I recently attended a great program at my local library consisting of a BBC-funded film, “To Defuse a Bomb,” a documentary about Project Children, an organization that brought children from Northern Ireland to America during “The Troubles” to give them a respite and a safe haven for a summer. Project Children also brought together Protestant and Catholic children, often with the same host family, which was not possible when they were back home since they didn’t go to the same schools or live in the same neighborhoods.

As they said in the film, bringing together the children of different faiths planted a seed – when their families said negative things about the opposite religion from the one they practiced, to those who had been part of Project Children in America, they had a different view of the Protestant and Catholic divide. It meant to some of the Catholic children in Ireland, a Protestant was not a nameless, faceless “other” that it was easy to see as an enemy, and vice versa. It was a simple formula, and it didn’t always overcome the strife and unrest when those children went back to Northern Ireland, but it definitely made a difference.

One of the children interviewed for the film reiterated that when he said he didn’t picture a person who he didn’t know and who was too different from him to ever find common ground with. He envisioned the person he had known and lived with for six weeks in America. They fought at first on the plane ride over to America, and they were suspicious of one another when they ended up being assigned to the same family overseas. Yet they managed to put that behind them eventually, even as they knew when they went back home there was no way they could associate with each other. Yet neither forgot that the “other” was a boy much like himself, who liked swimming and baseball.

It takes more than that to overcome decades of strife among people split by division, but its successes were great. It expanded beyond the few cities where it began in upstate New York, reaching Washington D.C. and host families there. The two children who fought on the plane on the way to America and ended up with the same host family, two children that were some of the first participants in Project Children, ended up being lifelong friends who were best men in each other’s weddings and still visit their American host family frequently. They went back to stay with that family for years while growing up, and their host family had photo albums full of their childhood pictures. They became as much a family as their blood family in Ireland was.

It was also mentioned in the documentary that the opportunity for America to help intervene in a positive way to further help spread peace was started when Project Children expanded to D.C. and one of its organizers, a New York City Police Department bomb squad expert, was invited to the Clinton White House to be honored for his work with the bomb squad. After receiving his award, he was returned to speak to Clinton about the work with Project Children and the need to help the young people in Northern Ireland have a chance to escape the strife where they internalized all the war and animosity as normal, and played games that consisted of conflict and throwing rocks at soldiers and tanks in their neighborhoods.

Clinton paid a visit to Northern Ireland in 1995, helping to foster peace talks between the opposing sides. It was the beginning of the turning point in all the strife there.

The program concluded with live music by the band Gypsy’s Wish, comprised of one of the young men – Declan Cheara (McKerr) – who participated in Project Children while he was growing up, and his friend Andy Toman.

Like the young boys who were extensively interviewed in the documentary, McKerr was also introduced by explaining what a difference Project Children had made in his life. He and Toman had come over from Ireland just to participate in the program held that evening and the following one, and while visiting Kentucky, they also did some sightseeing.

They had visited Ashford earlier in the day and seen American Pharoah. It is well-known “Pharoah” is one of those horses that makes everyone stop and notice. I saw this first when he floated so effortlessly across the training track at Keeneland one October morning before the 2015 Breeders’ Cup, and the ripple of excitement his appearance generated was almost palpable. The star power evident in the very fiber of his being was harder to define, to quantify or explain, but that is fitting for such a rare individual as a Triple Crown winner. It was that star power, that wellspring of talent and the effortless motion of his gallop, that made everyone stop and watch and that made the excitement ripple through us all.

A similar measure of this palpable excitement – while we no longer see him in race training or actual races – has not abated at all among his visitors at Ashford. It strikes even the most illustrious breeders or owners, those who have doubtless seen many top racehorses to also be nearly starstruck and awed by what an amazing physical specimen Pharoah is. That too is fitting. I would hope a Triple Crown winner, especially after all these years of waiting, would still be regarded as exceptional. This possibly sounds like deification yet I guarantee anyone who has seen him in person understands the deep awe at being in his presence. It is nearly unavoidable.

It was interesting to hear McKerr’s impression about his visit with American Pharoah. I don’t know if he liked racing or followed the sport in Ireland, but knowing of him only in the context of a musician, it was intriguing to hear that Pharoah inspired him as well.

That is the gift of a top racehorse, and one Pharoah has achieved in spades.

McKerr said of his visit with the champion that American Pharoah looked like mahogany, a description that I loved. He also noticed how incredibly muscled he is. It drew me back to my first time standing next to Pharoah, and it was those things about his near-impeccable physique that awed me too.

Pharoah, in fact, had inspired McKerr to the point that he included a song about horses in their set that night. I guarantee, like any lucky enough to be in Pharoah’s presence in retirement or in his racing days, that McKerr will always remember too how it felt to see him in person.

You see, the difference coming to America as part of Project Children made to McKerr’s life – besides giving him a respite from the strife – was that he was drawn to play guitar, influenced by Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana. Much like Pharoah was in a class of his own when he ran, so was McKerr when he played guitar. He struck me as a near virtuoso, and getting to experience his incredible talent in person inspired me just as much as Pharoah’s did.

I once had thoughts of learning guitar, but put the lessons aside once I realized it would be difficult to master while trying to finish my degree and work full time, but this program made me want to pick it up once more.

Gypsy’s Wish, inspired by their visit with Pharoah, added the song “Ride On” to their setlist. I wanted to know more and looked up its lyrics afterwards.

According to the website songfacts.com, ” ‘Ride On’ was written by one of Ireland’s most famous songwriters….Jimmy MacCarthy….MacCarthy explained on Radio Eireann in February 2010 that this song’s lyrics hark back to his days as an apprentice jockey. When they first began training for races the younger horses would gallop behind the older horses. But as the younger horses developed, they needed the horses in front to go faster, so the jockeys would shout out ‘ride on.’ “

I think anyone who’s been at the track or watched horses in training has seen that moment when a horse exceeds what the competition can do if he or she has a future as a good or great runner. For some, that moment of top potential is evident early on, and that is how it was with Pharoah.

The song lyrics itself, while clearly directed to a person instead of a horse, were also reminiscent of the greats like Pharoah:

Sure you ride the finest horse I’ve ever seen,

Standing 16 one or two, with eyes wild and green

You ride the horse so well, hands light to the touch

I could never go with you no matter how I wanted to

Ride on, see you,

I could never go with you no matter how I wanted to

Ride on, see you, I could never go with you no matter how I wanted to

It was a fitting song to describe Pharoah and what he meant to them, and an unexpected intersection of racing and music – two of my great loves – in the same evening, and I appreciate the library for hosting it and the band for coming from Ireland to visit and share their talent.

Consulted source: http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=18923