Sunday, April 20, 2014

Thought for the Day - Easter Sunday - It's not all about me: thinking about others (while waiting for the stone to move away)

This is the third of four recorded Thought for the Days that are being broadcast on April Sunday mornings just before the 8am news in Kim Lenaghan's programme.

Inspired by an early Sunday morning in September 2013.

- - -



It was dawn on a Sunday morning. The bedside clock said half five. I tossed and turned, becoming more and more aware of a sharp discomfort in my right side. Below my ribs, it was sore. Sore in a place that shouldn't be sore. I melodramatically announced to my wife that I was going to drive myself to Casualty. By the time I reached Broadway the pain had become more acute.

Triaged and given a couple of pain killers which might as well have been Smarties, I sat a while on the uncomfortable plastic chairs violently jiggling my leg, before pacing up and down the waiting room like a caged animal. My groaning must have sounded like a mother in labour.

My name was called. The doctor listened to my gasping explanation of the symptoms and nodded his head. "I bet it's kidney stones" he said. "You sure? Not my appendix?" "Nah, totally the wrong place. I had them a few years ago. Agony. Let’s get you something for the pain and then I'll prove it's stones."

Pain killers were injected into the line in my hand, a saline drip went up and the acute pain along with the I'm-going-to-die feeling began to subside. An X-ray showed a stone, just a few millimetres in diameter, blocked on its way to exit my body. Tablets would widen the tubes, and more tablets would manage the pain. I should go home to bed and see if it would clear. And later that day it did.

I was lucky. I walked in and walked out of Accident & Emergency. A painful episode, but short-lived and curable. But while I hung around the waiting room it took such effort to lift my head and see the other people around me.

An older couple sat holding hands, the lady in her dressing gown, her partner ashen with concern. People sleeping off hangovers in the entrance porch. Ambulances bringing urgent cases into A&E. A young man with a badly cut face brought in by his mother.

Ambling around like a wounded bear I tried to pray for my fellow sufferers ... and myself. I don't think I finished many sentences in my on/off pleading with God. Their backstories were unknown, but their need for relief, reassurance and results was obvious. It wasn't all about me.

In the midst of all our own pain, it is sometimes possible to think of others besides ourselves. To some we can offer direct assistance and reassurance like my doctor did with me; for others the least we can do is to pray on their behalf and ask God to intervene.

Somehow for me the discomfort and the remaining pain vanished. Just like that. One tiny stone had moved away. Freedom from pain.

Christ has risen. He is risen indeed.

- - -

The third last sentence “Freedom from pain” is deliberately ambiguous!

In one sense, the small stone moved and I was free from pain. I’d be quick to point out that Christianity doesn’t offer instant freedom from pain in this life. Though I might argue that in an eternal timeframe it does.

Happy Easter.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

CQAF 2014 // 1-11 May // talk, stories, music, Dr Seuss yoga, drama & noise #cqaf14

Having heard Jon Snow speak before in Belfast, I can strongly recommend the opening event of the 15th Cathedral Quarter Art Festival on Thursday 1 May with the Channel 4 News presenter's lunchtime talk in The Black Box. £8 including lunch.

Six hours later Peter Hain will step onto the stage in the Waterfront Studio. His period as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland between 2005 and 2007 came back to prominence recently with his role in the On the Runs process. Expect him to address that as well as giving his perspectives on South Africa where he grew up, and commenting on Israel and Palestine. £10.

Sunday 4 May

Rubberbandits – Continental Fistfight. The plastic-bag wearing music/comedy duo bring their brand new musical straight from its critically-acclaimed, sold out run in London to Belfast for two nights. The Black Box on Saturday 4 at 7.45pm; The MAC on Monday 5 and 7.45pm. £10.

Monday 5 May

Dr Seuss Does Yoga! A “joyful introduction to the practice of yoga in a relaxed and playful way” with fun yoga postures accompanied by Dr Seuss tales. Flow Yoga Studio in Hull Street at 11am. Admission free (donation only).

Tenx9 is a monthly night where nine people have up to ten minutes to tell a real story from their lives. The theme for this CQAF event is love/hate. The Black Box Green Room doors will open at 7.30pm. Admission free, but limited to first 75 people to arrive. More details on the Tenx9 website or on twitter.

I last heard the Henry Girls back at Out to Lunch 2011 when they performed alongside The Fox Hunt. They’re back with beautiful harmonies and harp, transcending Irish folk and Americana. Beautiful music. The Black Box, 8pm. £10.

An Instinct For Kindness is Chris Larner’s solo performance about assisted suicide and his journey to Dignitas in Switzerland in November 2010 with his chronically ill ex-wife. Upstairs at the Mac at 8pm. £8.

The Unluckiest Arab in Belfast is Mac Premo’s one man play which promises to “look into the tension between life’s looming questions and minute details, told through a series of stories from his own life”. The Belfast Barge (unlicensed, bring your own) on Monday 5, Tuesday 6 and Wednesday 7 and 8pm. £7.

Tuesday 6 May

North Belfast-born author Bernard MacLaverty talking in The Black Box at 1pm. Lamb, Cal, Grace Notes, The Anatomy School, and more. £6 including lunch.

Wednesday 7 May

Little Howard’s Big Show For Kids sees (human) Big Howard being his animated six-year-old Little Howard off CBBC and into The Black Box at 4.30pm for stand-up, live animation, jokes and songs. Big Haward has been diagnosed as clinically unfunny and there’s a slug in the backstage toilet … and now a sinister figure has arrived so they need a good show to keepo them out of jail. £5.

Comedian, journalist, novelist and activist Robert Newman performs his stand up show New Theory of Evolution in The Black Box at 8pm. He’ll explain why DNA is not destiny while throwing in female buffalo voting and Richard Dawkin’s postman wrestling naked! £10.

Howard Read’s Stand-Up Animator will combine live comedy with animation in The Sunflower Pub at 8pm. £6.

Thursday 8 May

Getting To Know … Duke Special is part of a regular series at the Oh Yeah Music Centre and will “explore the songwriting impulses” of one of Belfast’s most versatile artists. 8pm. Free, but email info AT ohyeahbelfast DOT com to reserve tickets.

Friday 9 May

Formed in Osaka 33 years ago, Shonen Knife visit CQAF on the occasion of the release of their 20th album. An all-female, thrashy, Japanese, girl-punk band who toured with Nirvana. The Black Box at 9pm. £9.

Saturday 10 May

The Kid’s Noisy Cinema – The Red Balloon is back in Belfast at 1pm in the Flow Yoga Studio in Hill Street. It’s a beautiful story of a boy who discovers a red balloon. The young audience will play percussion and add movement to the spellbinding film. Ages 7-11. £4.

CQAF Ride and Seek is a scavenger hunt riddled with magic, music and comedy within the Cathedral Quarter. No bike required. But for most fun, form a gang and win some prizes. Meet at Cotton Court at 2pm. Admission Free. #CQrideandseek for photos and videos.

Two NI film premieres at the one event. Sign Painters (80 mins) captures and craftsmanship of signwriters who hand-letter storefronts, murals and billboards, a trade that’s experiencing a renaissance in spite of die-cut vinyl lettering and inkjet printers. That’s followed by K (16 mins) which documents the relationship, history and influence of hand painted signs in Dublin. Flow Yoga Studio in Hill Street at 3.15pm. £3.

Mark Ellen – Rock Stars Stole My Life in The Dark Horse at 6pm. Working at NME, Smash Hits, Q, MOJO, The Word, Radio One and Whistle Test, Mark will “tell tales and settle scores” and “put a chaotic world to rights and pour petrol on the embers of a glorious industry now in spirally decline”. £4.

Sunday 11 May

Moondance: The Van Morrison Project features “exquisite Irish language versions of Van Morrison’s songs” translated by poets Cathal Póirtéir and Gabriel Rosenstock. Ré-Dhamhsa: Tionsadal Van Morrison is performed by Liam Ó Maonlaí, David Blake, and Hilary Bow, with support from the Brad Pitt Light Orchestra and stunning screen projections of the lyrics created by Margaret Lonergan. A great way to spend a Sunday afternoon in The Black Box. 2pm. £10.

A Better Boy sees Ian McElhinney play the part of William J Pirrie (chairman of Harland & Wolff) in a 1917 interview in England about his nephew Thomas “Tommie” Andrews, the chief designer of the Titanic. Covering the building, the sinking and the inquiries, “his version of events are in conflict with the received notions and judgements still in place a century after”. Upstairs at the Mac, 8pm. £8.

Lots more in the CQAF programme.

In parallel with the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, the outdoor, often acrobatic and always comical Festival of Fools will be taking place.

Barry Cullen is filling the PS2 space at the top of Donegall Street with sensors and sound making devices for Noise Box V1. You can visit Wed-Fri 1-5pm and Sat 11am-3pm between 21 April and 10 May and help influence the process-based performance by your presence.

So too will be the volunteer-driven un-festival The Open Source which is back in Cathedral Quarter from 1 to 11 May with one hour sessions during afternoons and evenings. More details as they emerge on the website and tagged with #OSBelfast.

New route between Belfast City & Doncaster Sheffield airport; but who remembers the much smaller Sheffield City airport?

A recent email from Belfast City Airport about a new route to Robin Hood Doncaster Sheffield Airport caught my eye and reminded me about travelling through the much smaller Sheffield City Airport in the early 2000s.

LinksAir’s new route is between Belfast and Robin Hood Doncaster Sheffield Airport (Monday-Friday twice a day, and early evening on Sunday). It’s a relatively small airport (with 690,351 passengers and 11,197 take-offs and landings in 2013) and is dwarfed by Leeds Bradford (70 minutes drive north west) and Belfast City Airport. But it’s very convenient to Sheffield at a little under 20 miles to the east of the city centre. Originally the site of RAF Finningley, it was converted to a commercial airport in 2005. With a long runway it was one of the Space Shuttle emergency landing sites in the event of a Transoceanic Abort Landing.

Sheffield City’s own little airport was a different kettle of fish. As explained in a 2010 post which documented the path taken by hold baggage once you lose sight of it at Belfast City Airport check-in …
I remember travelling home through Sheffield Airport one evening about five or six years ago.
The conveyor belt at the side of the check-in desk didn’t move. Instead a man in overalls appeared and lifted my small case and carried it over to a door, went outside and loaded it by hand into the hold of the small aircraft.
Later, he held the same door open as a handful of us walked out to board the aircraft. And before the plane taxied back from its stand, he had changed into a fireman’s uniform and was heading towards the airfield’s fire truck.
A one man operation.

An airport with so little traffic that it didn’t have a radar! No surprise that Sheffield Airport ceased business at the end of April 2008.

The route between Belfast City and less compact and bijou Doncaster Sheffield started flying on Friday 11 April.

(Sheffield City Airport image from Wikipedia.)

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Thought for the Day - Palm Sunday - What is real worship?

This is the second of four recorded Thought for the Days that are being broadcast on April Sunday mornings just before the 8am news in Kim Lenaghan's programme.

It's partly based on my observations at a gathering of Sunday Assembly Belfast just over a month ago. It was so nearly based around the divine cake they served at the end until I spotted a bumper sticker while driving home from Ballymena.

- - -



Recently on a damp Sunday afternoon I gathered with 40 or so other people in a dimly lit venue in Belfast. Some like me had come on their own. Others in groups. Younger couples brought small children.

There was an enthusiastic welcome and announcements were made. A small band that was assembled at the front played a song. The lyrics went up on a screen and we were gently encouraged to sing along. A 23 minute illustrated address was delivered by a well-spoken woman standing behind a carved wooden lectern. A collection was taken. And there was more singing.

Church, but not as you know it. You see, one of the songs was Blondie’s Sunday Girl! And the address was about “the Suffragette movement in Ireland and what we can still learn from it”.

Franchises of Sunday Assembly are popping up all around the world. It’s not intentionally anti-religious and the Belfast organiser stressed that they weren’t hung up on atheism. As a regular church goer – from before I was born – I was curious to see what this Godless service would be like. Would Sunday Assembly feel like church? Could God really be banished?

It was a deliberately secular humanist space, albeit with plenty of inherited ecclesiastical references. People gathered together where they could celebrate life through song and word; and where they could be open to challenge about the issues being discussed.

God was not being worshipped. And yet God was definitely not absent. Unannounced God was still at work, in me at least, through the challenge of building a fair society and even the mindfulness exercise near the end – a practice not unfamiliar to some churchgoers – which was a very natural opportunity for quiet, meditative prayer.

Driving along some time later I noticed a car with sticker in its back windscreen saying: “Liverpool is my religion. Anfield is my church.” Cheering on the terraces can so quickly be replaced with chanting for a manager to be sacked.

This is Palm Sunday and as Jesus entered Jerusalem the crowd was cheering for him, when they thought he was going to overthrow the occupying Roman regime. Yet days later when he preached a different agenda, attacking the religious authorities and valuing the wrong sort of poor and downtrodden, the crowd turned and called for his crucifixion.

Comradeship on the football terrace isn’t enough for me. Nor is just getting together with likeminded souls for a shared experience on a Sunday morning in church or an afternoon at the Sunday Assembly.

Where you worship isn’t what matters. Who and how you worship does. Are you worshipping yourself, a team, a tribe? Or are you wholeheartedly worshipping the God that created us and gives us the strength to endure and maybe even forgive the oppressive forces at work around us?

Thursday, April 10, 2014

On top of the world ... looking down from Divis and Black Mountain over Belfast and beyond

While the Belfast Hills dominate the landscape, looking over the city, I’ve spent very little time exploring them. Today I headed up to the Divis Road and the new Ridge Trail that was being launched by Outdoor Recreation and the National Trust.

During the Troubles, much of the mountain top was off limits to all but the military. But with its purchase by the NT and the development of over 10 miles of maintained pathways across the top of Divis and Black Mountain, the area is no longer inaccessible and is open to locals as well as tourists wanting to get a bit of exercise and check out the stunning panoramas over Belfast and County Down.



The new Ridge Trail is a gentle and circular 4.2 mile walk over gravel, limestone slabs, board walk and a short section of tarmac.

It’s not at all steep, and even though it was fairly overcast this afternoon, the views were stunning.

There is a complete absence of traffic noise and the normal sound of city life. Yet down below – even on an overcast day like today – you can make out landmarks stretching from Lisburn to Belfast city centre, the shipyards, and beyond.

Allegedly on a clear day you can see Scotland, the Isle of Man and Cumbria from the highest point. The circular viewing point just below the Black Mountain trigonometry point/standing stone helps set the scenery in context.

Outdoor Recreation NI (WalkNI.com) developed the trail, with funding from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (through the Lagan Rural Partnership), NI Tourist Board and the National Trust totalling £459,700.

At the launch, the phrase “tourism is now more important than agriculture” was quoted several times.

NITB CEO Alan Clarke spoke of the focus on attracting tourists to Northern Ireland for short or additional holiday breaks, and the need to be able to offer outdoor pursuits as well as urban activities. The NI tourist portfolio still faces difficulties with Sundays, evenings and public transport … though the trail is open all week long, will be great for a summer evening walk, and the number 106 bus from Europa bus centre to Crumlin can set you down on the Divis Road!

After the launch I spoke to Heather Thompson (National Trust director for Northern Ireland) and Gareth Evans (DARD) about the vision of opening up the Belfast Hills to the public and DARD’s involvement in the funding.



Long term, the plan is to be able to walk from the Lagan/Lady Dixon Park, through Colin Glen and up to the Belfast Hills, with paths leading across from Black Mountain/Divis to Cave Hill and beyond. There are still some gaps, but the vision is not too far off being complete.

Practically, as well as the existing car park on Divis Road, there’s a new smaller car park up the lane opposite the Long Barn visitor centre (which offers refreshments too). I suspect I'll be back over coming months with family to revisit the Ridge Trail and make our way up to the summit.

[Click on any of the photos for higher-res versions.]









And if you've ever wanted to get up close to your Freeview transmitter ...

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Time to repaint the buoys ... and time to get the correct colours

Long time readers of the blog will remember previous posts about the three enormous buoys that occupy the square beside the University of Ulster Belfast Campus and St Anne’s Cathedral.

Just before the Tall Ships Festival in September 2009, I noticed a spot of repainting. At a cost of £3,000-£3,500, the Council’s Property Maintenance Section repainted the buoys. And oddly, they changed the colour of the red flatted-topped buoy to a light blue colour.

The plaque beside them explains how they came to be located on this piece of land owned by Belfast City Council.
The Buoys

The maritime influence is strong in Ulster. The coastline is long and there are many harbours. Belfast has a tradition as a sea port and shipbuilding city. Ulstermen over the years have built fine ships and served at sea in wartime and in peace. They have fished for their livelihood and sailed for pleasure.

Belfast City Council has used the gift of three navigation buoys from the Commissioner of Irish Lights as the theme of an Environmental Improvement Scheme to mark the Ulster seagoing tradition. These three buoys are more than 50 years old and are in pre 1979 Lateral System Buoyage colours. They are of the type used in local waters.



BBC journalist Will Leitch picked up on the story and ran a piece on Good Morning Ulster which discovered that while the colours had been changed, the previous colours hadn’t been correct either and didn’t strictly follow the “pre-1979 Lateral System Buoyage colours”.

Belfast Harbourmaster Captain Kevin Allen explained:
“The round buoy, which should be indicative of a safe water mark, should be painted red and white. The other is a conical shaped buoy, which by modern conventions should be painted green. And you would expect the can-shaped buoy to be painted red.”

Robert McCabe from the Commissioners of Irish Lights gave a more historical view of the conical buoy's colour:
“The chances are the conical buoy was black. Black is a very visible colour against a sea or a sky.

At the time Belfast City Council said the change of colour was “a simple mistake” due to “miscommunication” and promised to correct the colour next time the buoys were painted.

That moment is now.

Passing the garden on Saturday evening, the buoys were in a sorry state. The paint is flaking off the two blue buoys. While it’s not strictly a memorial garden, the poor state of the buoys reflects badly on the burgeoning Cathedral Quarter and the council’s respect for the city’s rich maritime history.

Time to repaint the buoys … and time to get the correct colours.

Thought for the Day - personal invitations & setting people free to grow

Who knew Thought for the Day was now broadcast on Radio Ulster on Sunday mornings too? Who knew that they'd be quite so difficult to write for a Sunday morning audience! So many ideas that – in my mind at least – might work for a weekday breakfast eaters or commuters failed to match the slower pace of the weekend (which still has some breakfast eating and travelling, but less so).

Today and for the next three Sundays you'll get to hear my pre-recorded voice just before the 8am news in the middle of Kim Lenaghan's programme.

These words, recorded on Thursday, turned out to be so very appropriate as I watched Sepideh - Reaching for the Stars yesterday afternoon in the QFT and listened to Jermain Jackman's inspiring victory speech on The Voice. Both Sepideh and Jermain are people who have received encouragement to pursue their dreams.

Apologies if I rudely awoke you this morning, but ... Pay attention! Set people free to do new stuff; don't pigeonhole them!

- - -



I spend far too many weekends attending local political party conferences and reporting about them online. Time and after time at recent conferences, speakers recounted who, when and where they were approached to get involved.

Relatively few people seem to wake up in the morning and decide to become a politician. Existing party activists recognise the gifts and passion in people they meet and invite them to join their party, and lure them into running for political office.

Most explain that they’d previously had no notion of becoming involved. But when they were singled out by someone they respected, they reconsidered and acceded to the request.

There is power in recognising and encouraging someone’s talents.

In contrast, all too often I hear of people who were told in school that they’ll never be good at a subject. One friend was told by a teacher that he’d be a waste of space and would never do anything with his life. Yet now he’s a visiting professor and runs a successful creative company that sells programmes around the world.

He wasn’t constrained by his teacher’s predictions. But some people are.

Maybe you were told that you’d never sing in tune, that languages would never be your thing. A negative intervention can put a student off a subject or dissuade them from learning a skill for life. They can be deterred from even attempting to appreciate music and hindered from throwing themselves into learning a language and appreciating another culture.

Anyone who lives or works with other people – students, colleagues, customers, families – has a choice: either pigeonhole people, or else release their potential.

God called Moses to lead the Hebrew people out of Egypt. Moses wasn’t confident of his ability to serve God like that. But God encouraged him, coached him, and surrounded him with other gifted people. He had tough times, and it took longer than anyone expected. But in the end, he did it with God’s help.

Jesus called his disciples to join him. They hadn’t been to discipleship school. Some could fish. One collected taxes for the Empire. Another was an anti-Roman rebel. But Jesus invited them to step out on a new adventure and walk with him.

What would happen if we set the people around us free to explore new skills and activities? Give them a chance to try out new roles even if they need a bit of persuasion. And failure can be an opportunity for growth.

Oh, and if Jesus calls you to follow him, why not take him up on the offer and see where he takes you.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Sepideh - a starry eyed teenager whose stubborn pursuit of her dream to study the heavens is an inspiration

Sepideh – Reaching for the Stars is a beautiful film about a very special teenager who has a passion for astronomy.

Teacher Mr Kabari runs an astronomy club for boys and girls and started to build an observatory on a hill just outside the town, 800km south of Tehran. But with support not forthcoming from the Ministry of Education the buildings were never finished and instead Sepideh lugs her 14 inch telescope up to observe the constellations.

He believes in expanding girls’ minds so they know that “the world does not end at the end of the street, or the end of the block, or the town’s edge”.

Sepideh’s late night trips up to study the stars are viewed with suspicion by neighbours and family. While her mother covers for her absences from family meetups and wedding parties, she is torn between appreciating Sepideh’s drive to excel, and wanting a traditional route into adulthood for her daughter.
“Those who have learnt to cook – what have they become?” asks Sepideh.

Her father is dead, and her uncles have not gone out of their way to take responsibility and stand in his place to help her mother. The field inherited from her dead husband is the only source of income. Yet the men in the wider family have blocked the repair of the water well. While all their fields around are lush green with produce, Sepideh’s mother’s field is brown and barren.

While astronomy is her passion, the peace and tranquillity found in the open space and time outdoors is also a vent for Sepideh’s frustration. Her entry to a prestigious Kharazmi Project that could have granted her a free place in university was outright rejected.



She’s not easily defeated or deflated. Mr Kabari may have spent 20 years not getting assistance from the Minister of Education, but Sepideh’s gets their support to buy a larger 16 inch telescope and accessories. Jokingly the official asks if she can guarantee to find a new supernova with it. She replies that she will, but can’t say how long it will take.

Despite Mr Kabari’s reassurances that famous historic astronomers didn’t have an easy time – it was 400 years after Galileo’s death that the Catholic church changed their minds about his discoveries – he too ends up trying to selfishly constrain Sepideh’s plans and prospects.

Aged 18 and nearing the end of school, Sepideh receives a marriage proposal from an older man in the Astronomy Club. He studied astronomy, has a PhD, works for the local municipality and is supportive of Sepideh’s dream. Her teacher believes that engagement and marriage will divert her attention away from the stars to more earth-bound distractions. And when she comes to Mr Kabari to explain that she needs to move on from amateur astronomy to study it more seriously at college, he conspires to clip Sepideh’s wings and expresses how let down he feels that she won’t he around as a role model for the younger students in his club.

It is heart-breaking. One of the early heroes of the film exposes his feet of clay.

One of the film’s devices are letters that Sepideh writes to “Mr Einstein” in her diary. But it was on the back of an email sent by Sepideh that she received a phone call from the first astronaut of Iranian descent Anousheh Ansari who paid to spend eight days on the International Space Station in September 2006. And by the end of the film we see Sepideh meeting Anousheh in Dubai and read in the closing titles that the astronaut is going to guide this inspirational Iranian women through her studies.

The film Danish director Berit Madsen explained to Wall Street Journal’s Barbara Chai that the intervention of Anousheh was unexpected:
Q: Did you know that Anousheh Ansari would befriend Sepideh and support her, when you began filming?

A: No, not at all. It was a surprise. Actually, that’s why it kept taking so long to finish the film. It was already done before all this happened about Anousheh. We had finished the shooting, even the ending. Which of course now is different. It was new and made me hurry back to Iran and see what was going to happen. The last scene is shot in Dubai a year ago, and that was the first time I talked with Anousheh.

While some scenes feel unnatural and staged to summarise developments and drive the story forward, this afternoon’s screening in the Queens Film Theatre on the closing day of Belfast Film Festival was a very encouraging story of hope, a zeal for learning and a yearning to make a difference. I wasn’t alone shedding a tear or two during the film.

It is well worth seeing this film if it is playing in at a festival near you or is being screened on general release this summer. We need more girls (and boys) around the world like Sepideh who can dream big and dream long. And we need parents and teachers and adults to mentor young people and help them fulfil their potential.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Busby Furball: life, birth, death, experimentation, extinction ... and fur


Originally shot in 2009, it has taken five years for Busby Furball to reach the screen of a cinema. Earlier this evening, it had its world premiere in the QFT as part of Belfast Film Festival.

As I expected, the Factotum arts collective excelled themselves with a surreal masterpiece that combines life, birth, death, experimentation and extinction into 30 minutes of fantastic cinema.

It’s the story of three Busbys who lived together on an isolated peninsula. A little like the gorillas in Dublin Zoo. Except they’re more erect, a lot more colourful, and speak in native Norn Irish. It would be genuinely difficult to spoil the plot.
  • Giblet (red fur) is the boffin, tinkering in his square brick house and trying to understand how sounds relate to thoughts. He uses his steampunk “metal” detector to analyse rocks and bottles.

  • Offal is his “guileless” friend: the type of friend you look down on and wish to experiment on. Offal becomes pregnant after picking up and playing with an oversized fungi. He gives birth to Oscar, an oversized slug.

  • Poylp (black fur) stands in the middle: helping Offal overcome the taboo of experiencing the hallucinogenic effect of eating his own furball. Yet Poylp is also willing to collaborate (in the Nazi sense of the word) with Giblet to use a brain portal machine to get right inside Offal’s head.

The film is replete with Blake’s 7-style sound effects, grunts, groans and local vernacular. While the busbys’ eyes don’t move, they’re still very expressive. Their hair moves in the wind mirroring the swaying and swirling grass.

The props are amazing, particularly the rotating ornamental cake stand. And Oscar’s sluglike movement across the grassy fields is straight out of the K9 manual and worthy of the creation of an Oscar (award) category for animatronics.

Having been made in quite a rush [ahem!] the film is still a little rough around the edges. There’s only one camera angle where it rains: maybe Giblet has successfully applied a polaroid effect to precipitation? And the chapter introductions that partition the film nearly reveal too much about the otherwise totally surreal and imagineering plot.

From the giggles and wails of laughter across the QFT tonight, the actors and crew obviously had a (fur) ball making the short film.

A film that questions how clever the self-appointed wise people in society really are. Are we really open to appreciating who is in charge of our destiny? And who is experimenting upon whom? Perhaps there are some spiritual insights in there too: “Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40).

Busby Furball’s creators commented before the film that they had created a new genre in Northern Ireland cinema. They certainly didn’t disappoint. Yet it will be quite a challenge to grow the genre. Perhaps it’s time for Factotum to embark on another film

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Belfast Film Festival (27 March - 5 April) - a cinematic feast with 121 films over 10 days

Every year, the Belfast Film Festival gets better and better.

Except for the festival programmer’s knack for scheduling loads of great films on the same night. I blame that on Stephen Hackett … though with so many movies to choose from, the clashes are perhaps inevitable and forgivable … though at some stage the festival should invent a BFF+1 concept to re-screen each film a day later!

With a mix of local and international films, there’s plenty to tickle your fancy, challenge, entertain and offend.

Out of the 121 films on offer over the 10 day festival here are a few that caught my eye. Ticket prices for the selection of films and events below vary between £3 and £6.

Friday 28 March

19:00 – Ilo Ilo – QFT – A 10 year old Singaporean boy, his Filipina nanny and his parents struggle to weather the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Awarded Camera D’Or for best debut feature at Cannes

Saturday 29 March

16:00 – Quatermass Xperiment – QFT – A manned missile is launched and lands in the English countryside, with two of its three crew members missing. The third undergoes a horrible metamorphosis and starts to kill humans and animals. (The film was later remade as a 'live' production on BBC Four.) Prof Quatermass pieces together the logical conclusion: an alien invasion. Renée Glynne worked on the film and will give a talk from 2pm before introducing this science fiction cult film at 4pm. Having sat through a long and late night screening of Quatermass And The Pit in a BBC studio as part of a previous Belfast Film Festival, science fiction fans will be glad to see this one is scheduled earlier in the day!

18:00 – Busby Furball – QFT – when I looked at the image accompanying the write-up in the Belfast Film Festival programme I knew this had to be a Factotum production. (Their film Ditching is one of my favourite pieces of local cinema.) Three hairy Busbys – Offal, Giblet and Polyp – live on an isolated peninsula. Mind control, oversized fungi, giving birth to a large, intelligent hairy slug, a brain portal and some mind control. 28 minutes of cinema I’m really looking forward to. Reviewed.

Sunday 30 March

19:00 – The Distance – QFT – A surrealist heist film starring three telekinetic Russian dwarves who are hired by a long-suffering Austrian artist to rob a guarded room in a remote power plant in the Siberian Mountains. Their telepathy melds together many different languages, backed by an atmospheric soundtrack.

19:00 – Drawing on Life – BFF Beanbag Cinema, 23 Donegall Street – A local documentary tracing the thoughts of leading architects as it explores how and why they still draw by hand in this digital age.

19:00 – Onus – Dublin Road Moviehouse – No budget (£500) feature film from Belfast-based George Clarke/Yellow Fever Productions. Shot in nine days over two years in Norway, expect dark twists as two sides of the same coin are examined.

21:00 – Noirland – Dublin Road Moviehouse – Northern Ireland’s first crime anthology from writer/director Philip Henry. Three stories following one man who wants “to see the guilty punished, because secrets never stay buried in Noirland”.

Monday 31 March

18:45 – We Were There – Dublin Road Moviehouse – How the Maze/Long Kesh impacted on women’s lives, through absence from family as well as intervention by educational and welfare staff. Recorded in 2007 inside the empty prison, stories told by a prison officer’s wife, inmates’ relatives, Open University tutors, Probation Service staff and a visual artist. Followed by a Q&A with participants and the filmmakers.

19:00 – The Lunchbox – QFT – A mistaken delivery in Mumbai’s famously efficient lunchbox delivery system connects a young housewife to an old man in the dusk of his life as they build a fantasy world together through notes I the lunchbox.

Tuesday 1 April

19:00 – The Dirties – QFT – Owen and Matt decide to make a no-budget epic action farce as they take revenge on their high school bullies. When it doesn’t work out, they switch to make a documentary that reveals more about their own selves that they are comfortable with.

19:30 – Baraka – Townsend Street Presbyterian Church – ‘Baraka’ is an ancient Sufi word which can be translated as “a blessing or as the breath, or essence of life from which the evolutionary process unfolds”. In this spiritual nonverbal film with no plot, no actors and no script, expect breathtaking shots from 24 countries on 6 continents that show the beauty and destruction of nature and humans.

Wednesday 2 April

14:00 – Sleepless Nights – QFT – Exposing the concept of clemency without justice in the Lebanon as a mask that protects the perpetrators and leaves survivors with festering wounds. A moving documentary about reconciliation and justice bring together a guilt-ridden former Lebanese Forces intelligence officer with a mother who is still searching for her communist fighter son who disappeared in 1982. The war ended in 1991 with an amnesty for political crimes. But what is the legacy from that decision?

19:00 – A Story of Children and Film – QFT – Mark Cousins’ personal cine-essay about children on film: a mosaic of clips from 53 films made in 25 countries.

21:15 – The Congress – QFT – Blend of live action and psychedelic animation, science fiction set in a dystopian Hollywood.

Thursday 3 April

18:45 – Border – QFT – A powerful account of contemporary Syria as two sisters learn that a member of their family has decided to desert the Syrian Army and join the Free Army embarking on a hazardous journey to Turkey.

19:00 – Europa Report – Dublin Road Movie House – A privately funded space exploration company sends six astronauts to confirm whether a hidden ocean suspected to lie beneath the icy surface of Europa could sustain life. Near catastrophic technical failure, communication loss and a death as the astronauts overcome psychological and physical toll of deep space travel in this science fiction thriller.

19:00 – I am Belfast: Fragments of a work in progress – QFT – A talk by cinematic flâneur Mark Cousins and composer David Holmes on the making of their new film and the process of writing the music as the film is shot. Will include the first screening of 10-15 minutes of the film.

19:30 – Votes for Women – Culturlann – The story of how Irish women obtained the vote in spite of every main political party in Ireland and Britain opposing women's suffrage in the lead up to the First World War. But women along with a minority of socialist men rose up and eventually secured the vote for over 30s in 1918. Another aspect to the decade of centenaries.

19:30 – Babette’s Feast – Bloomfield Presbyterian Church – Two daughters of a Danish coastal clergyman live a pious and self-sacrificial life. But Babette, a mysterious refugee from France’s civil war, arrives and convinces them to try something outrageous: to try a gourmet France meal. The town are upset and convinced they’ll lose their souls for enjoying this earthly pleasure.

21:00 – Here Be Dragons – QFT – Old cartographers used to label unexplored areas of maps with the legend “Here Be Dragons”. In this film essay, Mark Cousins explores the political, cultural and cinematic landscape of Albania.

Friday 4 April

19:30 – Breaking Ground – BFF Microcinema, 23 Donegall Street – A 63 minute documentary about the work of the London Irish Women’s Centre from its opening in 1983 to its closure in 2012.

19:30 – Gospel According to Matthew – Clonard Monastery – Director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s passionate and poetic retelling of the story of Christ from immaculate conception to death of the cross. Depicted as a fiercely political figure who attacks hypocrisy and social injustice. Dialogue drawn directly from scripture. Recommended by both the Vatican and the Archbishop of Canterbury!

Saturday 5 April

14:30 – Sepideh Reaching For The Stars – QFT – Inspired by Anousheh Ansari, the first Iranian in space, teenage Sepideh lugs her enormous telescope into the countryside to study the heavens. This “unladylike behaviour” isn’t appreciated by everyone in her family. Her passion is to pursue a university education; yet suitors come knocking on the door. Breath-taking constellations together with life-changing moments in Sepideh’s life. Reviewed.

19:00 – The Human Scale – BFF Microcinema, 23 Donegall Street – The proportion of the world’s population living in urban areas is estimated to rise from 50% to 80% by 2050. Danish architect Jan Gehl argues that we need to build cities that take into account human needs for inclusion and intimacy rather than continuing to create cities that repel human interaction. This film asks what would happen if we put people at the centre of our planning.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Suspend disbelief and step back into Nivelli's War at The MAC - magic, imagination & emotion

It wasn’t the first time that The Great Nivelli had returned to his home town.

Standing on the theatre stage in his magnificent cloak triggers memories of Ernst’s war-torn childhood, crouching in the cellar while Allied bombs caused destruction overhead, being evacuated to Tante Sophie’s farm in the countryside, and making the long trek back with a new enigmatic acquaintance ‘Mr H’ to try to find his mother at the end of the Second World War.


The star of last night’s show is young Ernst (played by Sam Clemmett) who grows up and becomes more confident as he picks up life-skills on his journey* home. The once shy child becomes adept at getting his own way in tricky situations. Mr H (Bob Kelly) is like a father to him, and ultimately he takes his name.

Dan Gordon plays The Great Nivelli, and is joined on stage by Kerri Quinn, Abigail McGinnon, Michael Lavery and Faolan Morgan.

The dark atmosphere of the war is conveyed through Garth McConaghie’s sound effects, the dimly lit set (designed by Sabine Dargent), the use of shadow and the industrial smoke machines that waft low lying fog across the stage.

The mood is lightened by illusions and expertly performed close magic tricks (white gloves, handkerchiefs, canes, the works!), and there are plenty of giggles from the audience, particularly during the lesson on shrugging.



Charles Way’s play doesn’t have all the answers. Many of the pared down scenes from last night’s performance lived on in my imagination as I drifted off to sleep, conjuring up the characters’ stories after the lights went down and the actors left the stage.
“Don’t you want to go home?”

This pivotal line in the middle of the play explains why the skulking, scavenging Mr H is willing to walk hundreds of miles to take Ernst back to his roots. The Great Nivelli’s career and touring magic show are really his grown-up tribute to all Mr H gave him, his way of recompensing his sadly unspoken gratitude.

Only an hour long, the play seemed to keep the attention of the younger children in the audience, and left them wanting more. Expect to laugh. Expect to feel slightly nervous. Expect a tear to escape your eye near the end and trickle down your cheek. Expect to learn about the war from the less-spoken-off other side. Expect to dream afterwards about hens and red balloons and magic.

Directed by Paul Bosco Mc Eneaney and produced by children’s theatre company Cahoots NI, Nivelli’s War is a beautiful and touching show that runs in The MAC until 11 March before going back on tour – Cookstown, Castleblaney, Letterkenney, Dun Laoghaire, Enniskillen and Warrenpoint – throughout the rest of March.

Brilliant theatre and suitable for 7 year olds and up. Well worth a visit, and a great imagination-boosting lead-in to the Belfast Children’s Festival that starts on Friday.

*Warning: this play contains journeys!

Monday, March 03, 2014

The Belfast Urban Motorway (Wesley Johnston): economic, engineering, political and social drivers that created Belfast’s road network

“Fundamentally, it is a story about the contradictory needs of the people of Belfast and what they were and were not prepared to accept – and pay for – to keep their city moving.” (Wesley Johnston)
Imagine an elevated three-lane motorway encircling Belfast city centre. A mini-M25 taking through-traffic off the inner-city streets, serving all parts of the city equally? Imagine the noise and pollution from an above ground ring-road, jammed full beyond its intended capacity, severing communities with its concrete and tarmac. A monument to the victory of private over public transport?

Wesley Johnston’s new book The Belfast Urban Motorway looks back at the economic, engineering political and social forces that shaped the major transport decisions in Belfast and beyond over the last sixty years.

From the power of the Belfast Corporation, to direct rule ministers and policies from London; from communities being bulldozed for ‘the greater good’, to direct action and strong community lobbying; from the rule of cars, to a more balanced private/public transport strategy.

I spoke to the author Wesley Johnston last week and asked him about the Urban Motorway and its ambitions plans for Belfast. (You can watch some of the roads he's talking about, or just listen to the audio.)





In the 1800s, bridges were being built across the Lagan and demolished within a generation to be replaced with larger ones. In parallel with road expansion, the rail network across Ireland was still growing: 1839 saw the Belfast to Lisburn rail link open (175 years old in 2014!); Ballymena, Carrickfergus and Holywood in 1848; and finally Belfast to Bangor in 1865.
“Although most arterial routes into the city were bottlenecks, two of the most serious were the Queen’s Bridge and Holywood Arches, the latter then being part of the main road from Belfast to Holywood and Bangor.”
Those sites of road congestion in the 1920s and 1930s will be familiar to 2014 drivers! Plans for a province-wide motorway network and large approach roads converging on Belfast were formulated in the 1950s and the Belfast Corporation was keen on a ring road around the city.

In 1960 the Minister of Health and Local Government [there’s an interesting mix of areas for a department!] appointed Sir Robert Matthew to draw up a regional plan for Belfast, covering housing as well as transport. Prof Matthew’s report proposed “a ‘stop line’ beyond which the city would not be allowed to expand”. Wesley Johnston notes that “with a few exceptions such as Poleglass and Cairnshill, this stop line remains more or less intact to the present day”. People living in sub-standard Belfast housing would move to seven existing towns and the entirely new city of Craigavon. Prof Matthew also backed the plans for the urban motorway around Belfast city centre.

The book explains that four civil engineers travelled to cities in the US in 1963 and the visit “really reinforced our view – that the elevated motorway was the proper answer for Belfast”. Maybe if they had been accompanied by some less technical colleagues they would have discerned the problems “a large, noisy, elevated concrete structure through a residential area” were already causing in those US cities?

Planners in Belfast overrode concerns that “the visual impact of an elevated structure can be considerable” and the reality that “the noise pollution from traffic is much reduced by a depressed road” and sought to avoid the high water table with an above ground road on “a series of isolated foundations” that wouldn’t require “the wholesale removal of all existing utilities”.

The 230 page book dips into the DRD archives and others which remain, and is richly illustrated with hundreds of photographs, maps and diagrams showing how the evolution of road schemes in Belfast (and beyond).

Planning consultations avoided seeking the views of the communities that would be split in two as buildings were flattened to allow these new wide roads to be built. In 1969 there was a two and a half day public inquiry “characterised by a virtual absence of objections”. [Page 80 if the current Minister of the Environment is looking for tips.]

Subsequent inquiries in 1972 and 1977 had more vociferous input from community groups and unions, though often their voices were ignored or dismissed. In 1972 the Sandy Row Redevelopment Association called for the Urban Motorway plan to be rejected before their community was “annihilated”. The four main church denominations argued against the scheme that would “‘box in’ residents and physically prevent the reintegration of segregated communities”. SDLP representatives, the Republican Clubs (Official Sinn Féin) and the Greater West Belfast Community Association all voiced their concerns.

The editorial line taken by Belfast newspapers seem consistent with 2014.

In 1967 a Belfast Telegraph front page “proudly proclaimed” that the Urban Motorway plan would “shape the [future] Belfast of 1976” employing over 2,000 people and having a much reduced effect on housing than earlier schemes. Besides “a large proportion … would have been due for slum clearance”.

The Irish News was less supportive: “using an editorial to lambast the ‘paradox’ of spending so much on a ring road at a time of housing shortage, rising unemployment and wage freezes”. The nationalist paper went on to sum up the scheme’s priorities:
“Human beings are less important than giant ring roads and fantastic fly-over, that free-running traffic in the centre of the city merits greater consideration than parents and children.”
There’s a definite class dimension – gentrification – to the road schemes. Less than a third of poorer households in 1966 Belfast owned a car. Yet their houses and amenities were being pulled down to make way for the largely middle class commuters at the expense – for a long time – of any investment in public transport. A 1970 vesting order for the first phase (which became the Westlink) required the compulsory purchase of 1,2000 houses, over 200 shops and businesses, 27 pubs, 6 church buildings, 3 schools and 2 police stations.

The Urban Motorway encircling the city was to be accompanied by the appallingly named Central Distributor Box: an inner circle with two or three lanes in each direction, punctuated by traffic lights and directing drivers towards their final city centre destinations. Over half the ‘box’ was built – Millfield, Frederick Street, Dunbar Link, Custom House Square, Oxford Street, Victoria Street – but the southern end is still missing.

By the mid-1970s planners were wondering how best to balance transport investment in roads versus bus and rail services. Rail improvements were quickly ruled out, and only came back in 1988 with an all-or-nothing compromise plan for a single-track cross-harbour viaduct connecting York Street with Central Station built alongside the Lagan Bridge.

By the mid-1980s the Westlink – the ‘West Tangent’ of the original Belfast Urban Motorway plan – was open. Within a few years traffic was “far in excess of any forecast”. The induced traffic effect means that “if you provide [or improve] a road then it not only caters better for traffic that is using it, but also allows more people to make the journey”.

In more recent times, the Lagan Bridge transformed links from Bangor and Holywood to the M2 and the Westlink. A third lane was added to the M1 from Blacks Road and plans to build a flyover at Broadway roundabout were changed to an underpass along with a major civil engineering effort to divert the Clowney and Blaskstaff rivers through artificial culverts. (They wimped out of running the rivers through the roof of the Broadway underpass!) Chapter 13 of the book includes analysis of the Broadway flood when the underpass filled up with water in a mere 45 minutes on 16 August 2008.

The Westlink is only the third busiest stretch of road in Northern Ireland, behind the M2 and M3 (Lagan Bridge).

Future investment in Belfast’s transport seems sure to involve more bus lanes, rapid transit routes starting at out of town park and ride sites and terminating in the city centre, and the removal of traffic lights at York Street through a series of underpasses and ground-level roads connecting the Westlink, M2, M3 and other local streets.

Wesley Johnston’s new book has changed my commute. I no longer drive along the Westlink wondering whether the traffic will snarl up around the next corner. Instead my eye is caught by the detailing on the walls and railings, the timbre of the undulating road, and the remnants of streets that once stretched across the concrete hole that today carries traffic across the city as I remember Wesley’s commentary on the building, rebuilding and human cost on the communities it passes through.

As I drive along I ponder some of the questions at the end of the book. Should heavy goods traffic have been given its own lane along the Westlink? Would the Westlink improve if a junction/sliproad was removed?

And what kind of transport will best service Belfast, those who live there, those who work there, those who travel through, and those who rely on flights and ferries and goods shipped through the docks? Does our economy suffer if we don’t invest in transport? Can we afford not to share public behaviours by the type of transport solutions we build?

The book sucked me in – like an extended documentary – with its study of Northern Ireland’s changing transport strategy, shaped by politics and economics as well as what civil engineers thought feasible. The maps and diagrams bring the history and engineering to life.

The Belfast Urban Motorway is written by Wesley Johnston. Available for £15 from its publisher Colourpoint, as well as local bookshops and Amazon. You can also follow local transport developments on Wesley’s website and blog.

(Images from the book and NI Roads website. Review copy of book provided by Colourpoint.)

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Music, stories, art ... and most of all, imagination ... Belfast Children’s Festival 7-14 March #BCF14

This time next month the 16th annual Belfast Children’s Festival will be starting. This year Young At Art’s festival base in a vacant unit just inside the front door of Castle Court shopping centre. (There can be no allegations that the festival is elitist!)

Branded as The Office of Important Art, the unit will host storytelling, creative play, and some festival events. Open 11am-5pm daily; 2pm-5pm on Sunday and 11am-8pm on Thursday. You may also find it open intermittently in the weeks before and the months after the festival.

Last week’s festival launch gave a taste of things to come with festival staff and even the Lord Mayor Máirtín Ó Muilleoir sporting outlandish and colourful hairdos and accessories. The Catalan beauty salon Sienta La Cabeza will be back on Saturday 8 and Sunday 9 March in Castle Court offering children a once-in-a-lifetime hairstyle. (While he kept his eccentric barnet for the rest of the day, the Lord Mayor can vouch for the fact it comes out with a single wash.)

Some highlights from the programme

A Boy and His Box in The Lyric on Sunday 9, Monday 10 and Tuesday 11 March. The story of a boy, his box and his vivid imagination. Live drawing, projection, quirky tunes and imagination triggered by the stroke of a pen. Age 4-8. Tickets £6, or £20 family. After the festival, Replay Theatre Company will be touring the show through Armagh, Limavady, Dun Laoghaire, Sligo, Newbridge, Downpatrick and Strabane.



A Mano (By Hand) in the MAC Upstairs on Friday 7, Saturday 8, Sunday 9 and Monday 10 March. A story told with clay through a small character who wants to escape from a shop window and its inhabitants. Four hands, two people, and a love story. Age 6+. Tickets £6, or £20 family.

Bang! in the Baby Grand on Saturday 8, Sunday 9 and Monday 10 March. Compagnie Volpinex produce a Western film in front of the audience with Mexican bank robber El Bandido being pursued across the desert by Sheriff Jacques Daniel, projecting it out live and creating all the sound effects. Age 8+. Tickets £6, £20 family.

The Ice Child in The Lyric on Wednesday 12 March. The fairies stole the baby and left the Ice Child in its place, lost in a world that doesn’t understand and doesn’t welcome him. You can’t hug or cuddle him or he’ll melt. A tale about growing up different. Aged 8+. Tickets £6, or £20 family.

Cracked in Baby Grand on Wesnesday 12 March. A whodunit live art installation. Examine the evidence. Form your conclusion. And cast your vote. Age 8+. Tickets £3.



Two free theatrical previews in the Baby Grand on Wednesday 12 March at 2pm, with extracts from Liz Cullinane’s Playing Adults exploring how adults hold onto childhood, and Rubbish by Jude Quinn combining imagination with the truism that one man’s trash is another’s treasure. Free, but booking required.

Instant Orchestra in The Lyric on Friday 14 March. Quickly master the art of playing the Indonesiam tuned bamboo – the angklung – and join the orchestra. All ages. Tickets £6, or £20 family.

Big Ears: Sonic Art for Public Ears in the QUB Sonic Arts Research Centre (SARC) on Sunday 9 March. An all day exploration of music, sound and technology with industry facilitators in an amazing sound design space. Age 11-14. Tickets £10.

And the Baby Rave’s back Bollywood style in the Waterfront on Sunday 9 March. Tiny tots and their parents grooving to the beat along with sensory toys, parachutes and projections. Age 0-4. Tickets £5.

And lots, lots more … see their online programme for more details.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

“We have a responsibility to speak for the disadvantaged, to speak for the downtrodden, to speak for the poor” (Rev Michael Barry)

Rev Michael Barry is softly spoken. He’s not a stickler for formality and displays an easy sense of humour. A maths teacher before he went into the ministry, he’s been pastoring the Sandys Street congregation in Newry since 1985. If he hadn't been a teacher and then become a preacher he says he'd like to have gone to sea.

Last night he was one of the three ministers who tied with five votes each in the first round of the election for the Presbyterian moderator to take over at June’s General Assembly. Along with Revs Liz Hughes and Ian McNie, the Newry minister had to wait a little longer for the final result while another round of voting was organised.

In the end, seven Presbyteries cast their vote for Michael Barry with the remaining twelve evenly split between Liz and Ian. Describing the experience as “a surreal night” the moderator designate said he felt “humbled and honoured” that the church had asked him to be the new moderator.

Rev Michael Barry (Sandys Street, Newry) 7 Votes
Armagh, Carrickfergus, Coleraine/Limavady, Dromore, Newry, +Down +Omagh

Rev Liz Hughes (Whitehouse) 6 Votes
North Belfast, East Belfast, South Belfast, Dublin/Munster, Monaghan + Ards

Rev Ian McNie (Trinity, Ballymoney) 6 Votes
Ballymena, Iveagh, Route, Templepatrick, Tyrone +Derry/Donegal

This morning Michael Barry woke up to be interviewed on Radio Ulster and Radio Foyle before coming up to Belfast for a press conference.



June’s General Assembly will  His first week as moderator will be busy chairing the business at the denomination’s annual conference which will again have to address the re-organisation of the denominations central support staff and boards of mission and ministry. Unplanned and unexpected events, terrorist attacks, and church discipline tend to shape the rest of a moderator’s year and the legacy they leave when they handover to their successor. But at the outset I asked the moderator designate what he hoped to achieve during those 51 weeks?
“One of the things that I am looking forward to is the fact that I’ll be able to get out and about and meet Presbyterians in congregations and Presbyteries, to encourage people involved on the ground. I think we have a very good church that does tremendous work … Sometimes there is not much evidence of fruit for all of their labours, but I’m looking forward to meeting them to bring a word of encouragement.”
Serving the community and reaching out into the community will be PCI’s theme for his moderatorial year, part of the denominations’ five-year Fit For Purpose programme.

While there are still “some folk who really refuse to work with others” he recognises “there has been a tremendous change” in Newry in over the 29 years he has ministered in Newry.
“It has been very slow and we probably could have done more. I think there’s an element in which maybe for the first half of my ministry, Presbyterians kept their head down below the parapet because they were afraid. They weren’t very confident about how others would react so we really kept ourselves to ourselves. But I think over the past 10-15 years people have become more confident and beginning to peep over the parapet a wee bit, beginning to reach out.”
Michael Barry describes himself as being from the “conservative wing” of the Presbyterian Church. While definitely conservative on some issues, he’s less traditional on others. In Newry he enjoys good relations with local Catholic priests and laity, shares platforms at civic events and has attended wedding and funeral masses in Catholic churches. He spoke in the press conference about “God being forgiving” and his willingness to pray publicly for grieving parents of dead terrorists. Ecumenically, he draws a line at sharing in the joint leading of services and sounded a little uncomfortable on the radio this morning answering a question about the potential for a future female moderator.
“One of the great cries of the reformers in the 16th century was that the church should be reformed and always reforming. I’m glad we are a reformed church and I think we do reform. Perhaps not always easily. Generally we are a conservative church and change comes perhaps more slowly to us than in other places.

But on the other hand I think we are still holding on to our traditions and our core beliefs. What we’ve got to do is continue to seek God’s guidance as to how we are to interpret the Bible and how we are to see the place of the church in society and in the world. One of the problems is that sometimes you can throw the baby out with the bathwater and you can change and reform and to an extent that you lose your identity. I think our church has maintained its identity well and I think we are standing squarely in the line of the reformation.”
Anything specific he’d like to see reformed?
“I think there are some of our congregations that are a little bit stuck, not in the 20th century, maybe in the 19th century. I grew up in that kind of environment and treasure and value it. But I think we need to look at new kinds of music and new kinds of hymns and a new way of doing worship that is in accord with what we believe to the regulative principle that God tells us how to worship and we need to be looking at that.”
So expect a lively opening night of General Assembly!

Last week, PCI hosted a conference about The Church in the Public Square in its Belfast Assembly Buildings headquarters. The moderator designate commented:
“Our church has always been involved in the public square, the difference is that we’re now speaking into the public square from the outside, or at least from the edge, whereas before we would have been much closer to the centre ...

We always have to speak into all of those issues with a Christian voice and encourage people to hear what the Bible has to say. Jesus was involved in the communities in which he moved and we want to do that as well.

Does the church have a role to create space and lead society as we deal with the past, commemorate centenaries of events across the island?
“I think we need to understand that people – whether we agree with them or they agree with us – people are human beings. One of the phrases that was used by Prof Macleod [at the conference was] 'people bearing the image of God, icons of divinity or deity' ...

The people we deal with, the people we shout at, we harangue, are people who bear the image of God. We need to treat people with respect. And if we were to do that we would possibly find that we are able to connect with them better.

The Apostle Paul in Philippians says we are to treat other people better than we treat ourselves and put their affairs and concerns before our own. That’s not something that happens in our community very easily. It’s something I think the church needs to teach perhaps more vocally …

We have a responsibility to speak for the disadvantaged, to speak for the downtrodden, to speak for the poor. Sometimes we haven’t always done that as faithfully as we should.”