Powerful new play about Project Children to debut at Féile

A new play inspired by the stories and experience of a summer project that brought Protestant and Catholic children to America for respite during the height of The Troubles, will open this week in Belfast as part of the 35th Féile An Phobail. Jenny Lee finds out more from playwright Fionnuala Kennedy

Project children brought thousands of children from Northern Ireland to America for a summer holiday respite from the everyday violence and strife of their homeland
Project children brought thousands of children from Northern Ireland to America for a summer holiday respite from the everyday violence and strife of their homeland

SET up in 1975 when Cork natives and now members of the NYPD, Patrick and Denis Mulcahy, watched footage of the violence in Northern Ireland, Project Children brought over 23,000 children to the US for respite from the conflict. 

In a new play by Brassneck Theatre Company, based upon first-hand accounts from participants and volunteers, west Belfast playwright Fionnuala Kennedy documents this extraordinary intervention.

Project Children playwright Fionnuala Kennedy
Project Children playwright Fionnuala Kennedy

Can you share some more about your play Project Children?

It’s about the volunteers on the ground here, how they selected children to go out, the challenges of organising hundreds of kids on a jumbo jet and then what the experience was for those who went out.

The play also documents some of what was happening here at the time. The stories I’ve heard are mad and hilarious, at times heart-breaking and also really inspiring. Whilst the play looks at this one programme, it’s really a celebration of all those programmes that took children away for respite, whether it be to America or Cushendall.

Where is Project Children set?

There are some scenes set in America, but really, it’s a memory play. The  actors are really brilliant at bringing these memories to life. They multi-role between playing the volunteers, the children and the American host families.

What time period is it set in?

The play travels through Project Children’s 40-year span from 1975 to 2015. That makes it sound really long, but it flies through the decades - and Tony Devlin, the director, is an expert at keeping it fast-paced and really entertaining.

Your sister went out on Project Children. Can you share her experience?

My sister, Maelisa went out in 1989 to Rotterdam Junction in upstate New York, and then continued going out to the Slezak family for another six years. The Slezak’s are an extension of our family, we’re still very much in contact with them, as many of the participants are.

My memories of Mel going out are waiting for her to come home with presents. It seemed like she had been away for ages and she felt a bit like a stranger when she came home. She brought home the best presents – watermelon, chewing gum and jumpers with Micky Mouse on them.

She’d mention that she’d been to Niagara Falls and climbed up the steps of the Statue of Liberty, but  all I wanted was the sweets.

I never properly asked her about her experience until doing this project. When she was older, she kept travelling the world. She gets very emotional talking about what the experience meant to her. It was life-changing for her, so it’s been really great having her help me make sure the play is truly reflective of the experience.

Did you feel disappointed not to go to America with Project Children yourself?

I was the youngest of three sisters, so I wasn’t even considered. I think I would’ve been terrified. But seeing the impact it has had on the people I’ve interviewed has made me wish I’d had that chance. I feel like this is my small way of being part of it. 

Read more: 

Féile an Phobail launch to introduce eclectic line-up for 35th annual festival

Arts Q&A: Fionnuala Kennedy on Brian Friel, Christy Moore and Ken Loach

On pointe for unique Belfast ballet inspired by The Peace People

What made you want to pen this story?

After talking to Mel and a few other people about their experiences, I kept digging and found the stories so fascinating. Not just what it was like travelling to America - but what people were living with here, what they were getting away from, and what they had to return to. Then speaking to my Mummy, who was always worried sick about Mel being away, but knew it was the best for her.

I think the sacrifice parents made and the trust they placed in the volunteers is extraordinary, something that probably wouldn’t even happen today. Being a mummy myself, I couldn’t imagine sending my child away aged 10 or 11 for six weeks, but that just shows how bad things were here.

We have two young performers from Brassneck Youth, Sally McKinney and Mary-Kate Page, who will share a role on alternate nights because we felt it was important for the audience to see just how young the participants were when they went out.

Every time these two young kids walk on stage, I cry. They’re so good.

Actors Terence Keeley and Nicky Harley during rehearsals for Brassneck Theatre Company's production of Project Children
Actors Terence Keeley and Nicky Harley during rehearsals for Brassneck Theatre Company's production of Project Children

Tell us who else inspired you during the writing process?

Monica Culbert and Sally Brennan, two volunteers in Belfast who brought the children out, have been really helpful in keeping me right. I’d sit with them as they’d recollect their experiences and it was a joy to write their characters (played so brilliantly by Laura Hughes and Mary Moulds).

We did a read-through of the play for all the interviewees, so it was a relief when they laughed and cried and said how much they enjoyed it.

The play is not verbatim. I’ve had to fictionalise the stories whilst trying to keep the integrity and authenticity of the interviews, because our role is to also make them entertaining for an audience.

Are the founders of Project Children aware of your play?

Absolutely. It’s not my story and it’s such an important legacy that I had to build a relationship with the founders, so they trusted me with telling this story. Denis Mulcahy, the man who set it up, has been really supportive and has been promoting it to people who were involved in Project Children.

Project Children founder Denis Mulcahy meets President Bill Clinton
Project Children founder Denis Mulcahy meets President Bill Clinton

Would you like to put on Project Children in America?

I would love to bring the play to the host families who are still very much a part of the lives of those who went out. We have plans for a tour next year, so watch this space.

What do you hope audiences take away from the production?

I want people to remember the hope, joy and possibility we all felt when we chose peace, the volunteers here who worked tirelessly to bring communities together, and finally, the kindness of others in helping people here.

We’re at a time when so many children around the world are being displaced due to war and climate change. I think it’s important to remember the kindness that was shown to us.

:: Project Children will be performed at St Comgall's, Belfast from August 4 - 13. For tickets, visit Brassnecktheatrecompany.com.