Young Plato – Northern Irish boys school headmaster teaches students the power of positive actions
Young Plato charts the dream of Elvis-loving school headmaster Kevin McArevey – a maverick who is determined to change the fortunes of an inner-city community plagued by urban decay, sectarian aggression, poverty and drugs. The all-boys primary school in post-conflict Belfast, Northern Ireland, becomes a hot house for questioning violence, as the headmaster sends his young wards home each day armed with the wisdom of the ancient Greek philosophers. The boys challenge their parents and neighbors to forsake the prejudice that has kept this low-level civil war on the boil for decades. Young Plato hums with the confidence of youth, a tribute to the power of the possible.
An observational documentary set in post-conflict Belfast’s Ardoyne, where a marginalized, working class community has for generations been plagued by poverty, drugs and guns. This film charts the dream of Headmaster Kevin McArevey and his dedicated, visionary team illustrating how critical thinking and pastoral care can empower and encourage children to see beyond the boundaries and limitations of their own community. We see how philosophy encourages young boys to question the mythologies of war and of violence, and sometimes challenge the narratives their parents, peers and socio-economic group would dictate.
Wedged into a cluster of working-class housing units, Holy Cross Boys Primary School bears the scars of the Northern Ireland sectarian struggle with barbed wire still in place on the high wall surrounding the school, walls decorated with political graffiti and murals – this is the heart of Ardoyne, North Belfast. Catering for boys from the age of 4 to 11 years, Holy Cross Boys School was caught up in world media reports in 2001 when the children at their sister school, Holy Cross Girls, were threatened on their way to school by local loyalists. Teachers at Holy Cross Boys also received death threats. The social model of the area is one of chaos and entropy; the political standoff between republicans and unionists means that meaningful community development is slow.
Crime and substance abuse have flourished, and the despair of the streets is reflected in the suicide rates for young men and boys – the highest in Europe. Against this seemingly hopeless background, one inspiring headmaster is changing the narrative, helping the children of Holy Cross School and the wider community to find hope and purpose. It seems inconceivable, but the answer lay in the wisdom of the ancients: the philosophical teachings of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Headmaster, Kevin McArevey, is a tough-looking, bald-headed50year-old with a black belt in karate. His office, adorned with an incongruous mixture of pictures of Elvis Presley and Pope Francis, reflects the complexity of the character. Kevin is a big personality in Ardoyne; fearless and committed to having an impact in the community. Everybody knows him, parents and drug dealers, IRA dissidents and the PSNI, have all passed through his office. Kevin deals with everything head on–he’s survived knife attacks, and terror threats, “You can’t give into bullies or else they’ll keep coming back”he says.
What drives Kevin is his own past, he grew up defending himself and those close to him with the fist, being a hard man was one way to survive in working class Belfast. Years later, although he hides it well, Kevin lives everyday with the shame and remorse of his turbulent past, a past that has become the driving force behind his zeal for philosophy. His quest is to build resilience in his pupils and help them manage their emotions in order to face whatever life throws at the. Using philosophy as his tool, he guides the children through challenging discussions about the past, their lives at present and where they might find a future. He encourages them to question everything, even their parents, and tackles violence among young boys head on. Every scrap, fight, altercation in the school, ends up being teased out on the philosophy board outside Kevin’s office. ‘Violence breeds violence, it never stops,’ Kevin insists.
His second in command, Deputy Head Jan Marie Reel, is a perfect foil to Kevin’s expansive character. She’s the heart of the school, the go-to mother figure who, together with a team of dedicated teachers gently but firmly steer the school towards a better future. It’s a roller coaster ride of triumph and despair as the staff face overwhelming odds in the form of sectarian aggression, a defeatist zeitgeist accumulated over years of neglect, and children who are burdened with serious behavioural problems. One day an8year-old may be threatening suicide and the next day a pipe bomb is discovered on the grounds; and even a deadly virus arrives. There’s a limit to what even the most inspired teacher can cope with. But then the magic happens, as if from nowhere; a troubled child suddenly turns a corner and sees a way forward. Kevin will proudly declare “It’s all about critical thinking. The boys are learning to make the right choices.” His process is transformative and he’s spreading it beyond the walls of the school, in an initiative to get the pupils to teach philosophical thinking to their own parents at home. Driving past a mural in the neighbourhood that has been transformed from dissident propaganda to a picture of one of his Holy Cross pupils, posing as Rodin’s Thinker, Kevin smiles to himself, and turns up the volume on the Elvis track, If I Can Dream.
Neasa Ní Chianáín (Director) is one of Ireland’s most established documentary talents and has directed nine documentaries (four feature length) and a TV series. Neasa was named one of Europe’s 10 most promising women directors at the Sydney Film Festival’s ‘Europe! Voices of Women in Film’ program. Young Plato had its World Premiere at DOC NYC 2021, and has been screened in nearly 40 Film festivals worldwide, winning nine international and Irish awards, including the Irish Film & Television Academy Award for Best Feature Doc 2022, presented by Michael Moore.
Declan McGrath (Director) is a fllmmaker whose recent credits include the award-winning ‘Lomax in Éirinn ‘ (TG4) and ‘Mary McAleese & The Man Who Saved Europe ‘(RTE, BBC). He has written two books on the craft of filmmaking (Screencraft: Editing & Post Productions and Screencraft: Scriptwriting), both translated into five languages. He is also a regular contributor to the New York film journal, Cineaste. His credits as a director include the acclaimed: ‘Lomax in Éirinn,’ which screened at festivals worldwide, ‘My Struggle For Life,’ ‘Tír Eoghain: The Unbreakable Bond,’ ‘Mary McAleese & The Man Who Saved Europe‘ and ‘Women Of The Oireachtas.
About the Author
Bryen Dunn is a freelance journalist with a focus on travel, lifestyle, entertainment and hospitality. He has an extensive portfolio of celebrity interviews with musicians, actors and other public personalities. He enjoys discovering delicious eats, tasting spirited treats, and being mesmerized by musical beats.