Some inspiring food for the soul on the box

Some inspiring food for the soul on the box Andrew Garfield stars as Fr Sebastian Rodrigues in a scene from the movie Silence which was on BBC Four. Photo: Paramount

With so much grim stuff in the media you’d need a few uplifting programmes every week to keep the spirits high.

This past week the best of these for me was Nationwide (RTÉ One, Wednesday) a repeat of a special documentary presented by Colm Flynn on the work of Sr Ethel Normoyle from Lissycasey, Co. Clare, among the poor of South Africa. Unfortunately, the repeat of the show from 2013 was occasioned by the recent death of Sr Ethel. But what a life! Initially reluctant to be posted to Africa, she took to the assignment with full commitment but her engagement with the poorest of all began only when her initial posting was due to end. She was taken aback by the extreme poverty of the people in the townships (she thought their huts were cowsheds) and proceeded to do something constructive about it. It started with a school under a tree and grew into the thriving Missionvale Care Centre – Sr Ethel realised that education and healthcare were vital if conditions were to improve.

Stories from the early days were quite jarring as these were apartheid times – how simple, banal and shocking was the sight of a sign ‘Native Only Bus Stop’. And Sr Ethel faced a lot of opposition in those days, being pressurised to stop her classes for poor black children and even being spat on.

Like a lot of energetic reformers, she persuaded a local businessman (Roger Matlock), to support the venture financially, and she was also helped by Irish volunteers, mostly builders. As they worked to change the lives of others it looked like their own lives were changed too. Sr Ethel said her mission was ‘to bring Christ’s compassion to the people, through practical means’ and surely she did just that. Her work was recognised widely – we saw pictures of visits from St Teresa of Kolkata and Queen Elizabeth II who paid her a glowing tribute – she was impressed by how “the inspiration and energy of one person can benefit thousands of others”.

Towards the end of the programme she spoke of her desire to hand on the torch and of her longing to get home to Ireland – in a poignant update we were told that she did indeed get to return before she died last month. Check it out on the RTE Player and also learn more at

Also inspirational, but tinged with sadness was the special Concert4Cancer (Virgin Media One, Friday) – organised to raise funds for the Marie Keating Foundation. The musical performances were interspersed with some moving interviews featuring cancer survivors, those who were bereaved and those who were still undergoing treatment. You couldn’t but be inspired by the resilience, love and strength of character, all the more so when Covid-19 challenges were added to the mix. These ‘impact stories’ were filmed by The Reelists and you can catch up on some of them on their social media outlets, as well as catching the whole show on the Virgin Media Player.

The quality of the musical items varied. I’m not particularly a fan of Johnny Logan but he did do a pretty good version, a mellow solo just with guitar, of the Shay Healy Eurovision hit What’s Another Year. In a world riddled with ego, tech, surface and glamour it’s good to see someone making it with just voice and guitar and so I also enjoyed Ed Sheerin’s contribution, Bad Habits as well. Some songs were a tad dour, but The Riptide Movement raised spirits with I’ll Be There. My favourite however was Mick Flannery’s duet with Susan O’Neill Chain Reaction was soulful with gorgeous harmonies.

And finally, just one programme that wasn’t inspiring – Silence (BBC Four Thursday) is a Martin Scorcese film about Portuguese missionaries in Japan in the 17th Century. Starring Liam Neeson, Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield, it is as expected very well made and it certainly takes religious faith seriously. There’s a striking contrast between those willing to die for their faith (the martyrdoms are particularly gruesome) and those whose faith or commitment collapses under pressure. Perhaps Mr Scorcese leaves it up to each viewer to decide where they stand or fall, but I’m inclined to think the film’s viewpoint is that it’s not worth dying for the faith, but that making this compromising choice leaves one empty and without purpose.

Whatever the case, however intriguing and absorbing, it ultimately left me cold.


Pick of the week
Songs of Praise
BBC One Sunday September 5, 1.15 pm

Aled Jones is in London to investigate why the act of forgiveness is at the heart of the Christian faith.

Channel 4 Tuesday September 7, 7.40 am

Debra’s hippy sister shows up unexpectedly and announces that she’s decided to become a nun.

The Inquisition
EWTN Thursday September 9, 3 am

This new EWTN docudrama uncovers the truth behind the Spanish Inquisition. Was it a mix of cruelty, terror and religious fanaticism? Or the result of a propaganda campaign against the Church?