Belfast Telegraph

Games Of Thrones Ian McElhinney's moving tribute to cleric Liz

The Northern Ireland actor, famous for many stage and screen roles including Games Of Thrones, on why he's honoured to be performing at a fundraising event in memory of the Church of Ireland minister in Lurgan next month. By Stephanie Bell

Game Of Thrones star Ian McElhinney will join his family and members of the public for a very special celebratory concert next month in memory of well-known Lurgan cleric the Rev Canon Liz McElhinney.

A Church of Ireland minister, teacher and social worker Liz, a mum of three boys who was widely loved and respected across many walks of life, was married to the actor's cousin Cyril. She passed away in June after a battle with motor neurone disease

Ian, who is currently filming for the new sci-fi series Superman prequel Krypton, will read a selection of poetry written by Liz after her diagnosis in May 2015.

The internationally-acclaimed actor said that the event - Solid Joys, Lasting Treasure - to be held in Liz's home town of Lurgan will be "extraordinary", just like the lady herself was.

"I knew Liz for over 50 years and she was an extraordinary woman, she had such vitality and was so positive in her faith and her life," he said. "She was so positive in everything she did. She was an exemplary Christian who understood the meaning of what that was.

"Her funeral was an extraordinary event. Funerals are usually a solemn occasion, but Liz's was a 'lift the roof' event charged with wholehearted singing. If that was anything to go by, then this event will be extraordinary. I understand there is a fantastic choir and a brilliant organist who will give it full welly. It promises to be a fabulous, uplifting, positive night."

Liz, who lived in Dollingstown just outside Lurgan, made a real mark during her lifetime. She was 71 when she passed away in June after a two-year battle with MND.

She and Cyril were also known for adopting one of 100 Vietnamese babies brought to England in 1975 in the Daily Mail's Operation Babylift. They raised Vance along with their two other boys, David and Stephen.

Last year Liz featured in a BBC NI documentary following her son's journey to find his birth family in Vietnam.

She also made a moving video that was posted online of her experience of motor neurone disease.

In it she said: "I'm not terribly courageous or brave, but I did know that this challenge was an expedition or journey of faith.

"Those things that I do not look forward to are parting with my husband Cyril, my three sons, my six precious grandchildren. I don't want to be parted from them."

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Liz McElhinney with granddaughter Ruby

She added: "But because I know they too love the Lord, I'll be with them and again we will meet."

It was after her MND diagnosis that Liz first started writing poetry, Ian explained. It is these poems which he and his actor son Michael - Liz's godson - will read during the memorial concert.

In fact, the poems form a core part of the concert, and 20 of them have been gathered together in a printed collection of Solid Joys, Lasting Treasure, which is complemented by beautiful illustrations by Liz's artist son David.

The booklet will be given to anyone who buys a ticket for the concert.

Ian said that he was honoured to be taking part in the tribute to Liz in Lurgan's Shankill Parish Church next month.

The Belfast-born actor, who has a long list of TV and film credits, played the role of Ser Barristan Selmy in the international blockbuster Game Of Thrones.

He also starred in Star Wars: Rogue One, The Fall, Ripper Street and Redwater.

He was a Tony-nominated director of Stones In His Pockets, an international success written by his wife, Belfast playwright Marie Jones.

Ian revealed how last Christmas he offered to record Liz's poetry as a special gift to her and her husband and how her writing was inspired by her faith in God and her love of Donegal, where he spent his summers as a young boy.

"It was always planned to have a memorial service for Liz and it was a natural thing that I would be invited to do some readings on the night as I had read and recorded her poems for her and Cyril. It was just a private thing I did for them last Christmas," he said.

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Liz McElhinney with husband Cyril

"In the year after her diagnosis she wrote around 20 poems, which she had never done before, and then she just got to the point where she felt she had written enough and stopped.

"They are absolutely fabulous poems, they really are beautiful. The poems have now been put in a booklet for the first time and I will be reading a number of them as part of the service, and my son Michael will read a few.

"All the poems are governed by one primary thing and that is the strength of her faith.

She was a very vital woman and was relatively young when she died and the type who would have been going 90 to the dozen to the end only for her diagnosis.

"The poems show her extraordinary strong faith, which seemed to be even stronger in spite of everything that she was going through.

"She also reflects a lot in the poetry about Island Roy in Donegal, which was my father's birthplace and somewhere I spent a lot of time as a child.

"She loved it there and it is part of the McElhinney history. In her poetry she writes about the landscape and the nature of the place and the seasonal changes there and how the individual is affected by them."

Liz's poems have been described by author and editor Lynda Neilands as "gems" - she said they were "mined and crafted in the valley of the shadow of death, they glow with the light of Christ, the hope of Heaven and appreciation of all that is true and lovely on Earth".

Liz's creative writing mentor - and editor of the collection - Dr Sharon Heron said that Liz's vision for the poems grew steadily as she wrote of her experience, hoping that "some glory might be brought to the Lord she loved".

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Liz McElhinney with son Stephen

The McElhinney family have a strong tradition of church ministry. Liz was ordained as soon as it became possible for women to enter the ministry. She and her son, the Rev Stephen McElhinney, rector of Derryvolgie Parish in Lisburn, were the first mother and son to be ordained in the Church of Ireland.

Ian also grew up in a rectory. His late father, the Rev Sam McElhinney, served in St Michael's Parish on the Shankill Road in Belfast and then in Lambeg.

Liz was also widely known and deeply involved in community life in the Lurgan and Portadown areas over many years. She was a former teacher of RE and English at Portadown Technical College and later, following her ordination, she served as Curate of Magheralin Parish and was involved in the work of Shankill Parish, Lurgan, where her memorial concert will be staged.

Rev Stephen McElhinney described his mum as a wise and loving woman whose sound counsel he misses.

"A mother knows their child best and I always kept that in the forefront of my dealings with her," he said.

"As the years went on I really grew to trust and appreciate that about her. My dad and she were a real double act, a good team.

"One of the nicest things she left me was her voice. When things happen you can just imagine what mum would say, which reflects the many conversations we had over the years, she was a really good listener as well.

"She listened with her eyes, you could be in a room full of people talking to her and she was able to block everybody out and focus just on you and what you were saying."

The loss of her voice as she succumbed to motor neurone disease was, Stephen said, one of the hardest parts of her illness in her last two years.

Like his famous second cousin Ian, he said his mother's faith had always been strong, but seemed even stronger when she took ill.

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Liz McElhinney with her six grandchildren

He added: "Her faith and trust in Jesus was very strong and very much directed all of her life, and even more profoundly during her sickness when it became her bedrock and it was what kept her going."

He also said that watching his mum succumb to the dreadful effects of the disease helped him understand why some people support assisted dying.

"I very much believe God gave life and our days are allocated to us and he takes it away, but after seeing mum I can understand the desire some people have for euthanasia," he said.

"There was a terrible feeling of helplessness going to see her each day and not knowing what she would be like."

As well as Liz's poetry, the event will feature musical performances from the cross-community Lurgan Musical Society, Shankill Parish Choir, soloist Nicola Brown and traditional Irish musicians led by Sean Hanily from Dublin.

It will be compered by Bishop Ken Clarke, from Holywood, who has served in churches in Northern Ireland, in Chile with the South American Mission Society (SAMS), and in Dublin.

The booklet of Liz's poems will be included in an admission charge of £10 for those attending the evening.

All the proceeds will support the work of the MND Association NI. There will also be a CD of the collection of poems, read by Ian, on sale on the night of the event.

A special celebratory evening of poetry and music in recognition of the life of the Rev Canon Liz McElhinney will be held in Shankill Parish Church, Lurgan, on Friday, November 10, at 8pm. For more information on this special legacy evening, in aid of MNDA (NI) visit: ww.facebook.com/events/178216399403082/

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