In 1975 Irish immigrant Denis Mulcahy of the NYPD bomb squad gathered a group of family, friends and neighbours to start a scheme offering children from Northern Ireland a chance to temporarily escape the violent turmoil of their daily lives. From modest beginnings Project Children ultimately brought over 20,000 Catholic and Protestant children to suburban US for summer-long visits where they forged unexpected friendships and found they had more in common with the “enemy” than they thought.
Having recently won the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature at The IFI Documentary Festival, Des Henderson’s documentary, How To Defuse A Bomb: The Project Children Story, returns to screen as part of the IFI’s Irish Focus strand.
Director Des Henderson tells Film Ireland why he wanted to tell this incredible story.
I had always known about the charity that took kids away for six weeks every summer, I went to Drumcree High School in Portadown at the top of the Garvaghy Road, during the mid ’90s most of my friends left every summer – I never did – but I’m not bitter! I didn’t give it a second thought really, I assumed it was the church or the state that ran this program, I left school and never thought about it again.
Years later when someone asked me did I know the story behind ‘Project Children
‘ I was stunned to learn it was one family behind it all, that it had started in 1975 and had brought twenty three thousand kids to the U.S. from the worst areas of ‘the Troubles’. My interest was piqued. When I found out Denis Mulcahy’s backstory, a bomb disposal officer with the NYPD, I knew I had to try and tell this story.
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 re-told in some manner, you’re sick of ‘Troubles’ stories. But then you hear of Denis and it reads like the plot of a movie. We recorded the voiceover with Liam Neeson and we both discussed this – he said, “yeah you could write a script and they’d ask you to change it because it’s TOO Hollywood”… so, the main guy is a bomb disposal expert? Really??? But this was a true story and one no-one really knew about it.
That’s what got me interested in the story. If this was a state-run or church-run “scheme” I would have given it a miss – those programmes existed and did great work but it’s an obvious thing to do if you come at it from that institutionalised viewpoint. Denis’ 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.