'Bloody Sunday changed my life in every way' says former Bishop of Derry


As Bishop Edward Daly celebrates 50 years as a priest he reflects on a vocation altered utterly by violence in an interview with Patsy McGarry, Religious Affairs Correspondent, in Derry

Bishop Edward Daly (73), former Bishop of Derry, remembers clearly that day in August 1979 when the possibility of Pope John Paul going to Northern Ireland the following month had to be dismissed. Word had come through that British prime minister Margaret Thatcher had approved plans for the pope to go to Armagh.

Bishop Daly, Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich, Archbishop of Dublin Dermot Ryan, and Fr Michael Smith (now Bishop of Meath) were at the Irish College in Rome discussing the visit when there was a knock on the door and they were told Lord Mountbatten had been murdered at Mullaghmore in Co Sligo. Shortly afterwards news came through that 18 British soldiers had been killed at Warrenpoint, Co Down.

"Cardinal Ó Fiaich was deflated, completely disheartened, and he thought the entire visit would be called off," Bishop Daly recalled at his home in Derry this week.

The following morning Cardinal Casaroli, then Vatican secretary of state, announced that the pope would not be going to Northern Ireland. The Armagh visit would be transferred to Drogheda, which was in the same diocese and had already been agreed as a fall-back location.

Bishop Daly is a content man these times. Sitting in his study with a pile of letters on his desk congratulating him on his ordination 50 years ago, he talks of how he has found the last "10 to 12 years" to be his "most fulfilling as a priest. Pastoral ministry is what I joined the priesthood for."

Since he resumed activity following a stroke in 1993, he has been working with the hospice movement, "one of the most important developments to emerge from the last century. It has added a whole new dimension to my own faith, for which I am extremely grateful." He is also the acting archivist for the diocese.

He did not enjoy being a bishop, a position he held in Derry diocese from 1974 for 20 years. "The multiplicity of meetings was a huge burden." That, and the comparative lack of pastoral contact with people.

He believes he would not have been Bishop of Derry but for Bloody Sunday and those pictures of him broadcast all over the world as he waved a bloodied handkerchief while tending to the dead and dying that awful January day in 1972 when 13 people were shot dead.

"Bloody Sunday changed my life in every way," he said. "I was happy ministering as a curate then I became a public figure. I was never happy with that."

From Belleek, Co Fermanagh, he won a scholarship to St Columb's in Derry and was a boarder there. Afterwards he spent six years studying at the Irish College in Rome, where he acquired "a love for Italy and all things Italian" before ordination in Belleek on March 16th, 1957.

He spent five years as a curate in Castlederg, Co Tyrone, before being appointed to St Eugene's Cathedral in Derry. That was in 1962 and he had responsibility for the Bogside. Apart from six or seven months as a religious adviser at RTÉ in 1974 he has been in Derry since.

Derry in the 60s was a difficult place, the Bogside in particular. "Housing was appalling, with dreadful overcrowding. But there was a great spirit, especially among the women. They were the breadwinners and they brought up the children. They kept the community together. They were wonderful. I always had the highest regard for them," he said.

He was totally supportive of the Civil Rights movement as it tried to improve the lot of nationalists in Derry from 1968 and that first generation of young, educated Catholics who "articulated the grievances of the people in a way both the people themselves and the media could understand". It was then John Hume emerged as "a charismatic figure".

The descent to violence was gradual with the IRA no more than " a paper army" until 1970, he said. His father had been in the Old IRA and he himself had been influenced by books about Tom Barry and his flying column as well as the glamorising of conflict after the second World War. All that ended with Bloody Sunday.

Since then he has held that "violence is completely unacceptable as a means to a political end". He reflected that "when you see what a high velocity bullet does to the human head any romantic ideas about violence you may have go out the window".

It placed him on a path of conflict with the IRA which continued through most of his period as Bishop of Derry. "We didn't see eye to eye at all. There was very little communication over a period of 10 years except for exchanges of artillery, shot through the local media."

He said the Irish bishops discussed excommunicating IRA members a number of times, generally following an atrocity, but it was agreed anger was not the right background against which to make such a decision. He himself had reservations about such action as he had seen how it had affected "a saint" and her family in Derry. She had been excommunicated during the war years when she married outside the faith. "Better to communicate than excommunicate" became his motto, for which he was "berated by Fleet Street".

Later he became involved "in a very minor way" in talks with Martin McGuinness and Mitchel McLaughlin before he fell ill in 1993. He knew that "a lot of people in the republican movement wanted to find a way out of things". He was kept abreast of subsequent talks by John Hume and Fr Alex Reid.

He believes the war ended in Derry on October 24th, 1990, when Patsy Gillespie was tied into a car and ordered to drive a bomb to a British army checkpoint where it, he and six soldiers were blown to bits.

"Violence does dreadful things to a community," he commented, and he spoke of his "enormous, unbridled admiration for John Hume. His fingerprints are all over the Good Friday agreement. He gave enormous leadership." As for the sidelining of the SDLP and the UUP in recent Assembly elections, "one has to respect the wishes of the electorate". He said that "as a Christian one has to forgive". He was reminded of the parable of the Prodigal Son. "Nobody is beyond salvation," he said.

But he warned against a hierarchy of victims and expressed a hope that members of a hoped-for new powersharing executive would "be sensitive to people they hurt most awfully and terribly". He was sure some of them were "very sorry, genuinely," for what they did, but he also recalled "huge arguments" with some he visited in prison, who felt morally justified in what they did.

Of the Bloody Sunday inquiries he has been "very impressed" by Saville and is hopeful it will clarify the innocence of the people who died that day.

But he remained angry with the findings of the Widgery tribunal into the events of that day. "He [Lord Widgery] had all the evidence to make the right decision," he said.

He hopes and prays the Assembly will get together on March 26th. "We need devolved government," he said, "badly."