An archive documenting a project that gave children in Northern Ireland the chance to go to America during the Troubles will go on display in a new “Peace Campus” in Co Monaghan.
Images, interviews and footage from Project Children’s work over the last 50 years have been gifted to Monaghan County Council, by the organisation’s founder, Denis Mulcahy.
The “cultural partnership” was announced this week but work on an exhibition to mark the organisation’s 50th anniversary is still in the early stages.
Born in Cork, Mr Mulcahy emigrated to the US in the 1960s, before becoming a bomb disposal officer at the New York City Police Department.
He, along with his brother Patrick and others, set up Project Children in 1975 to give both Catholic and Protestant children from Northern Ireland the opportunity to go to America for “respite” from what was going on around them.
It started with six children and since then, around 23,000 children from Northern Ireland have gone to the US to experience life in a different environment.
“Back in 1975, The Troubles was at its peak in Northern Ireland, and it was getting huge coverage in the states every time you put on the TV”.
“So it was very simple. Why don’t we just get the kids out of there for the summer?,” he said.
Mr Mulcahy travelled to Monaghan this week to launch the collaboration with Monaghan County Council.
How it started, he said, but getting children from both communities together also became a part of it.
Over the last 50 years, he has held onto everything, including records of the names of all the children who took part and the names of their host families.
He hopes this will all end up in the library in Monaghan.
There are also photographs, a letter and cheque written by former US President Ronald Reagan to Mr Mulcahy and other memorabilia.
A few years ago, a local screening of his documentary about Project Children, “How to defuse a bomb”, was watched by hundreds of children in Monaghan and across the border.
Following the success of that, he said: “this is the place to make Project Children it’s home”.
Another person who has compiled her own personal archive of “Project Children”, is Derry woman Marguerite Bradley.
At the age of 10 in 1990, she hopped on a plane bound for New York with the project and stayed with a host family in New Jersey for six weeks.
She returned several times throughout the 1990s, before doing an internship with Project Children.
Ms Bradley said she grew up in a very Catholic and Nationalist part of Co Derry and was from a “working class background”.
At that time, she was not really aware of what was going on, although does remember there being a “lot of trouble ” in the summers when she was a child.
“I just lived in my own wee bubble,” she said.
She remembers the first time she realised there was a difference between Protestants and Catholics.
It was when another child on the plane said she was from Londonderry.
“I said, ‘where’s that? I’m from Derry'”.
Ms Bradley said that going on those trips gave her the chance to mix with children from different backgrounds, some of whom are still in her life today, and was something she does not believe would have happened without Project Children.
She had a great relationship with her host family and ended up returning to the US with Project Children several times.
She added that taking part changed her life, “without a doubt”.
“I don’t think I would’ve ever been able to go to America,” she said.
She later went onto study fashion and textiles at the University of Ulster, and says her host family supported her in continuing her studies. They even came to Belfast for her graduation as a surprise.
Ms Bradley has kept all her memories in handmade scrapbooks, which she dug out this week.
“Looking back through the scrapbooks was really emotional, I found all the letters they would’ve sent me too.
“I think it’s brilliant because it’s touched so many peoples’ lives”.
Coming from a different Northern Ireland than where Ms Bradley grew up, 25-year-old Kyle from Co Down discovered Project Children as a University student in 2019, when he completed an internship in Colorado.
“I got so much out of it, it’s one of those experiences I’m so grateful for. The opportunity to see different lifestyles and cultures in the USA and the perspective on a different way of life”.
Kyle says that Project Children brings people together from across the divide.
“It’s so beneficial and rewarding to meet people from different backgrounds and faiths and everything in between,” he said.
Monaghan County Council is in the process of going through the archive and will visit Mr Mulcahy’s home in the US to select which pieces to bring back to the Peace Campus.
It is hoped the campus will be open in the Spring, after a nearly €20m investment through EU funding, funding from the Department of Rural Affairs and Community Development, and through the Council.
It will be home to several cultural and community services, including the county museum and the town library.
Early work has already started to plan a major series of exhibitions and events to mark the 50th anniversary of Project Children in 2025.
Cathaoirleach of Monaghan County Council David Maxwell said that both Project Children and the Council share “a common goal of working hard to provide a better life for the people we serve”.
“I look forward to welcoming our entire community and the many thousands of visitors who will join us in celebrating Project Children’s 50th Anniversary in 2025”.
CEO of Monaghan County Council Robert Burns said that Project Children was about bringing children from different backgrounds together in a safe space, so that they could learn from each other.
“The Peace Campus has the same ambition of having a transformative effect on Monaghan and the surrounding region.
“We are delighted to have the opportunity to formally document and to celebrate this remarkable programme which changed lives for many growing up on the border,” he said.
He said that Monaghan was a good location for Project Children because of its proximity to the border.
Mr Burns said that while the Peace Campus will be open in a matter of months, the Project Children element is a “longer term project”.
He hopes that it will ultimately be an attraction for people visit, including those who were involved as children.
“Families will be able to come as adults, to show it to their own children, what Project Children is”.
Mr Mulcahy said its reach will be far wider.
“We covered over 20 states, people will come from all those states, people love to have an excuse to come to Ireland anyhow,” he said.