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April 2023


Me and dad 7

It is one year today since my father’s passed away. As I read to him from Psalm 73, “and afterwards he will lead you into glory” he breathed his last. 

Catholics do death better than Protestants. I have been impressed, and deeply touched after both my parents death that it does not matter how far after the death if I meet a Catholic friend they will always go out of their way to give consolation. 

I think the monthly mind Mass is a helpful way of leading people through grief. A Mass a year later also helps us remember and again take another step in mourning. Protestants close the gate of the cemetery after the funeral and never speak about the person again. I am so thankful to those who still share sympathy with me.

I have spent 52 weeks surmising and wrestling with THAT week. In THAT week, I experienced over 5 days the very highs and very lows of this adventure of life. It was indeed life in all its fulness; the fulness of joy, the fulness of grief.

It has been hard to get my head and heart and soul round that shift in emotion. One moment we are laughing and throwing coins in the Trevi Fountain and the next I am falling through the hole in my dreams to land, with a bad news bump, in a side room in the Causeway Hospital in Coleraine.

That juxtaposition was like a violent rip in my soul. I am in Rome. The sky is blue. There is some heat on my back. I am with Janice. And Fr Martin Magill, our dear friend. As well as us there visna team of Catholic students led by Fr Dominic and Shannon and Fr Eddie. The craic is high. Pizza across from the Colosseum. 

In the middle of all of that we all get a private audience with Pope Francis. For Fr Martin and Janice and myself that was an honour for 10 years of the 4 Corners Festival. Having the freedom of the Vatican was utter fun. All of it was an utter honour.

I am so thankful that the call came about my dad the morning after we had met Pope Francis. I was mentally free in the Vatican. BUT the next morning all changed. Should I go home immediately? My daughter Caitlin stepped in. It looked like I had time… and then doctors said I hadn’t.

There is that stress of changing flights, catching flights, buses from Dublin airport not every half hour as they used to be. Twelve hours from the Irish College to Causeway Hotel. 5am. Alone with a dying father. Awful coffee. What just happened. Where have I ended up.

My dad has had dementia for many years and was asleep the entire three days. Yet, I had as good a time as saying goodbye to a parent can be. BUT it was a traumatic shift in mood and life experience.

I have not come to term with that. I have tried to write a poem. I used to unpack my life with rhyming couplets. I haven’t got past a line or two and have written nothing else. The first year in 45 years not to write a lyrical rhyming poem.

I am stuck in the making sense. Its as if I have unfinished business in Rome. We lost two full days and we had lovely plans that we missed. Dad though has not more business to do. 

One good thing. I have my dad back. He was my dementia ridden dad for years and now I am able to go back to the years when he was leaving me advice, mostly about sport. All his phrases are trotting out of me and I am back when he first said them. As I sang to him minutes before he left me, Luka Bloom’s “The man is alive in me…”

Rome. It certainly had lost some of its glow by my dad’s passing but this week I have been celebrating with those students from the QUB Catholic Chaplaincy and I am beginning to release the joy of those few days and that one special hour. 

Grief is a journey. This is a bit of my unique one. Be vulnerable. Open up to it. Surmise.


De Ment

Now I'm workin' on a world I may never see

I'm joinin' forces with the warriors of love

Who came before and will follow you and me

I get up in the mornin' knowing I'm privileged just to be

Workin' on a world I may never see


This could be a mission pumping mantra for the life that at least I fool myself I live. Whatever better world we are working on, and we should be working on something, it might be like Moses or Martin Luther King and we might not see that better world.

Iris De Ment has made a blistering good record about changing the world. This is my kinda thing. I did an MTh on Songs and Social Change. Iris just made the record.

Iris De Ment is not here to entertain you. Well she is and she does with an eclectic set of solid songs, but she has more on her mind that ticking your ears. 

Take Goin’ Down To Texas. Here’s an eight minute protest song with Iris singing in a venue that had signs at the door instructing the audience how to handle their weapons during the gig:


My mama told me, "You can run to the rocks and try to hide your face

But those rocks will cry out, 'There ain't no hiding place'"

So I'll go on down and sing in Texas where anybody can carry a gun.


It references Jesus’ anger in the Temple and overturns Israel’s actions in Palestine, racism, misogyny and the thug up in the White House. It says that while she is singing Iris De Ment knows what is going on around her. 

She calls on the spirits of Mahalia Jackson in Mahalia - And you gave to a world that never had your back/The balm, the balm, the very Balm of Gilead and then calls, John Lewis and Rachel Corrie in Warriors Of Love - Look around you, you will see/People still building the beloved community/In every corner of this earth/You’ll find people in a fix, willing to risk/An early ride in the hearse. 

In that unique, near eccentric warble Iris De Ment demands our attention and is keen to sing the state of the nation. Jesus haunts the entire work. Then she demands work that we might not see the results of. I feel energised by Workin On A World to do just that.



Some records are almost so good that I fear to even attempt to review them. No more proof of that than the work of Arborist. The first two records Home Burial and Northern View are among my very top favourites but none got reviewed. The third An Endless Sequence of Dead Zeros is currently stretching my head for the words.

I find Arborist fascinating in a plethora of ways. The first is that he who is Arborist happens to be a Ballymena man called Mark McCambridge. What good music comes out of Ballymena? When Ia asked Mark himself he answered “David McWilliams and me.” Indeed. 

Another thing is that Arborist draw me in by the music first. It’s always usually lyrics with me. Yet, it’s the hypnotic wonder of Arborist that grabs my heart. This record was recorded in Spacebomb Studios, Richmond, Virginia under the watchful eye of Matthew E White who has collaborated with Justin Vernon, Sharon Van Etten and two of my favourites Hiss Golden Messenger and The Mountain Goats. Don’t expect James Taylor! Yet, my first love is the songwriter and I can hear Bill Fay, Jeff Tweedy and Neil Young as songwriting references. 

With guitar and bass loops McCambridge sets up a mesmerising beauty adding a harmony, a blow of brass, a dabble of piano and a Neil Young pedal where you least expect them yet where in hindsight is the perfect and most beautiful place!

When I say it is the music that grabs me, don’t think there is something less in the lyrics. You don't have a record title like this without a love for words. I utterly love lines like “You’ve memorised the sparkle of your mother’s blood”. Indeed that one made me jump. 

Songs about grief (O Margaret (My mum’s name too!)), about love of neighbour (Unkind) and art (Matisse) and Northern Ireland violence (Alabaster Skin) come at us from different angles than normal.

Unkind is particularly intriguing:


We could pull it apart

But that would be unkind

We could poison the dart

But that would be unkind

We could do a little harm

But that would be unkind

We could break the bastard’s arm

But that would be unkind.


When I said different angles I meant different! Religion gets a hit too.


We could try to raise our children in the light of the Lord

But that would be unkind

We could let them live with the boredom

But that would be unkind


That’s an ouch for a man of the cloth like myself. I feel so bad that the following of Jesus of Nazareth that has kept me very far from boredom for over 40 years could be described in such a way. Yet, sadly, in how faith has worked its way out in my wee country I can empathise with Mark, apologise even, though my life might disagree!

I haven’t even told you how much I love the song Black Halo or the strings throughout. I cannot reach the right phrases!!!

I am not only proud that my hometown has produced a good songwriter. I am thrilled that he is a great one. Another utter beaut from Arborist!


In with pope

(My talk at the Anniversary of our meeting with Pope Francis last April... at Catholic Chaplaincy at Queens)


In the summer Clonard gave me the theme of Mary to speak about at the Novena. Now the Chaplaincy give me the words that Catholics and Protestants have been debating for 5 centuries - the bread of life. Does the bread in Communion, the Mass, The Lord’s Supper actually become the flesh and blood. We differ in defining that mystery but we both see that Sacrament as having the Spirit’s power to cleanse and nourish. 

It is vital to us both.

After spending a profitable time with Pope Francis with you all last year I think he and I agree that the sacrament isn’t it. It is not the LIFE of the Christian. It is the nourishment to that life. We don’t live to eat toast in the morning. The toast is not LIFE but the nourishment to go and live LIFE. Prayer is not life but the spiritual oxygen we need to live LIFE.

So you might say, what is life? For me that is a very simple thing but a lifetime of pilgrimage to grasp. For me, the bottom line is “Follow me”. That’s how Jesus engaged his disciples. Follow me. Indeed the cost of pilgrimage added in the phrase sometimes “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.”

But following Jesus. Being a Jesus type liver. Doing as he did? It seems to me that that is what he meant be Repenting and believing the good news. Living an upside down kingdom where our ambition is humility as worked out in a manger, a towel and basin, a donkey and a cross. This is a giving up of our lives for others and God’s Kingdom and will coming on earth as it is in heaven. 

That is the LIFE.

Which is what I remember most about Pope Francis’s wisdom. He didn’t want us hiding away from the world but living life in its fulness. To do that he suggested to us that we should buy a little book of the Gospels and read about Jesus every chance we got. Then he went on we would wear Jesus. This was how he said that we would reach our friends with Jesus. NOT by the bread and wine. They would fuel it BUT the actual life of it would be the verse Pope Francis was paraphrasing “Clothe yourselves with Lord Jesus”… an “armour of light” Paul calls that.

Let me finish with an old favourite…

I happened to catch the last five minutes of a seventies television show Tales Of The Unexpected. A character in the programme was bullying everyone else and suggesting he was the serial killer on the loose in the area. He says at one stage, “You know who you are with a gun in your hand. You are a somebody.” A gun was the source of his identity. In the end he wasn’t the killer, the nerdy guy who picked him as hitch hiker was. Bang! Unexpected indeed!

As I mentioned the gun in his hand, I walked across the front of the Church and picked up a piece of bread off the communion table…

“You know who you are with a piece of bread in your hand. You are a somebody.”

As I stood there holding the bread out and inviting my community to take it at Communion in a few minutes time I realised that this was quite an image. I sense the mood in the church, the tangible impact of this simple yet dramatic act.

When we eat that bread… we are not nobodies… we are the heirs of God and joint heirs with Jesus. Our God is the God of the manger, the towel and basin, the donkey and the cross BUT HE is also LORD OVER ALL!


George Mitchell statue

What did I make of the recent events to mark 25 years of the Good Friday Agreement? It is a question I was asked this past few days.

There were a few days when I was a sceptic. It seemed like a lot of talk. A lot of words. Indeed, it made me start critiquing our 4 Corners Festival. Were we just a talk shop too?

A friend who lost his father to an IRA bomb Tweeted a question about who had been invited. Had anyone in these great Queen’s University halls experienced the loss and trauma that he and his family had.

I felt he was on to something. I was asking, as many were, if this was a big bunch of politicians and celebrities patting themselves on the back for things they did a quarter of a century ago? Was it a little much looking back?

Over the past week, I have shifted my opinion. A few years ago I got to ghost write the memoirs of Trevor Stevenson the founder of Fields Of Life, an NGO building schools and drilling for water in East Africa. The reason for the book was that Trevor believed that it was a positive thing in any organisation to mark landmarks.

So, I think it was a good thing to look back. Not only that but when I looked back I saw so much to be thankful for. What was achieved in 1998 was remarkable, miraculous indeed. In all the words I was being encouraged and inspired to continue to hope that our present difficulties can be overcome. It also energised me to continue in my own little contribution to peace and reconciliation.

This energy was most fuelled at the Recommitment to The Agreement that Corrymeela held at Clonard Monastery. Again there was a large swathe of political celebrity but there was also the grass roots peacemakers. Young people spoke with passion and vision and one of our veterans Rev Dr Harold Good gave us the wisdom of maturity. “Jesus changed the inevitable” was a quote to take home. 

Yet, I felt that that event and some of the other reflections were a little premature. For me, though the Good Friday Agreement was a wonderful work of peacemaking and courageous compromise, it was not what we should be recommitting to. 

Six weeks after the Agreement, after six weeks of debate, argument and vitriol, 71% of an 81% turn out voted to implement the Agreement. This is what I want to recommit to. What I decided on that day. 

All of this is, of course, happening at another difficult political time in Northern Ireland. The DUP have brought our local Stormont government down over the Brexit protocol. Sinn Fein did a similar thing a few years ago. 

With Stormont down Northern Ireland is in a bad place. Funding for many organisations is frozen and many are losing their jobs, the recent economic crisis has left lots of people feeling the pinch. Education needs funded and our health service is on its knees.

Can I add my meaningless voice to the more important voices that pleaded with the DUP to get Stormont up and running again. The longer this goes and the worse the country gets the harder it will be to fix. 

I remember that that 29% who voted against the Agreement was probably predominately DUP. I wonder should we have a 25th Anniversary Referendum to see whether the majority would like Stormont whether the DUP take their seats or not! I personally hope that they do. We are stronger all together.

My final result. I am planning meetings and eager to continue making that wee contribution to keep on keeping on to make our wee country peaceful and prosperous for all. 



Luka 5


Thu, 18 May 2023 19:30 - 21:30

Fitzroy Presbyterian Church

77 University St, Belfast BT7 1HL

Doors - 19:00 // Price - £20.00 +bf


Luka has just released a 3 Cd set of his finest work with not much more than a guitar accompanying his voice. Songs born in Newbridge, New York and more recently the west of Ireland full of nature, life, love and the spiritual. Quite the deal live!



4 0f Us


Friday 27th October 2023

Fitzroy Presbyterian Church

77 University St, Belfast BT7 1HL

7.30pm ( Doors - 7pm)

Price - £25.00 +bf

Special Guests: TBA


In the early 90 with songs like Drag My Bad Name Down, Temptation and Mary The 4 of Us came outta Newry to be the first band in a decade to be Hot Press Band of the Year other than U2. Those old hits will mingle with songs from their brilliant album Sugar Island to fill a stunning set list.




Sat 9th Dec 2023

Fitzroy Presbyterian Church

77 University St, Belfast BT7 1HL

7.30pm (Doors - 7pm)

Tickets - £28.50 +bf

Special Guest TBA


When the Boston Globe calls Altan "the hottest group in the Celtic Realm" they kid you not. This is Irish trad at its very best in 2023. 


Blue Lights 2

Either set in (Bloodlands) or filmed in (Line Of Duty) Belfast has seen a lot of good TV recently. Blue Lights had to compete. It did. It was tough and tender, humorous and scary. It was gripping throughout. We are all delighted that a second series is guaranteed.

For me Line Of Duty was the challenge. That was the marker. Trying to catch the corrupt cop is always a strong storyline. Though Line of Duty had great characters and higher profile actors Blue Lights producers Lawn and Patterson scooped it by having the good verses bad happening in almost all of the characters. Subjective rather than objective - clever!

The humanity that Blue Lights gives the police is not only a good thing for a TV series. It is a good lesson to a wee country that has dehumanised security forces over the last 50 years. 

All of these policemen and women have their own gifts, personalities, flaws, foibles and eccentricities. We come, over the episodes, to find most of them endearing. The goodness and badness inside each of them mingle and play out at different moments.

The mix of new police interns and the experienced is another fascinating side story. The vocation, what it is or might be or has become through trauma and experience is not subject matter often studied in such series. Again Lawn and Patterson seem keen to look deeper than your average police show.

Some of the bigger issues raised are Northern Ireland centric. The shadow of our paramilitary past weighs heavy both in the drugs gang plot that runs throughout the series and the punishment shooting of episode 3.

It is not the first time that Lawn and Paterson have raised that latter issue. Their short film, the dark comedy Rough, also focused on it. 

The day I publish this blog the Belfast Telegraph has put the horrific facts of this brutality on its front page. Surely it is a scourge of our Northern Irish society that since the Good Friday Agreement 3,200 young people have been abused with these kind of shootings on knees and ankles. 3,200! The youngest was 9 years old. 9 years old! 

How have we let this almost go unnoticed. Why are we letting it happen day after day in our midst! This is child abuse, with as Blue Lights showed, parents bringing their children to be shot. 

So, for me Blue Lights is more than a TV show, much more than entertainment. Declan Lawn and Adam Patterson have created a vehicle for a prophetic task? I am such a fan. I am also fascinated as to what our blue lights shine on next.  



The Road To Emmaus by Daniel Bonnell


That post resurrection walk to Emmaus. Late on that Sunday evening, these two followers of Jesus head for home. They feel that all is lost. Jesus, who they thought was about to overthrow the Empire was crucified. Some say that he has risen again but it is all too much in their traumatic heads. As Dylan would later says, "Something's happening but you don't know what it is..." 

A stranger steps in alongside them. They are flabbergasted when he doesn't seem to know what is going on. Soon however, he shows them that it is they who don't know what is going on.

There are a few questions rising here:

The first one is what are our expectations of Jesus. If we get this wrong then all might be lost. We are asking that question that Jesus asked the disciples - Who do you say that I am? As AW Tozer suggested whatever we make of that question is the most important thing about us.

In today's news we read that bodies have been found in Kenya of those who whose pastor told them to fast to see Jesus. In America we ask if God is Republican or Democrat? In Ireland is God Protestant or Catholic? Expectations!

The second question is where does Jesus appear to us? On this road to Emmaus it is not in the miles of cerebral words. Jesus expounds salvation history. I reckon that is the most clear preach ever given. Yet, they still didn't see. Their eyes were opened after they had invited the stranger to stay and shown hospitality. The Gospel and the Kingdom is not words but the Word made flesh. 

For me my clearest look at Jesus has been in moments where I reached towards the marginal. In the reach out, God reached to me. I met the risen Jesus in that connecting part. 

The third question is about honesty. What is our Jerusalem? Look deep inside and recognise your trauma. What has you downcast? What has you disappointed? Is that to do with expectations? Where could you find a revelation with God?

My sermon on the Emmaus Road Lectionary had me asking questions, rather than handing out solutions. Spiritually deep stuff.



Tomorrow in Fitzroy we have my best man David Dark in the house.

David teaches at the Tennessee Prison for Women, Charles Bass Correctional Facility, and Belmont University where he is assistant professor in the College of Theology.

David is an original thinker. How faith relates to art and politics and the everyday world bring his imagination alive. He has written many books including Life's Too Short To Pretend You're Not Religious and The Sacredness of Questioning Everything. He is also a regular contributor to the debates going on in American culture politics and faith. He has contributed to The Nashville Scene, The Washington Post and MTV News as well as Books and Culture and and Oxford American.

In the morning at 11am I will get a chance to chat to David about some of this stuff. At night at 7pm he will be speaking for himself.

Also in the morning we will be delving into the road of Emmaus and asking questions of the men who met Jesus and of ourselves. 

ferna - understudy

Ferna 2

Ferna is a songwriter but a whole lot more besides. She has worked in the past alongside the written word. That brings a literary weight to play. That imaginative aspect to her work send her songs in these adventurous twists and turns adding drama and tenderness.

From the opening Open Up to the closing Lights Out, songs that seem related bookends Understudy is a suite of songs that swathe and swoosh across an ocean of synth. It almost washes over you but Ferna won’t let you get complacent. A deep low chord here, an upping of the beat there. That voice, almost pure but the tiny bit that isn’t - memorising and original. 

Understudy has been much anticipated, an early single Wasting winning the NI Music Award for Best Single of 2022. This will be among the leaders to catch for the Album of the Year in 2023. 

It is hard to pick out highlights. There are no weaknesses here. Wasting obviously, Walk On about Coretta Scott King, Joshua Burnside’s voice on Morning After, and the build, climax, theatre and near Disney underlay of the closing Lights Out. Ambition fulfilled.

And she is one of us in our wee country… but expect this to break out from among us and go reaching.