The lasting impact of Project Children brought to the stage by Fionnuala Kennedy’s powerful play

As her acclaimed production Project Children arrives at the Lyric in Belfast, Jenny Lee speaks to the Belfast playwright about being inspired by the American charity and its local volunteers who provided 23,000 children from the north with a temporary escape from the Troubles

Project Children brought thousands of children from Northern Ireland to America for a summer of respite from the Troubles – and an introduction to a world of opportunity
Project Children brought thousands of children from Northern Ireland to America for a summer of respite from the Troubles – and an introduction to a world of opportunity

Northern Ireland’s troubled past and the memories of a pioneering charity which helped transform the lives of thousands of children is remembered in a forthcoming play at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre.

At a time when the news was filled with shootings and bombings and when going anywhere meant security checkpoints, Project Children offered hope and a glimpse of a different world.

Over the course of 40 years, the US charity sent 23,000 Catholic and Protestant children to America for six weeks of summer respite from the sectarian violence raging around them.

Project Children
Project Children

It’s a powerful reminder of how activism and radical kindness combine to have a massive effect in the lives of so many.

This is captured in the play by Belfast writer Fionnuala Kennedy, which premiered at last year’s Félie an Phobail and will now be staged at Belfast’s Lyric theatre later this month.

Read more:

Fionnuala’s own sister was one of those to benefit from Project Children, and was part of the playwright’s inspiration to document this extraordinary intervention.

Project Children was set up in 1975 by Co Cork natives and New York police officers Patrick and Denis Mulcahy in response to watching news reports of violence erupting on the streets of Belfast and Derry.

The brothers felt compelled to do something to help children caught in the crossfire: in its first year, they brought six children to spend the summer in New York, away from the everyday violence and strife of their homeland.

The following year, they were able to bring 21 children to the United States and the project just grew and grew.

Instrumental to the success of Project Children were the volunteer coordinators back in the north. Former Belfast teachers Sally Brennan and Monica Culbert are just two who were driven to make a difference, and whom Fionnuala chose to characterise within her Project Children play as narrators.

David Canning, Monica Culber, Tony Devlin, Denis Mulcahy, Fionnuala Devlin and Sally Brennan taken at the Monaghan Peace Campus.
David Canning, Monica Culbert, Tony Devlin, Denis Mulcahy, Fionnuala Kennedy and Sally Brennan taken at the Monaghan Peace Campus.

“The play is inspired by the stories and experiences of people who travelled to America as children but is very much about the volunteers on the ground here and the parents who trusted to let them go,” says Fionnuala.

“Sally and Monica were so helpful in recollecting their experiences and it was a joy to write their characters.” .

Another she consulted during the development of the play was founder Denis Mulcahy, who will be flying over to see the play for the first time later this month - much to Fionnuala’s delight.

“It’s his project, and I hope this production is part of the Project Children legacy.”

Revelling in the sights and tastes of America and the goodies they brought home, from baseball caps and Mickey Mouse T-shirts to chewing gum and pizza base mix, for many of the children it was a life-changing experience.

It took over your life in a good way. The conflict here was horrendous and you realised you were doing something that was the benefiting children and families.

—  Monica Culbert

Having learned to accept others and brought different ways of thinking back home, it shaped their futures and often their career choices.

This was the case for Fionnuala’s sister Maelisa, who first stayed with the Slezak family in upstate New York in 1989.

“They took her on a number of trips all over the US and Canada. She experienced the Amish community and came back talking about all these experiences. It introduced her to new cultures and really broadened her horizons.

Belfast playwright Fionnuala Kennedy
Belfast playwright Fionnuala Kennedy

“When she was older, she kept travelling the world, working in South Africa, New Jersey and Italy and went on to make youth work her career.”

Like many, Maelisa developed a life-long relationship with her host family. Last August, her mother met her host mum for the first time, before the families watched the premiere of Project Children at Féile an Phobail.

“They’d only ever spoken on the phone before, and when Kathy walked in my mummy burst out crying,” recalls Fionnuala.

“We all got really emotional. Mummy said thank you and told Kathy how she was worried sick when Mel first went out.”

There was an amazing amount of trust required for Irish families to be comfortable with US hosts taking their children, and key to fostering that trust was volunteer Monica Culbert.

“A lot of people trusted Monica when she said it was safe to go. That was certainly the case for my mummy and it changed Mel’s life,” adds Fionnuala.

Cast of Brassneck Theatre Company's production of Project Children looking at a wall
Brassneck Theatre Company's production of Project Children comes to Belfast's Lyric Theatre this spring

Now 74, Monica is still volunteering with the charity by organising Project Children’s ongoing summer internships.

Her own children were grateful to participate in the programme when they were 10 and 14, which she says allowed her to tell other parents “I allowed my own children to go and I will do the best for your child and keep them safe”.

“People used to knock on my door and say ‘Mrs, are you the woman that takes children to America?’, laughs Monica, whose house was laden with Project Children admin every year, from January to August.

“We didn’t eat at our kitchen table because it was covered in permission forms, passports, labels and timelines.

“It took over your life in a good way. The conflict here was horrendous and you realised you were doing something that was benefiting children and families. It also benefited me because I enjoyed what I did and witnessed the satisfaction of the children growing and developing.

“In hindsight, it was an amazing thing. When you’re working through the piles of admin and practicalities, you don’t see it as big. You do it one step and one child at a time.”

Although Project Children transformed many kids’ lives for the good, Fionnuala’s often humorous script doesn’t shy away from highlighting those who were homesick and those that didn’t have happy homes to come back to.

“The stories are mad, hilarious, sad, joyous. Whilst the play looks specifically at Project Children, it’s a celebration of all those programmes - Children in the Crossfire, the Ulster Project, to name a few.”

Project Children
The cast of Brassneck Theatre Company's production of Project Children

Monica admits that watching Brassneck Theatre Company’s production of Project Children brought a tear to her eye.

“Listening to the children’s stories, it struck me how desperate some of the environments were that we were bringing children out of and how powerfully the trips affected them.”

It also made her realise the important role she and the other volunteers played.

“I suppose it made me proud to be able to volunteer from my kitchen table and help bring all those children to America.

“Project Children was like a family, and I made great friendships with volunteers from all sides of the community.”

Although an historical play, its ethos is very much relevant in today’s world where so many families and children are being displaced due to war and conflict.

This was something at the forefront of Fionnuala’s mind when writing it.

“I think it’s important to remember the kindness that was shown to us. Initially, I had a whole section at the end where they fast forward and look at what was happening in the world now, but we took it out and just let the play speak for itself.”

Directed by Tony Devlin, Project Children features Terence Keeley, James Doran, Nicky Harley, Laura Hughes, Mary Moulds as well as young performers Sally McKinney and Mary-Kate Page.

Funding dependent, the writer is hopeful of bringing the play to America later this year.

“There are a lot of people in the States who want it to happen. Hopefully we will bring it to New York and Washington.

“It will be like giving something back to the families who were so generous to us.”

Project Children runs at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre from April 24 to May 5. Tickets at Lyrictheatre.co.uk.