Extraordinary stories, ordinary people

Personal stories of faith in Northern Ireland

Few programmes are faultless, but City of Faith (BBC Northern Ireland) last Monday night) came pretty close.

This new series focuses on stories of faith from Armagh, and does it simply, without gimmicks, without irony, even without narration. People of faith from the various religions in the city get to tell their interesting stories and it’s left to the viewer to take it as they wish.

Last week’s opening episode included Gerry Gribbon, a Catholic who had moved to Armagh from the Falls Road in Belfast. After an initial negative reaction he came to find the people of Armagh beautiful and generous.

For 18 years he went to Lourdes supporting ill people who were on pilgrimage with the Carmelite order, was thankful to God for the gift of sobriety, and as far as believing in miracles he saw himself as a miracle! He had observed people who had been written off getting their lives together and found joy in helping others. He was in Lourdes when he got the word that his son had died by suicide and understandably that was the worst day of his life.

Even now, 17 years later he became upset even talking about it. He questioned why God let this happen but accepted that we don’t know the answers and was still trusting in the God of love and mercy.


We first saw a young couple, David and Claire Scott, worshipping at the Mall Presbyterian Church in Armagh and learned of the place they made for God in their marriage. They had a strong sense of God’s presence, a belief that God was in control and hope for the future.

Like Gerry Gribbon they had a desire to love and serve, and their faith in God also got a shaking with the news that their new baby Daniel had exomphalos, a condition that meant some of the baby’s organs growing outside his body. Their positive attitude was so impressive and reminded me of those heroic parents interviewed on radio for the last few weeks whose medical cards for their ill children were removed.

The programme started with Jack O’Hare at Armagh Cathedral, a place, he said, where people search for something greater than themselves. He felt so fortunate in life, had become very involved in the life of the cathedral, had worked on its restoration, produced a guide book and towards the end of the show we saw him being awarded the Cross of Honour bestowed by Pope Francis and presented by Cardinal Brady. I was surprised that there wasn’t any Church of Ireland person highlighted, but I presume this will follow in a later episode.

Staying up North last weekend’s Sunday Sequence on Radio Ulster had the usual mix of topical items, all given room to breathe in the programme’s generous Sunday morning slot.

Most topical of all was the calm discussion on what Peter Robinson and a Pastor James McConnell had to say about Muslims, but the item that caught my attention most was an interview with philosopher Simon Blackburn about his new book, Mirror Mirror – The Uses and Abuses of Self Love.

Blackburn had lots to say about narcissism in our culture. It wasn’t new but the internet provided more instruments to engage in it – ‘selfies’ being a case in point. He argued, citing Aristotle, for moderation in virtues – e.g. if courage goes too far it can become foolhardiness. Likewise, it was important to have a ‘decent self-image’. Too little self-esteem was bad, but too much of it led to vanity and conceit.

Finally a few snippets. The fallout from the elections continued to be fascinating. I was amused to hear Government politicians ruminating over the results and suggesting (e.g. in relation to the medical cards issue) that they should act with more compassion in future. How come such an approach didn’t strike them as a good idea before now? And isn’t it sad that it took an electoral walloping and hours of heartrending media stories to get them to halt (not reverse) what one frustrated parent on last Saturday’s Playback(RTÉ Radio 1) called the ‘cull’ of discretionary medical cards?

Also last Saturday I was surprised to hear RTÉ Newscovering the story of Meriam, the Christian woman sentenced to death for ‘apostasy’ in South Sudan, as if it was a new story. This had been getting prominence elsewhere for weeks.


Pick of the week:

DOCUMENTARY ON ONE: RTÉ Radio 1, Sat  June 7, 2 pm

Mairéad's First Communion: What do you do when youíre not practising Catholics but your daughter wants to make her First Communion?



Eamon Dunphy tells Gay Byrne about the people, events and beliefs that have shaped his life and values.


THE CHOICES WE FACE: EWTN Thurs June 12, 2 pm

Dr Peter Kreeft discusses the sexual revolution and