Derry struggles with how to honour local hero John Hume

Covid-19 complicates community desire to pay respects to man who gave city so much

Though restricted through Covid-19 the people of Derry pay tribute to John Hume through candles and condolences. Video: Enda O'Dowd

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Derry likes to come out for its own, and look out for its own. But because of Covid it can’t really come out for John Hume, and that’s proving hard for the city.

It is a loyal place. There was great joy when Dana won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1970; the international musical successes of Phil Coulter, who wrote The Town I Loved So Well – a song frequently sung by Hume – were cherished by local people.

On a different note, thousands turned out in 2010 to hear from Lord Saville’s report what the city already knew, that the killing of the 14 people who died as a result of the Bloody Sunday shootings in 1972 was “unjustified” and “unjustifiable”.

Thousands attended the funeral of Martin McGuinness in 2017.

Many thousands too would want to attend John Hume’s funeral, to show solidarity and love to his wife Pat, as well as to his children and wider family, and both to mourn and celebrate the Nobel laureate.

This was a man now ranked by a number of historians and observers as Ireland’s third great constitutional nationalist – Daniel O’Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell, John Hume – but the open esteem due could not be widely delivered amid a pandemic.

Hume gave a lot to Derry, Ireland and the world, but coronavirus means that, publicly at least, Derry can’t give back to Hume the love and respect it owes to and feels for him.

Pat Hume and her family have been adamant in this regard. Many dignitaries from various corners of the globe would want to be in Derry for the funeral, including the likes of former US president Bill Clinton, but the only VIPs allowed will be homegrown ones – President, Taoiseach, Tánaiste, First Minister, Deputy First Minister and some other politicians.

And rather than turn out along the route of the cortege from Moville, Co Donegal, to Derry on Tuesday night, the family asked people to light a candle and say a prayer for peace instead.

The virus prohibitions have already hit the Hume family, as one son, Aidan, who is in the US, will be unable to attend his father’s funeral.

Storey funeral

As far as the Humes were concerned, there must be no repeat of the rows that surrounded the funeral of Bobby Storey in June. No one can be put in harm’s way when it comes to Covid-19.

If people were perforce restricted in how they should honour Hume, well, at least they could reminisce.

Derry locals had lots of stories about how Hume liked to walk along the Foyle and around the town, including from the mid-2000s onwards when his dementia began to take a toll. He occasionally wandered into the BBC Radio Foyle offices – a residual memory convincing him there was yet another peace process interview to be done there. People, whether taxi drivers, journalists or other members of the community, would ensure that he was ferried back safely to his home and Pat.

Local Irish News correspondent Seamus McKinney told the story of once stopping to pick up Hume. But he had to bide his time for a while because Pat was out and would not be home for a while.

Hume suggested to McKinney that they go to Da Vinci’s pub “for a jar”.

McKinney recalled: “I pointed out that the pubs were closed and no one could get a drink at that hour of the night, only for him to respond with a twinkle in his eye and a smile, ‘I could.’”

People remembered too his devotion to St Columb’s College in Derry, also alma mater of the likes of Seamus Heaney, Brian Friel and Seamus Deane, where he was a teacher and a student, and had a positive experience of education that helped shape the future leader.

Every year during prizegiving, the school would leave out a special chair for Hume, and nine times out of 10 he would wander in to be part of the ceremony.

Such anecdotes were recounted with fondness and deep respect. None of his late-in-life frailty diminished his stature, whether in the Maiden City or the world. Derry people were fully conscious and hugely proud of his standing.

They knew the narrative: Hume working to get jobs for the city; campaigning for civil rights; helping achieve the Sunningdale powersharing executive of 1974 only to see it collapse under pressure from unionists, loyalists and the IRA; picking himself up to start all over again, and finally helping to bring about the two IRA ceasefires, the 1998 Belfast Agreement, and a new powersharing administration that despite a number of wobbles is still standing.

International relations

They knew too how Hume looked beyond Stormont and Westminster to engage the powerful people in Europe, the US and the world to campaign on his behalf. Here McKinney told another story of meeting Hume in the House of Commons in the late 1990s and the then SDLP leader telling him that “apparently” he had an office somewhere in the building.

“I’ve never been in it,” Hume told him, his gaze stretching well beyond what he felt was a pretty useless parliamentary bear pit.

And local people knew too that part of Hume’s sacrifice in bringing Sinn Féin into the political circle was the undermining of the SDLP, the party he helped found in 1970.

Former SDLP director of communications Barry Turley in the Irish News reflected how this was a price Hume always was willing to pay, even if the likes of the late Seamus Mallon and others wished he had found a slightly alternative path to a solution.

Turley remembered being at a meeting between Nelson Mandela and Hume and how the South African leader was “much tougher and more combative than his public image would have you believe”.

Turley wrote: “He chided John quite strongly for allowing Sinn Féin to ‘move ahead’, as he put it. John just shrugged and told Mandela that the lives saved as part of the peace process made it all worthwhile.

“Mandela laughed, and said, ‘Always the same Mr Hume, always the peacemaker.’”

People in Derry, as they try to figure out how to honour Hume while these strange times mean they cannot attend his funeral, know full well the contribution Hume made to this island, and how all that work just burnt him out. They would agree with, and be thankful for, what Phil Coulter said about Hume on RTÉ on Tuesday: “I think that John just gave his last ounce, I really do.”

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