 before a clerical error in joining the US army saw him sent on a bomb disposal course rather than an artillery course.
It was that expertise in bomb disposal that stood to him when he joined the NYPD and, it was while serving with the force that – along with his brother, Pat, an NYPD detective, and their friend Duke Hoffman – he decided to set up Project Children in 1975.
“The strange thing is that here in the US, there was more on the TV about the Troubles in the North than back in the South. Every night, reports of kids on the streets, throwing Molotov cocktails and bricks at the army and the army shooting back with plastic bullets and kids getting hurt.
“So, we had this idea. It had nothing to do with religion. It was very simple – let’s get the kids out of there for the summer during the marching season because that seemed to be when all the rioting was and the kids were getting hurt and we felt we should bring both sides, Catholic and Protestant.”
The Project Children story is told in the award-winning documentary How to Defuse a Bomb, made by Derek Henderson and narrated by Liam Neeson. Among those to feature is John Cheevers (59), who, as an eleven-year-old from loyalist Old Park in Belfast, was one of the first children to go the US.
John, who has lived now in the US for over 40 years, recalls how he was paired with young Kevin Brady from the nationalist Unity Flats in Belfast on that first trip and, after a few difficult early days, became the best of friends – until they returned to Belfast later that summer.
“I grew up in a hard-core part of loyalist North Belfast. One of my friends, his brother was one of the original Shankill Butchers – he was murdered in 1975 just before the Shankill Butchers really got going, murdered by fellow loyalists,” Cheevers told The Irish Times.
“It wouldn’t have been safe for Kevin to meet me there.”
Cheevers is one of Project Children’s success stories, telling how, as a result of meeting Catholics from his own city in the US, he came to view them as friends rather than enemies – something that earned him criticism from one of loyalism’s most notorious hardmen, Johnny Adair.
“Johnny Adair used to call me a yellow bastard because I wouldn’t fight the Catholics at Southport Street. They’d be all tooled up, getting their bricks and stuff but I would never get involved because if I was throwing stones, I would be throwing them at Denis Mulcahy and Kevin Brady.
“Coming to the States with Project Children sort of inoculated me against that. I could easily have got sucked into that cauldron of sectarianism but for Denis Mulcahy. And not just me – I know a lot of young Protestants guys, loyalists who stayed out of prison, thanks to Project Children.”
Praised by former US president Bill Clinton as “a good man doing a good thing”, Mulcahy shies away from any personal praise but he is less coy when it comes to discussing the project and the impact it had over the 40 years of its existence in steering many young people away from violence in the North.
“What we did could not have been done in Ireland because it needed the kids to be taken away from the environment completely but if you talk to the young people, it definitely touched the lives of a lot of people and we didn’t save everybody but it had a big impact.”
Denis Mulcahy will be honoured with a reception by Lord Mayor of Cork, Kieran McCarthy, at Cork City Hall on Friday, August 11th, and the reception will be followed with a screening of How to Defuse A Bomb at the Art Deco Cinema at the Pav in Cork at 6pm.