A New documentary telling the previously untold story of how an NYPD bomb disposal expert played a key role in helping to defuse the conflict in Northern Ireland is broadcast on the BBC this week. In 1975, Cork native Denis Mulcahy decided he couldn’t stand by whilst the North literally blew up on his nightly news bulletin.

Along with his family and neighbors in a small New York state town, he started a scheme that would ultimately see 23,000 children escape the worst of the violence for a summer of peace in the United States.  

Over a 40 year period, Project Children took children from deprived areas of Northern Ireland and placed them with host families in America for six weeks during their summer holidays. 

One such boy was Frankie Hughes from the Divis area of West Belfast.  

“In 1990 when I was 11-years-old I was picked to go to America with Project Children,” he recalled.

"I was really excited to see the place I had only seen on TV and in Hollywood films.

“I stayed with a family, the Mullins, in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.  

The streets were cleaner and the houses were bigger in America, and no one cared what religion I was. 

“It felt like a new planet, compared to the lower Falls area I come from in Belfast. I lived in Divis Flats until I was six.  

“Then, I moved over the bridge to Stanley Court, near Barrack Street, my parents still live there.  My house would shake every time the Grosvenor Road Barracks or the Europa Hotel were bombed.

“That summer I met Mary Anne Sullivan, a Washington lawyer, who was hosting another boy, from Derry. Mary Anne and I forged a connection, and she invited me to return the following year, and the following, and the following.  

Since 1990, I’ve never spent another summer without visiting Mary Anne. When I was 17-years old, I moved to America to attend high school and college. She changed my life in too many ways to count.”

Read More: Batman's Michael Keaton was an American father to a Troubles kid

Frankie currently lives in Patterson, New York, about an hour north of New York City

“I have small house on a picturesque lake,” he says.

“I've been teaching English in middle and high school for thirteen years.  

“I love helping young people find worth in themselves and find hope for the future – the gifts I received from Project Children.  Though it breaks my heart being away from my family, I've a great life in America, which I'm truly thankful for.”

Using archive footage and with contributions from former U.S. President Bill Clinton, the feature-length documentary weaves the personal stories of the children who were given this unique experience with the wider political story of how Washington came to be involved in dealing with the situation in the North.

Narrated by Liam Neeson, the documentary also reveals what happened to many of the children involved in Project Children.

It hears about those who successfully overcame the difficulties of the Troubles and others who failed to escape the violence.

From the conflict of the early seventies to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in the late nineties, the program looks at the incredible story of how one man’s visionary approach to reconciliation led to him influencing American politicians and subsequently contributing to peace in the North of Ireland. 

“Project Children: Defusing The Troubles” was made by Alley Cats for BBC NI.


This article first appeared in the Irish Echo. For more stories, visit their website