The Life of Mike

The Life of Mike

So for Mike Kelly, where did it all begin. Do you start in 1991, the start of Young Irish Film Makers 25 years ago?

Well, no.

You start with a young, teenage boy who left school at 14 a dreamer. He wanted to be on the stage, or to play some part in the world of theatre production. Or even the theatre of dreams, Old Trafford. Soccer and stage, both the performing arts in the Sixties. So the 'stage' is set for a lifetime of - working with young people....

Explain yourself, Mike.

“In 1965, I had just finished doing a play, I was into acting at the time and I was coming down the street, Fr Andrew, was the Guardian of the Friary and he came up to me and said 'the very man' and I knew then , you just knew you were in trouble...”

That trouble was a concert for the missions, with Bridie Gallagher in it and Fr Andrew needed someone to direct a one act play. Mike tentatively agreed.

“I asked Fr Andrew had he actors, and he said I'd be grand, he had actors. So we had a dress rehearsal on Saturday morning, and in through the door burst a group of kids aged 9 to 12. I had them on stage and one young lad sat beside me and he said, he's useless that lad, and said to the lad on stage you're useless. So I turned to him and said I suppose your brilliant and he said , Yeah I am, and I said Ok you prove it. He did and I said he could have the lead. I asked him his name and he said Brendan Corcoran.”

And so began the Kilkenny Youth Theatre. And more importantly a lifetime dedicated to ensuring young people achieve their potential.

So what about the soccer. Well, soccer led to Mike's first 'real' job, his first 'real' education - it led him to his career.

He helped start schoolboys soccer in Kilkenny - “Con Downey was Mr Schoolboys Soccer in Kilkenny and he said to me we need to organise this , and around about 1966, four of us got together, formed a league or an association at the time, and that was the start of Kilkenny schoolboys soccer.”

Within a year, Mike was an international selector with the Under 15's and had planned a tour of England with the local schoolboys here - when it potentially fell through.

“We decided go to England, and we were to be hosted by a team in England but they let me down. I phoned the schoolboys association, got a number for Brunswick (a boys club formed by ex British POWS who were imprisoned in Brunswick in Germany).

“It was the first time our kids had travelled, we went to Liverpool also. After a while going there, I got a phone call from Brunswick, and they said their leader was going and asked would I go for the job.

"We were really good friends, I wasn't going to be a stranger yet I didn't have any what you would call community work training. The nearest I would have come to that would have been work with Fr Gerry Joyce where we learned to work with young people, not to see them as problems but as people with potential.”

So he got the job in Brunswick, a boys club in London with 300 attending.

“I come up from the Butts, I have always been a Butts man, my first allegiance, over Kilkenny, is the Butts” says Mike with a smile adding “You never get rid of that, so you're a Butts man always.

“Things were winding down here in Kilkenny, and a teacher called Seamus Brennan took over the theatre, so I headed to London.”

This was a big step for a young man, just six years previous had left St Kieran's College at 14. Mike blamed a mixture of laziness, and not liking structure.

“My parents would have been bitterly disappointed. Everybody said I had potential, but I was a dreamer and everybody said that as well.

“I was lazy I guess and a bit of a rebel and I don't really like working for anybody.

“I know the need for structure, I like people around me who will manage things. My ideas, I do the vision that we are going there, but when you have those sharing the vision they help you get there.”

It was Mike's first full time job. He had been a cinema projectionist in Stallards Theatre (now Zuni's) and worked with local photographer Peter Bull, but most of his time was on the dole - he described it as an “arts grant.”

But Brunswick gave him the chance to study third level, which he did, achieving a degree in Theatre. Brunswick also gave him the chance to take out cameras for the first time.

“It was just going to be youth theatre with cameras, that's all it was, that's all it is here. The kids started to write their own story, called Why, about a young lad who had been killed outside the school. All these kids were talented, really good. They responded to it because it was new. And it won a competition with the BBC, a prize of £1,500.”

Mike had thought about going in to theatre professionally when he got his degree, but youth work had a strong grasp.

“I felt it (youth groups) was something I would have wanted when I was young. It pains me a little bit that here (YIFM) I could never have attended because I could not have afforded it.”




“Yes, I know we would have looked at people's situations, but I may not have approached here being a Butts kid. And that's interesting. Might be something I look at, there's talent everywhere you know.”

Years in to Brunswick, and a lifetime friend and now manager of the Fr McGrath Centre, Steve Murphy asked him out to Bondi Beach to work with the street children of Sydney.

Having worked with the kids, and got some air time with a TV station called Metro, he wanted to return to Kilkenny.

“I said I think I'll go back to Kilkenny and set something up there, I had a lot of structure there and good friends like Martin Hanrahan, Brendan Conway, on my Board.

“I went to the Irish Film Institute, just a ruin then, met some guys upstairs who I later discovered were Film Base. Then I went to see my name sake in RTE, Mike Kelly. I told him what we do, but in his opinion kids making films wouldn't run. I explained the BBC prize. It didn't work.”

“YIFM centres kids up, a lot of soft skills learned here, kids know they can do stuff and it's because an adult told me. There is a huge problem when kids don't have a significant adult in their lives, sometimes parents are absent. Had I stayed going to school would have ended up somewhere completely different than here.

“Working with kids they must feel that you care about them. I did quite a bit of work with the Salesian order in Australia, and Don Bosco is someone who has really inspired me.”

So for Mike, his faith is very important - “It's not something that is looked on kindly, wouldn't say my faith is a church faith, that it has to be tied in to buildings or things like that, I would be a Catholic, Don Bosco would be my spirituality. He would be the one who first articulated home, and community and school and playground. In the old days, our faith was a real anchor, and we did terrible things when we were young, but something kept calling us back. Inside something was telling you that is not the way to go, you won't find happiness there. The biggest problem with Christianity, is Christians, Sometimes they can be so damp and pious. I can't imagine Christ was like that. If you go to Mass on All-Ireland morning, and go to Croke Park on All-Ireland afternoon, look at the passion. Where's the passion in the church, you go to World Youth day, kids are just exploding with enthusiasm. A lot of kids out there, working for homelessness, working for equality, working for other gay kids, kids are really in to things being right, this is right and this is good and that is what kids want.”

After four years, YIFM embarked on a project that really tested the fledgling organisation - the production of'Under the Hawthorn Tree' in 1995.

BBC Scotland had secured the rights before Mike could get his hands on it, but after a year he secured them for £1,000. “I went to RTE, but they said they had no budget. Then Channel 4 Schools called and they said they would help us make it. I had to have a script in 10 days, which I just about did. I asked for £100,000, and was offered £50,000 so I was halfway there.

“We went to America, I had a friend on Long Island, brought a few kids over but got no funding. Then a guy called Tom Costello from San Diego rang and offered us $25,000. I went to Des Geraghty, who was on the board of RTE, and then we got £15,000 so suddenly we could do it.

“It nearly killed us, we didn't make any profit but what it did do was give us all new equipment.

“When we were shooting Under the Hawthorn RTE came down with Nationwide and one of their crew said they were looking at upgrading to our cameras!

“I remember going over to the kids saying RTE wanted to shoot some footage and they said they could wait.”

Another film followed, The Boys, to critical acclaim from the scathing Blizzard of Odd and with a budget of £4,000 it was a great production.

“Things can really work out if you have a big kick off, like the Life of Brian, which we put on in the Watergate for four successive nights. You can strive for excellence, but not when it destroys the kids. I gave up football, gave up the soccer, because its tough, it's too competitive.

“Technology has got beyond me, never interested in it as such, I knew it alright, I was a photographer at one time, but we did camps, then we did the seminar at Kilkenny Castle, it all became very complex, we have a national outreach... many strong directions being taken for YIFM. Suddenly the Irish Film Board came on board, I spent 17 years looking for their support, and now they came along. Jimmy Deenihan changed everything, he said these are the film makers of tomorrow.”

Garry McHugh and Angela Walsh have worked tirelessly with Mike in the running of YIFM. “I think the 25th anniversary is a significant time to take my leave. We had this group of kids here who weren't in to film making but they were in to art, about four kids, they were great, went away off to college, and then they came back, said we have friends who want to come back and do this thing about monks, Tomm Moore, Ross Murray, Ross Stuart, asked for space to work in.

"They were showing me these drawings about a young monk taking on older monks, and it was called Rebel at the start. We got fourteen wages from Fas for a year, and then they gave it to us for three years. And then they started doing ads to supplement their income. And Cartoon Saloon was born.”

Young Irish Film Makers have been nominated for Oscars, have entertained with Disney, have played on Broadway and the West End, written scripts for Pixar, work for the BBC, for RTE, and French TV. All from Kilkenny, the site of a former orphanage - St Joseph's on the Waterford Road.

Mike also tells the story about a former YIFMer, who is a nurse, whom he met again recently. She joked that she moved from the acting theatre to the operating theatre. And he loved that thought - how she had learned skills to help her throughout her life and career in dealing with people in a very demanding profession.

YIFM has become a home for so many kids over 25 years.

“I would hate it to become a great film making thing that we are on every TV station, that would be nice but essentially this is about throwing bread on the water, and hoping to catch something. YIFM should continue to do good work, do good writing, writing groups are the basis of everything. Maybe offer a European dimension, and move out around the city. This place specialises in educating the heart, theatre is the same. There is cynical social media out there and we try to warn kids about putting things up in public. Teach the kids that there are qualities in the world, and let their heart decide, Follow their heart. Sometimes kids can be set up for a lifetime of misery in not following their hearts.

“I happened to leave school literate, super literate, I always knew I could cope. I didn't really want to work for anybody. Nowadays kids have to keep away from silliness, nay-sayers, knockers, they should ask where there is good to be done, how can I help others . I say to the kids when you go back to school, have a look around your classroom, see the child nobody wants to speak to, involve them. I heard one of our kids saying that their friend said they were committing social suicide talking to such a kid. Where did they hear that...”

Mike worries about the loss of many values faced by young people today. “Family mattered and neighbours mattered, and that mattered in the Butts, all my mother would have to do is come out and say where is he and another mother would say up there with the other lads.

“We don't have that any more. At YIFM we need told on to our core values, the work can change anyway it likes, as long as we hold on to our core values and that's to help young people reach their potential.”

So party time, for 25 years of YIFM and a great send off for Mike, is on Saturday, June 4 at YIFM - as you would expect doors always open.