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September 2023



Trú are a Northern Irish band with tight harmonies and heavily influenced by traditional music. They take their name from  a mythological trio of poet-musicians in ancient Ulster. In the Celtic world they were seen as prophets singing songs of the future and also as keepers of the beyond.

Their very being is quite prophetic with each member of the group bringing different threads of identity to the weave - British-Ukrainian, Ulster-Scots and Irish Nationalist. Oh for a future Ireland that harmonised like that.

And harmonising is what these guys are all about. The blend of their voices is absolutely sublime. So to the blend of songs that they wrap their voices around. 

There’s utterly beautiful versions of Long Black Veil, originally an American country ballad though made Irish by The Chieftains with Mick Jagger on vocal; Robbie Burns’ A Red Red Rose; and Wild Mountain Time that we in Ulster claim songwriting credits for west Belfast’s Francis McPeake.

Of the songs written by the band Aphrodite is a fragile little bird; Lovely Molly reminds me of something from the Beatles’ White Album; and the lead single Selkie Song (Young O’Kane) has a little pop pep that made it so radio accessible. 

There are four songs in Irish of which Seán Bháin could be acoustic Horslips. 

I got to see these guys at the NI Music Prize a couple of years ago and if anything they are even better live but as a new trad band these guys can sit alongside Lankum; a different approach to the tradition but no less quality. 


D'Arcy& Horslips

As the crowds mingled outside the Olympia after Bono's theatrical Moments of Surrender plug for his memoir I noticed Barry Devlin walking towards me. I have missed such chances and wasn't missing this one. I walked across and said, "Mr Devlin I want to thank you for the music of Horslips. Book Of Invasions opened up the Irishness of my Northern Irish Protestantism. Thank you!" We had a nice moment.

Last week Devlin and fellow band member Jim Lockhart were interviewed on the Ray D'Arcy show on RTE 2. Lockhart, struggling with my name, name dropped me and a similar story, I think informed by my friends at the Thiefdom of Horslips on X. I was chuffed. (check out last 5 minutes HERE )

So here is the story of Horslips influence on my life...


It was June 21st 1979 in the Astoria Ballroom, Bundoran, Donegal that a rock gig changed my life. It was the first time I saw Horslips live. Actually, it was the first time I had heard Horslips, at least that I can remember. They had been on my radar for a few years. They were mentioned by the boys who were into heavier bands like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Genesis. Somehow I dismissed them as too heavy or prog for me.

How my mate Rab and I missed them I do not know but friends of friends in Omagh had taken me over to the Astoria and I was utterly mesmerised from the very first riff. It was intoxicating, life affirming, joyous, thought provoking. I was caught up in it and at moments I stood back and asked myself just what was going on. I was into Omagh the next day to buy The Book Of Invasions and The Man Who Built America. I was smitten. 

Horslips ticked every box. The music was unique and immediate. No other band before or since has fused the traditional and the rock formats in quite the same blend. This was rock but there were fiddles and concertinas and mandolins. Then it hit the feet. This was early in my gig going life BUT no one ever bounced a crowd like Horslips.

There was something going on though that was more than a rock gig. It was that fusion thing again. We were at a rock gig but we were involved communally in some ceilidh like happening. It was like a set dance set up without the intricate steps. It was sweaty, as sweaty as has ever been.  Finally after converting ears and feet came the head.

Horslips were not about the every day 3 minute pop songs. These songs took you back hundreds of years and covered the history of a nation. Holding the record sleeves in my hand the following day led me into a journey through the past. 

It was maybe that journey through the history of Ireland that changed me the most. Last week as I spoke to the Causeway Coast Peace Group about my journey into peacemaking with my friend Fr. Martin Magill I came to realise for the first time that I was converted to Jesus and the music of Horslips all within the same two months. The impact of Jesus is seen in that today I am Presbyterian minister. Horslips of course made a less seismic mark on my life as they have no divine or redemptive qualities! Yet, don’t underestimate the effect. 

Horslips records were immersed in an ancient Irish mythology and history. Their second record was The Tain a tale from the early Irish literature when Queen Medb of Connaught takes on Cu Chulainn Ulster’s teenage hero. A few years later they had their very finest moment with The Book Of Invasions; A Celtic Symphony. This one is about how the island came to be born with a series of invasions. After this record the band moved into two more recent historical stories, Aliens being about the Famine and emigration and The Man Who Built America being about what the Irish Americans did and were still doing 

All of this made an impression on a seventeen year old boy seeking some sense of identity. If Jesus was helping me make sense of my place in the universe and indeed in history and eternity, Horslips led me to ask questions about my Irishness.

I was caught in a bit of a cultural void in my not being allowed to be Irish but not really feeling any sense of Britishness. Horslips opened my Irish side and birthed a love to all things on the island that I live on. These tunes carried me into a love of Irish music and art and cultural things.

I came to believe that they were as much the property of a Presbyterian from Ballymena as anyone else. I can settle nicely in the venn diagram that is Northern Ireland. Horslips words like fusion and blend became descriptions of who I am in national identity. 

It took another thirty years but when I started to become involved on the fringes of active peacemaking in Belfast I think it could only have happened because I decided to give my soul to someone who said Blessed are the Peacemakers and commanded me to love my enemies and also because Jim Lockhart’s flute on Trouble With A Capital T opened a door in that soul that allowed me to cross some cultural boundaries.


In my review of Roll Back, back around 2005, I wrote, "They were the best live band in the world and the world didn’t want to know. I’d never danced so much and much as The Waterboys would try I never did again. I fell in love with my island, its heritage and its artistic brilliance." That is as close to the exuberance of those Bundoran gigs as I can get.


Stocki BC garden

This week's Sermon Podcast sees me preaching about the workers in the field who all got paid the same no matter how many hours they worked.

What was Jesus telling us from this Parable in Matthew 20.

We look back into Matthew 19 to get a context and then I talk about wanting to be a potato picker in Galgorm in the 1960s, how grace is crazy, scandalous and irrational, and how the micro culture of the Kingdom of God is full of surprises and shocks.

Where is God shocking us with his grace today. 






Irish Crwd 2

I was immediately surprised. As the whistle blew, to bring relief and joy at Ireland’s narrow win over South Africa in the Rugby World Cup, I could hear Zombie, a well know international hit for The Cranberries pumping out across the Stade de France and on into the Paris night. 

I was intrigued. Who chose that song? I immediately had images of Saracen tanks on Belfast streets. I had never sensed it as a celebratory song for a sports event. Mind you who heard Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline as a sports anthem!

I suppose, as you are all expecting, I was expecting U2’s Beautiful Day or something. At least Zombie hadn’t been the obvious.

I then woke up on Monday morning and Zombie was the raging row on social media. It seems that Republicans are not happy that a song of protest against the IRA should be seen as a song of unity. 

It got a little laughable for me when I read post after post that described The Cranberries as West Brits. I lived in Dublin for a few years and knew a few West Brits but none of them had names like Dolores O Riordan. 

If anyone who was against the bombs and bullets tactics of the IRA were called West Brits, then a great number of people of the Republic were West Brits in 1993.

It was in March 1993 that the IRA exploded a bomb in Warrington, England. Three-year-old Johnathan Ball was killed and twelve year-old Tim Parry  had his life support machine turned off just five days later. 

There was an out pouring of horror in Dublin at the time. I was living there and felt that something different was happening. Dublin mother Susan McHugh brought 20,000 on the Dublin streets to protest the murder of children in the name of Irish freedom. It was a stepping stone through more horror as we stumbled our way to an IRA ceasefire eighteen months later.

The Cranberries were riding this same horror and asking question about the violence of the northern Troubles. It was 1993 that they wrote Zombie.

After I posted this blog I got a little more info about the song's original use at sporting events. It seems that those "West Brits" known as Limerick GAA started using it before the Munster Rugby crowd took it board. A song as born in Limerick as You'll Never Walk Alone was in Liverpool. It makes sense and is now sneaking out from Munster to the entire island.

So, I am not sure that the vehemency of those against the Irish Rugby team celebrating to Zombie has much robustness of argument. It is certainly not as offensive as a moment a couple of months ago when in a mid Ulster pub, the only other punters sharing the bar with us, came back in after they had left to shout “Up the Ra!” at what could only have been us.

It is however a reminder of how sensitive we are to songs and chants in certain situations and how much they still reach deep into our souls and offend and hurt us. We need to find songs that unite instead of divide, no matter what the sensitivity of our feelings.

I have been a fan of Snow Patrol’s Run. Is it too Northern? Why does that matter? It is some anthem in a stadium when Gary Lightbody fires the crowd. Staying north we could offer Teenage Kicks an utter punk rock classic.

There are also Thin Lizzy classics. What about Whiskey In the Jar or The Boys Are Back in Town. The thumping Horslips song The Power and the Glory is maybe not well enough known. The Sawdoctors’ To Win Just Once seems appropriate. Or… how would it be, should Ireland actually win this World Cup, if 30,000 Irish are heard singing No One Compares To You, so close to Sinead’s sad passing. There is also Beautiful Day!



There is nothing like a NeedToBreathe album to make you feel your life pumping through you. Their banjos and mandolins, maybe a little back in the mix compared to Mumford & Sons, have this vivacious sound upon which they lay the most infectious melodies upon. Add to that a deep and yet never preachy Christian content to singable lyrics and it is no wonder they have been so popular for so long.

Caves will not let the fan base down but a close listen will suggest their most varied and perhaps musically complete record yet. The title track and Hideaway give that life affirming sound to difficult places where resilience is to be found. Country outfit Old Dominion help them to rock out on Wasting Time and there are the piano driven ballads How Wonderful We Are and Reaching Out To Find You.

The big sounding Evermore we are told is for the humble unnoticed heroes. It could be about Jesus too; Gospel infused. The closing Temporary Tears grabs us Nordie Irish, a duet with one of our own local heroes Foy Vance. Two of my wife’s favourite gruff and vulnerable voices share their doubts and brokenness mingled with joy and hope and a heavenly sounding choir.

Over all I am surmising the band’s look at forgiveness. I believe that they have nailed the secret of God’s intentions with forgiveness in When You Forgive Someone. It has the simple rhymes and deep insights that I love these guys for:


All that's heavy on my soul

Lay it down and let it go

All that's heavy on my soul

Lay it down and let it go


'Cause when you forgive someone

You set yourself free

Oh, when you forgive someone

You set yourself free


Later in the track listing, during the aforementioned Reaching Out To Find You:


There's always give in the forgiveness

I guess that's just the chance we'll have to take

'Cause silence ain't the answer

It never makes the point we're trying to make.


It is a number of years since my daughter introduced me to NeedToBreathe and difficult believe that I haven’t written a review about them before now. It is not like they haven’t released enough records. These guys are prolific with studio records, eps, acoustic and live releases, never mind solo records by their mailman Bear Rinehart under the name Wilder Woods. 

I am glad I did as Caves is NeedToBreathe most fulfilled. 


Stocki and Dana 2

I am excited to share the news that the Soul Surmise Podcast is back. We started these last year with some wonderful conversations with musicians and novelists. 

We are back with some fascinating conversations with author of The Ghost Limb, Claire Mitchell, award winning songwriter Ferna and a 4 part series with Dana Masters, that latter conversations from the intriguing, insightful and gripping evening at there 4 Corners Festival 2022.

We restart with Dana Masters Part 1... 







Prof John Brewer officially retired from Queen's University Belfast this past week. John has been a huge influence and friend to Fr Martin Magill and myself in our efforts at peace making. This is my blog from 10 years ago, a day or two after John had spoken in Fitzroy. I repost it as my own Tribute.


Professor John Brewer’s talk at Fitzroy’s monthly Faith On Trial, on Sunday night, was fascinating, inspiring and at times controversially confrontational. Brewer is the now the Professor of Post Conflict Studies at Queen University, Belfast and as a sociologist has spent a lot of time researching religion and the Northern Irish Troubles.

John's last two books are a case in point; Religion, Civil Society and Peace in Northern Ireland (with Francis Teeney and Gareth Higgins), Ex-Combatants, Religion and Peace in Northern Ireland (with David Mitchell and Gerard Leavey). Both books are of huge importance to a group of disciples of Jesus, like the one who met on Sunday night, as they ask how to engage with our peculiar Northern Irish divisions.

Brewer began this particular night with various readings from the latter of these two books. Before that, he laid out the Biblical context of such a book with a reading of the sheep and the goats parable of Jesus in Matthew 25. His clear call from this passage was that Jesus would have been in tough places and that prisons, included in that Gospel text, were tough places. His conclusion was that a group of Church going activists would want to be where Jesus called us to and that this passage linked us with the ex-combatants of both the loyalist and republican movements.

His readings from the Ex Combatants... book were fascinating. Both loyalist and republican communities had a rich social imagings of religion deep down. For some it was a reason to be involved in the cause. One Catholic combatant quoted, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after justice” from Jesus Beatitudes as a reason to be involved in the movement.

Others spoke of how they believed that faith in God had helped them through the hard times of prison or even protected them in cars riddled with bullets. Some prayed for all prisoners and prison wardens even though they admitted that had they had guns they would have shot those whom they were praying for.

Yet others testified to finding Christian faith as a conversion moment away from the violence. Brewer added that a lot of guilt and shame of past actions was down to religious belief. These combatants had not a lot of good things to say about the Church. They felt that they were shunned and seen as scum by the Church of the Jesus who made clear that those who entered heaven would ne the visitors of the prisoner!

That other book, Religion, Civil Society and Peace in Northern Ireland, had been critical of the established Church’s involvement in peace and reconciliation.Brewer was keen to make a distinction between some Church people being very involved and the Church establishment’s lack of leadership. He differentiated between “prophetic presence” and “prophetic leadership.”

Indeed he recognized that he was in Fitzroy a church that had been a “prophetic presence” but he was provocatively asking where the main Churches had been in opening up public conversations about forgiveness and hope. Were we prepared to go into those tough places and hear these stories that he was sharing tonight and be surprised at the influence of religion on those wrapped up in the violence of our past, to engage and bring grace and personal and social reconciliation to such people; people, that we need to remember from Brewer’s Biblical text, Jesus was keen to be around.

My thoughts? I believe that Brewer’s work is very important to the Christian response to the Troubles and the post conflict work of reconciliation. I have long been concerned that we are too complacent in this “peace time”. I have concerns over our established Church’s desire to be involved.

Fitzroy has been an anathema for many other Presbyterians simply by being involved in the tough places. I am not confident that the establishment will give a strong or prophetic lead out of fear of being damned liberal or ecumenical or other words used to stone those passionate about this Biblical mandate.

To counter that, I guess, my predecessor in Fitzroy, Ken Newell, was elected Moderator but I doubt that that would happen now. I also need to add that leaders in Presbyterianism have been present in the recent flags protest though I am not sure how courageous or imaginative or radical the prophetic leadership role.

For me personally I am convinced that I have more freedom, and perhaps less media or church distractions, by going under the radar in being a “prophetic presence.” Having said that fear of my denomination and the media have caused me to compromise my following of Jesus into the tough places many times.

To go back to the spiritual wisdom of the republican quoted earlier. I would strongly argue that he had the outworking of his Biblical exegesis wrong in using it for violence and murder but I think his actual exegesis was shrewd and the reason that Brewer is a long way away from experiencing his desired established Church involvement.

It might be down to that quotation, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice...” Most translations have translated that word “justice” as “righteousness.” However, the republican has a surprising theological buddy in the eminent Reformed scholar Nicholas Wolterstorff. Wolterstorff argues convincingly in his book Justice: Rights and Wrongs that the Greek here might be closer to justice than righteousness.

That of course changes emphasis from personal piety to, a more in keeping with Calvin’s dream, social redemption. While we can be distracted in the personal the mess and struggle of the tough places can be excused. What is of no doubt whatever after tonight is that it is time for some of us to give a opportunity for listening.

It is time for Churches like Fitzroy to engage in meaningful grace driven ways. To be accused of being cold to and dismissive of these ex combatants is an indictment on the Gospel and much more like the goats than the sheep in Matthew 25.

Could I ask of Professor Brewer that these two valuable books might be made available at a price that a minister or any other Christian for that matter can afford. Books like these should have a wider audience and influence than just in the Academy.

I would love to read Ex-Combatants, Religion and Peace in Northern Ireland but haven’t £50 to spend on such things. I found Religion, Civil Society and Peace in Northern Ireland very helpful in a series of talks I gave in the U.S. last year but had to borrow it from the Union College library. I found it so helpful that I would like it as an everyday reference.

To conclude can I add that when I first asked for the said book, a book that criticised the established Church’s involvement in reconciliation, the Presbyterian library didn’t have it and had to order it in! Oh dear! Maybe the thesis of the book proven in where the book wasn’t stocked!



(This was my script for Pause For Thought on BBC Radio 2 on September 22, 2023... The theme was Being Forgiven...)


Forgiveness. In my world it seems to be a word to debate and keep at arms length; Talked about much more than it is actually done. 

I am involved in the planning of the 4 Corners Festival in Belfast and a few years ago we had a theme Scandalous Forgiveness. Before the Festival so many people asked us if we couldn’t change the Forgiveness word.

Forgiveness is not easy. It is no small thing to let go of the need for justice and desire for vengeance and simply wipe the slate clean.

When talking about forgiveness, Jesus told a story about a King who was dealing with those indebted to him. A servant owed him a ginormous amount of money but the King took pity on the man and his wife and children and rote off the debt. Then the relieved servant, on the way home, met someone who owed him a pittance but he demanded to be paid. 

This is something like how I experience forgiveness. It seems to me that many of us would love to know that God forgives us but we are not so keen to forgive. We cannot let people off with it. It is too soft. Forgiveness is hard to do.

It is and that is why when I am in situation where I am receiving forgiveness, which I have to say doesn’t seem to be as often as I need to ask for it, I always think of the forgiver. 

I respect their courage. I admire their grace. I am inspired by the humility of heart that has given up the temptation to get their vengeance by letting it go. 

I feel blessed to know such a human being. I feel blessed that relationships are restored. I also pray that I will have the same humility and grace towards those who have hurt me.


Colin Neill 2

I highly recommend this book so much that I wrote the Foreword. It is a gift to you, unless you wish to give a donation to Release International. I have spent lot of money written about the Scriptures that have had nothing like the imagination or insight of this. 


Back in the 1990s a Scottish band called Lies Damned Lies recorded a rock record called Lamentations. It was a musical and artistic take on that Old Testament book that can sometimes seem difficult to penetrate. The soundscapes and songs of the record took me into the book in ways that I hadn’t felt before.

It made me wonder. Why are theologians opening up literature to us? We have laid the poetry, prose, proverbs songs, prophecies and stories of the Bible at the mercy of scientific and mathematical interpretation. I began to long for artists who could go under and over and imagine what went on round the corner of the text. I wanted my sermons to be higher, wider and deeper.

Those who know me will know that I am a fan of the Irish band U2. I have spent an awful lot of time reading everything about the band and their work, particularly the theology within. I know so much about them that on the one occasion that I met their singer Bono he had nothing to tell me that I didn’t know. I could have finished his sentences. I was sharing this with a friend who said, “Ah, you know all the facts Steve but do you know how he feels”. 

Could that be said of our Bible knowledge. We’ve read it all. We know it. Well, we know the facts. We have systemised a theology. We’ve laid down a code of behaviour. That is all good but it can be a little cold and calculated. All those characters in the variety of vignettes of brokenness and redemption strewn across the canon. Do we know how they feel? Do we know how God feels? How Jesus feels? Do we know how those feelings might engage with our own emotions - our holy hearts as well as heads!

Colin Neill has a passion to help us engage with the Scriptures in fresh ways. He brings to that a pastoral heart. He has taken time, an incredible amount of time, to get inside the Bible stories, stay true to the text but imagine more and get into the psyche of the main players. Colin then takes his research and uses his fertile imagination and creative writing skills to set us down gently into the lives of no less than 75 stories. He unpacks not only what is written about the characters but also what isn’t. We talk a lot about Bible characters but I wonder if we actually know their character.

Inside Holy Heads and Hearts is an incredible gift to all of us who are seeking to engage with the Scriptures, whether in our personal spiritual development or attempting to teach and preach it to others. This is a book in which an artist opens up the art of the Bible. I will use it in my own personal devotions. I am already finding it a rich resource to crack the codes of texts and contexts as I prepare to preach every week. 

Thank you so much my friend.




Late Late Show

Patrick Kielty on The Late Late Show. A northern invasion?

First of all how lucky are RTE to have landed Patrick Kielty in this chair. He arrived out of comedy clubs in Belfast to host his own brilliant show on UTV. After going away and making it in the wider world, and marrying Cat Deeley besides, he made his way back around home to anchor some of the most poignant and helpful documentaries about The Troubles. 

The Late Late Show has been recognised over seventy years as a societal changer. Gay Byrne and the guests he brought on and the questions he asked also interrogated the direction of the country and opened, what might have been seen as a very insular Catholic country, up to many other influences.

Patrick has already talked about how he’ll bring a more northern slant to the show. He will I also believe bring more northern viewers to the show. That will open a Protestant Northern Irish audience up to what is happening across the border, in many ways a very different culture. In music, politics, sport and celebrity, even Toys, things are different and done differently in the Republic. 

I am also sure that Kielty will have northern guests to introduce to the southerner. Kietly sees himself in the middle of what I have called a venn diagram between the Republic Of Ireland and the UK. He recognises that, showing a social intelligence about the realities going on a round him. He’ll very naturally therefore bring all sides of the island into one TV studio.

The interview on the first night with Mary McAleese might tell us where Kielty’s prophetic direction might take us, whether he has consciously considered it or not. 

When asked about Border Polls Mary, the former President, shied away from declaring a united Ireland as imminent or not. In a more measured and sensible approach she spoke of creating better relationships across the island and with the United Kingdom. Relationships that she very much modelled. Remember Queen Elizabeth’s visit while Mary was President.

I reckon that simply by his charm, grace for every aspect of the island’s people, history and present Kietly will be about that healing. Who remembers him at that Bonfire with young Joel Keys in the documentary Patrick Kielty: One Hundred Years of Union. In that same programme as he stood on Shelling Hill Beach with Bronagh McConville whose mother Jean went missing in 1972; both emotional from loss of a parent.

Kietly brings an intelligence to this traditional Irish Friday night, it is an intelligence that is social, cultural, political and emotional. I look forward to seeing how The Late Late Show in his compassionate care can lead us forward across a divided island. 

I imagine it will be a lot of fun too.