Prophet Song

Was it Bono who said, “We Irish don’t build huge bridges or send people into space but boy can we tell stories.” Five years after Anna Burns and Paul Lynch brings another Booker Prize home to our wee island. It suggests that whoever said it wasn’t kidding. 

The Booker is absolutely deserved, though I haven’t read all those nominated! Prophet Song is a remarkable work and hits with a serious thud of impact, not just in its entirety but on every single line. The sense of darkness as a weight weighing down on your chest. How can someone create that kinda of feeling with words on a page?

In Prophet Song the darkness swamps the nation? It covers the streets of the neighbourhood. It fills one single family house with its heaviness. It burrows into one woman’s brain, heart and soul. It is all consuming.

Lynch makes this happen with a suffocating writing style. There are no paragraph breaks or speech commas. The book is dense. There is no let up.

All of this falls on Eilish. Living in Dublin as a far right National Alliance Party clamps down, her husband Larry is quickly picked up. Gone. Eilish has to hold the family together as the nation disintegrates. Her eldest son Mark is soon gone too, maybe fighting with the rebels.

Very quickly we realise that though this might be futuristic in that Ireland seems a safe democracy, what is happening to Eilish and her family is what is happening across Syria, Ukraine, Gaza, Sudan and many other places. This brutality that families have to live in is NOW. As we read these sentences, people are suffering what we are reading. 

Every refugee you have met, staying in hotels near you have been through this. As a Church, Fitzroy has connected with Eilishs from everywhere. The book has helped me understand what they have been through. It has hiked my empathy, sympathy and compassion.

Of course, cleverly set in Dublin, Lynch is speaking to us on the island. He is quelling our prejudices as we read. Attempting to Eradicate our racism. Hoping to send us towards justice and love.

It should be posted into everybody’s letterbox.

For me, there was a horrible moment near the end. I thought that Eilish and her beleaguered family had made it into Northern Ireland. I had a second or two of joy and relief and then I had maybe my saddest moment. 

Oh no. After all that. We put them into hotels. Move them into houses far from where that hotel was. We graffiti their walls asking them to leave. We threaten some with planes to Rwanda for goodness sake. As if they have not suffered enough we are short in our compassionate response.

And Eilish hadn’t made it. There was one more corner of hell…

Prophet Song is not for that few days that you take away to rest and chill out. In such need, open a bottle and read Richard Osman instead but at some other time make sure you take the time for Paul Lynch’s classic. Good for its writing, its style and good with its message too.  


Martin And I




DATE: WED, APRIL 17th, 2024 @ 7.30

VENUE: BELFAST SOUTH METHODIST CHURCH (AGAPE CENTRE) 236-266 Lisburn Road Belfast, BT9 6GF (Tel: 028 9066 2560) 


Fr Martin and I are delighted to be guest speakers at this year's Spring Agape Lecture. 

We will be looking at finding ourselves as peace builders, the Biblical vocation that that is. We will also be sharing our own journey into commitment to a vocational friendship and the incarnation of that vocation in our lives and work. 

I believe that everyone would be welcome at Agape on Wednesday night and it would be great to see you.


Dunlop 2

With authentic characters and a gently gripping plot, David A Dunlop shines a light on the golden calves of sectarianism and church legalism in rural Northern Ireland. Where I am from When the Light Gets In is an important book. Culturally insightful. Personally cathartic. Spiritually prophetic. 

The Shaw family are a common as fertile soil northern Northern Irish family. Isaac is a missionary in India, twins Joseph and Sarah are actually adopted and the intriguing oldest, Jack. 

Jack. It all begins at his funeral. He’s that old bachelor in the family. Many of us in this part of the world had them. I think of my own Great Uncle Tommy. Where my Tommy was big into church though, Jack was not. A mysterious something had come between him and God.

We are not long into the book before we sense the usual dividing lines in the small settled community. Sectarianism is innocuous but its still sectarian. The Protestant side on which the Shaws are to be found is spiritually legalistic. The rumour is that that Jack might have had issues with these lines.

The story is then an unravelling of both the lines. It is about how in one family these lines we make between us and the thran ways that we keep them can cause trauma and not scars but open wounds decades later. When we reduce relationships to mathematics and right answers we injure and hurt the very heart of our humanity. 

Before the light gets in, it is exiled. In the name of God real love is squeezed out of shape by ways to live that are written on slabs of stone and hung on our backs to keep us down. To make sure the neighbour doesn't think bad of us. To keep us right when it is doing anything but. Who said that religion is what is left when God is no longer in it. 

Dunlop tells it beautifully. The suspicion. The surprise. The shock. The sadness. The little bit of salvation. It is all set up so ordinary. Then quite suddenly it becomes a page turner. Could it be. No. Oh my. Can there be repair. The light gets in slowly, everyone hurt as they squint to see.

For me, the saddest part of reading the book was that as I was doing so I bumped into three friends from a few decades ago who shared with me how that mathematical religion had hurt them or sent them off wondering what on earth this God thing was about.  

Our Northern Irish society is coming down with people who have been spiritually abused, who have left the faith over a legalism that was judgemental and exiling. I would love to think that even now there is redemption. 

I would like to think that David Dunlop’s novel would be catharsis for such. I know that it has inspired and refuelled my own ministry to go after the hurting sheep, lost not by their own decisions but by wayward shepherds. 

When the Light Gets In is a book that needs read, heard and where possible its victims repaired!

ABBA - 50 YEARS (And I Confess That They Are...)

Waterloo 50 2

50 years ago. Abba launched on the world with that famous Waterloo performance on Eurovision.

To be fair it is the historical that hits me first. I was being baby-sat by My Granny Kernohan and Mrs Gillan. They were formidable themselves, exuberant in their judgemental remarks, full of a good laugh and dangerous if you ever crossed them. Best behaviour, Steve.

I am 12. I love my music though at the time it has not yet matured. Coming out of glam rock and the Osmonds I am big into Suzi Quatro and Mud, with a wee bit of Alvin Stardust, that particular week. 

It is Saturday night. It is my parents turn for the alternate weeks of Saturday with Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Rosemary, not actually related but omnipresent enough in my childhood for such respected titles.  

There are only 3 TV channels but I hadn’t the lack of respect I now have for Eurovision and it was live and exciting. 

I remember it from the first beat. It is the only year that I was ever so sure of the winner. The strange blue trousers. The boots. The blonde hair. I was only 12 but these young women looked good. Their harmonies, the catchiness of the chorus and the effervescent feel of it all. Even as a 12 year old it was pure pop genius.  

Straight to Number 1 as of course it should. 

It would be almost a year before SOS would let us know that these victorious Swedes were not one hit wonders. I loved SOS but very soon I had lost my ardour. I discovered The Beatles in the spring  of '76. My tastes were maturing. 

Then my school mate Willie Ireland took to Abba like a soccer team. He was a huge fan and would argue to me about their success against The Beatles. It was perhaps this teenage classroom banter that hardened my prejudice against our sublime Swedish number 1 makers.

I wouldn’t have been thinking about Abba much in the decades since they broke up in 1982. When I heard a song I kind of dismissed it. 

Then the Mama Mia phenomenon. Those films arrive just as my daughters are beginning to like their own thing. Abba are suddenly in my ear shot. A lot. And, to be truthful, much as I belittled, it is hard not to love Dancing Queen, The Winner Takes It All, Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight and Knowing Me, Knowing You. All glitzed up for a movie. These songs have something.

Eventually, Abba released a new album. Voyage, four decades after the last one. It was needless to say a big musical talking point. I usually have a big mouth on such talking points. What would my blog say? Would we do a Gospel According To Abba in Fitzroy?

YES! Though I left the talking to my good friend, the novelist Tony Macauley, an even bigger Abba fan than my old mate Willie Ireland. Tony did the most amazing Thought For The Day around the song titles on the new record. So, we did our Gospel According To Abba and it was good.

Again, my prejudices were being rattled somewhat. Those who sang the songs, or may even more the musicians spoke of the complexity, the difficulty to get it right. Abba were so good, they tried to convince me.

And then this past 50th Weekend. On that famous 50th Anniversary BBC Radio 4 do a documentary on Abba and choose my good friend Iain Archer to host. Now my prejudices are working in reverse. 

Iain and all the other contributors do a great job. I found it funny that the UK didn’t give Abba a score on that amazing magical night in 1974. Wow. Maybe my prejudice is not lonely out there! 

Then Iain tells us about the band being influenced by West Coast Rock on their 1977 Abba The Album, uncovering the Fleetwood Mac influence on the opening Eagle. This intrigues because in 1977, a year after discovering The Beatles it is Fleetwood Mac, Jackson Browne, The Eagles and Linda Ronstadt that mature my own tastes.

Is it conversion. Not quite. I might go the Church of Abba - maybe do an Abba Alpha course. It is time to have a deeper dive into albums. For sure. 

Yet, had I in 1976 gone down the Abba route, instead of the Beatles, I am not convinced that I would have lived the life I have. I often say that The Beatles opened up the questions for me that I could only find the answers for in Jesus.

I will give it to Abba. I will confess my error all these decades after debates in Mrs Sloan’s GCSE class. Abba are good. Probably great. Sophisticated and pop geniuses. Yet, I found being a Dancing Queen a little fragile. I was more interested to Give Peace a Chance.


U2 Boy

(I am repeating some old Thoughts For The Day and Pause For Thoughts for the blog... This one was on BBC Radio 2 and the week's theme was "Debut Albums")


Like most of you I waken up every morning to Radio 2... the daze gradually lifting, half dreaming, half hearing, sometimes the two blurring between fact and fiction. A few years ago, around coffee time, I suddenly asked my staff if they had heard anything about U2 winning 5 Grammies?

I wasn’t sure if it was the fact or the fiction of early morning radio! No one knew but less than 30 minutes later the phone went and it was a major news network asking me if I had heard that U2 had won 5 Grammies the night before! Fact! Honest!

I said I had and the next thing I knew I was in a studio in Belfast going out live on the 6 O’clock news. I sat with headphones on waiting for the anchor to ask me something on U2. When my headphones went live the guy starts with, “So Reverend Steve Stockman, sex and drugs and rock n roll how have U2 kept going for so long?” No time to think... so I answered “Well, I think it is the fact that they weren’t much interested in the sex and drugs so they were able to concentrate on the rock n roll” I was quite pleased with that answer. And I believe it.

U2  are still making records 45 years after Boy was released and I don't think they have lost any of their desire and passion. The key as to why, I believe, is on the first track of that debut record. Boy kicked off with the youthful post punk energy of  I Will Follow. It was about much more than artistic energy being fuelled by the naive innocent Christian faith of their late teens.

On an album of adolescent questioning and searching they nailed their manifesto with a song of belief and on every record since 1979 they have continued the follow that path they committed to. U2’s records have almost been a diary of a development of faith. Jesus never said “Believe this creed.” Or “read this liturgy.”

He said “Follow me...” It is like those two roads diverging in the middle of a life. Take the one less travelled by and it makes all the difference. It has made all the difference to U2 whose art and Grammy awards have been fuelled with the desire to keep following something more than sex and drugs and rock n roll... Few bands have followed the manifesto of their debut so diligently...