Irish backstop –
On first thoughts it all seemed so wrong that so few were in St Eugene’s Cathedral in Derry for John Hume’s funeral.
Yet on just a little bit more reflection it was clearly right. This was always the way that John and his wife, Pat, and the family did business; it was about respecting your neighbour, about self-denial and prioritising the needs of others above your own.
That was John Hume’s life in a nutshell.
This was a time of Covid-19 and that threat must and would be respected, was the insistent line taken by Pat. No exception was made even for one of her own sons, Aidan, living and working in Boston, although his reflection about his father, read by his sister Mo, carried a transatlantic impact.
It was a day for the Hume family and also for the SDLP, particularly for some of its veterans from the late 1960s and 1970s.
There was something poignant about the likes of Bríd Rodgers, Joe Hendron, Alban Maginness, Gerry Cosgrove, Austin Currie, Tommy Gallagher, Joe Byrne and Sean Farren reminiscing outside the cathedral about past battles on the long road to political resolution.
They and Hume created the idea of how to escape from what seemed to be an endless cycle of bloodshed and violence, and in the end succeeded in their ambition, only to see the political prize handed to Sinn Féin.
Denis Haughey, who is retired now but for years worked in Europe with Hume when the latter was an MEP, and who himself served for a period as a junior minister at Stormont, recalled a book about John F Kennedy containing an anecdote about someone saying at his funeral, “I don’t think I will ever laugh again.”
A colleague responded, “Oh yes, we will laugh again but it is sad to think we will never be young again.”
Hume would have been happy that
Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill sat together, socially distanced, in the same pew, and left the cathedral together
For Haughey it was the loss of a great friend, the end of an era, a sense of vibrant, exciting days fading into the past. “He was the big figure in all our young lives,” he said.
More cheerfully Sean Farren beside him thought it oddly comforting that the funeral was taking place the day after Ireland had a sensational one-day cricket victory over England, both teams wearing black armbands in Hume’s honour.
“John would have enjoyed that; he was a mean left-hand spin bowler, you know,” said Farren.
And then adjusting their face coverings, they all trooped into the cathedral behind the Hume family, the President, the Taoiseach, First Minister, Deputy First Minister and other political leaders.
Hume would have been happy that Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill, who have had their differences over Bobby Storey’s funeral and other issues, sat together, socially distanced, in the same pew, and left the cathedral together.
On the altar were chief celebrant Fr Paul Farren; Fr Dinny McGettigan, a cousin of Pat; Catholic primate Archbishop Eamon Martin; and Bishop of Derry Donal McKeown. Hume, a bridge builder and reconciler, would have been glad too that in the sanctuary of the cathedral were Church of Ireland representatives, Archbishop of Armagh John McDowell and Bishop of Derry and Raphoe Andrew Forster.
The Hume children and grandchildren participated in the readings and prayers of the faithful, with Pat looking on proudly.
In his tribute John Hume jnr was mindful to say how “eternally grateful” the family were for how people looked out for his father when his great intellect was taken over by dementia. “The kindness shown to him by the people of Derry and Donegal, who stopped to talk to him in the street every day, guided him to protect his independence, and received him with gentleness if he was agitated, was a profound gift to all of us.”
And had his dad been alive and in the fullness of his health, and considering the tensions of the world, John jnr knew how “he wouldn’t waste the opportunity to say a few words”.
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“He’d talk about our common humanity, the need to respect diversity and difference, to protect and deepen democracy, to value education and to place non-violence at the absolute centre.”
John jnr provided a glimpse too of how Hume engaged with his fellow residents when he was admitted to the Owen Mor nursing home in Derry two years ago
And, inheriting some of his father’s social justice concerns, he added: “He might also stress the right to a living wage and a roof over your head, to decent healthcare and education. If he were here now, he might quote his friend, Congressman John Lewis, who sadly passed away a few weeks ago, appealing to the ‘goodness of every human being and never giving up’.”
John jnr provided a glimpse too of how Hume engaged with his fellow residents when he was admitted to the Owen Mor nursing home in Derry two years ago. “He continued to sing songs every day, to teach them all a wee bit of French, to tell his jokes, to demand more buns, and to question everyone daily about where they came from, their origins and their families.”
He also spoke about how his dad “kept the Irish chocolate industry in healthy profits for many years” and how he made the family “laugh, dream, think, and sometimes look at him and scratch our heads in amazement, and on rare occasions bewilderment”.
Tributes were read from Pope Francis, the Dalai Lama, Bill Clinton, Boris Johnson and Bono, who more than 22 years ago campaigned with Hume and David Trimble to get the Belfast Agreement referendum over the line in 1998.
“We were looking for a negotiator who understood that no one wins unless everyone wins … and that peace is the only victory,” wrote the U2 frontman.
“We were looking for joy and heard it in the song of a man who loved his town so well and his missus even more. We were looking for a great leader and found a great servant. We found John Hume. ”
She held it together but her voice quavered with emotion when she came to the last four most personal lines,
I don’t ever think I have said aloud
How you made us all so incredibly proud
All you ever wanted was to make the world a better place
And in that goal you found your ace.
At the end of the Mass, Phil Coulter played The Town I Loved So Well. As the family cortege left the cathedral grounds for Derry City Cemetery, there was loud applause from the few hundred people who had gathered quietly outside the cathedral. “You could feel it as well as hear it,” one colleague said of the applause.
Bishop McKeown put it well when he said of Hume, “because of his past we can face the future”, but probably the strongest lines of the day came from Fr Farren, who in his homily captured both the power and the latter-stage vulnerability of the Nobel laureate.
He described how the cathedral was something of a haven for Hume towards the end of his life, how he would attend, often arriving late, daily evening Mass, sitting and praying quietly at the back of the cathedral.
“When the history of Ireland is written, if Pat Hume’s name is not beside John’s, it will be an incomplete history”
Fr Farren told the congregation how the Gospel reading of the Good Samaritan stopping to assist the man attacked by brigands, as others passed by, was Hume’s favourite reading.
Neither did Hume pass by, said Fr Farren. “Even in the darkest moments, when people would have been forgiven for having no hope, John made peace visible for others,” he said.
He had a message too for the academics: “When the history of Ireland is written, if Pat Hume’s name is not beside John’s, it will be an incomplete history.”
And Fr Farren added: “If ever you want to see a man who gave his life for his country, and his health, that man is John Hume. The world knows it.”
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