Dr Edward Daly: The Bogside priest who didn’t want to rock the boat

‘Ironically, given his profile during and after Bloody Sunday, Daly was wary of political involvement’

A mural depicts the late Bishop Edward Daly (right) waving a white handkerchief  in the Bogside area of Derry. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images

A mural depicts the late Bishop Edward Daly (right) waving a white handkerchief in the Bogside area of Derry. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images

 

In the aftermath of the death of the former Catholic Bishop of Derry, Edward Daly, much has been rightly made of his devotion to pastoral work, his denunciations of violence and the degree to which he became inextricably linked with Bloody Sunday as the “handkerchief waving” priest in images that became iconic.

Daly’s experiences, however, amounted to a lot more than that. His life and career revealed much about the dilemmas facing the Catholic Church as it sought to react to the enormity of the Troubles and define where politics ended and morality began. In the midst of a competition for legitimacy between the IRA and the church, a multitude of tensions and power and class struggles emerged.

As a young curate in Derry’s Bogside in the 1960s, Daly, like other priests of his generation, was conscious of the difficulty of embracing the reforms of Vatican II – including its decrees to formulate a vision to relieve material and social deprivation – in the teeth of the scepticism of some bishops. There was also the difficulty of balancing a concern to stay out of politics with being champions of their flocks.

Ironically, given his profile during and after Bloody Sunday, Daly was wary of political involvement, preferring in, his own words, not to “rock the political boat”. But the social deprivation and political discrimination in Derry and the outbreak of the Troubles queered the pitch.

Daly’s fellow Bogside curate, Fr Anthony Mulvey, had a deep influence on him. Mulvey insisted that Catholic priests had a responsibility to agitate for improved housing conditions – “to do something constructive to give people the human rights and dignity to which they are entitled”.

Daly admired Mulvey as an outstanding example of “practical priesthood” and as possessor of a powerful social conscience”. In his trenchant manner, Mulvey led Daly to “to understand that opting out of social responsibilities, as a priest, was simply a coward’s way out and a dereliction of duty”.

Accused the regiment

The tensions generated were toxic. Daly had been critical in July 1969 of what he called the “sheer hooliganism” of Bogside rioters. But at a press conference after Bloody Sunday, he joined several other priests in stating baldly: “We accuse the colonel of the Parachute Regiment of wilful murder . . . We accuse the soldiers of shooting indiscriminately into a fleeing crowd, of gloating over casualties, of preventing medical and spiritual aid reaching some of the dying.”

Significantly, Daly went further, insisting that “the quicker the British army get out of Northern Ireland after today’s violence, the better for everyone concerned”.

He also made the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin sit up and take notice with his assertion that the Irish government bore “tremendous responsibility to do something”. He soon found himself on American news channels when the Irish government funded him to go on a US publicity tour. For a priest not keen on the limelight, it was a remarkable trajectory.

When Daly was appointed bishop in 1974, it was back to the balancing act, but with a twist. The non-confrontational approach of his predecessor, Neil Farren, who tended to emphasise that obedience, discipline and “dignity and restraint” were necessary to achieve civil rights, was no longer an option given the ferocity of the conflict.

Paramilitary funerals

On assuming the bishopric Daly admonished both the security forces and the IRA. He called for a ceasefire, the release of interned prisoners, and for the IRA to “make more of an effort to express your views politically rather than militarily”. He would not permit paramilitary trappings at funerals, but he was also wary of excommunication.

As reported in this newspaper in 1975, Daly was shouted down by Protestant protesters when he called for “communication, not excommunication”.

He was also surprised and disappointed when, attending his first Irish Episcopal conference in April 1974, he discovered how little interest other bishops showed in the crisis in Northern Ireland. Two years later, he told Conor Cruise O’Brien that since he had been appointed bishop, “I have had an opportunity to experience some similar pressures to that of a cabinet minister, especially in the circumstances prevailing here”.

Daly’s comments on prison conditions for paramilitaries infuriated the Irish government and it refused to allow him to visit Portlaoise Prison.

He insisted that “to condone violence of the state and to condemn the violence of the paramilitary organisations is to my mind tantamount to hypocrisy”.

The young Bogside priest who did not want to “rock the political boat” became a bishop at the centre of political storms. History will be kind to him, not just as the defender of his parishioners, but as one whose assertions about how to end the conflict were ultimately vindicated.

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