Two huge floral hearts made of white daisies and red roses book-ended either side of the altar as the enormous American-style coffin of John “Whacker” Humphrey, one of the founders of Concerned Parents against Drugs, was carried into St Theresa’s Church on Donore Avenue, Dublin.
The smiling face of Whacker (almost no one called him John), who died last week after a long illness, beamed out at the congregation from the centre of each of the hearts.
This was not an occasion of overwhelming sorrow, though there was sadness, of course. To a very great extent, however, this was an opportunity for an entire battle-hardened south inner-city community to express feelings of admiration, gratitude and love, and, for those who knew Whacker well, to savour memories of the rare auld times.
There were seats for 500 in St Theresa’s and each one was taken. But perhaps twice that number milled around the church door, spilling inside to line the church walls and swallow a huge empty space at the rear of the nave, as a piper escorted the coffin to the entrance door.
Whacker, who died on February 15th, was a flower seller at Deansgrange Cemetery in south Co Dublin, and a husband to Sally and father to six – Maxine, Amanda, Rachel, Ross and the late John and Kevin.
But he was also much more.
In St Theresa’s Gardens flat complex, where he grew up in No 24 (a three-bedroom flat for nine brothers and sisters, his daughter Rachel reminded everyone), the 1970s and 1980s saw a heroin epidemic.
As families were destroyed by addiction and death, official Ireland responded with tragic ineffectualness. Whacker and a small group, which included mothers, a priest and now independent councillor Christy Burke, formed Concerned Parents Against Drugs, a vigilante-style community response that targeted dealers.
It was “justified action”, Burke told the church in a eulogy that earned a standing ovation, “because the State had failed the communities”.
Concerned Parents attracted support from Sinn Féin and associates with paramilitary connections.
The Special Criminal Court sent Whacker to Portlaoise Prison for 18 months for activities linked to the group.
Whacker was an IRA volunteer, said Burke, but he was also “a man of peace”.
To Matsa Fagan, a contemporary in the fightback against drug dealers, Whacker was “our leader and what a great job he done”.
Fr David Corrigan said in his homily that it was a privilege to be officiating at the funeral.
“I think of Whacker as a man of prayer, as a man of concern, and a man of action,” he said.
Fr Corrigan noted that only last Tuesday, the sod had been turned for building new social houses in St Theresa’s Gardens.
“I thought of Whacker during this event and how his efforts, back then, are somehow connected to what is now taking place.”
Rachel, a family friend whom Whacker had bolstered when she struggled with cancer, described him as a “pillar of strength in our community and a symbol of confidence”.
“Whacker has always been a part of our lives,” she said. “He always loved the laugh and the joke; his door was always open. He welcomed everyone, no matter what walk of life you came from, and his home was filled with love and acceptance for all. Whether it was someone in debt or someone sick, Whacker was always there.”
Man of principles
His daughter Rachel recalled a father who never once hit any of his children, who never had any problem admitting when he was wrong.
“My Dad taught us to have moral principles,” she said. “He gave us everything; he gave us memories right up to the end.
And she proclaimed, to loud cheers from those standing at the back, “Here’s to John Whacker!”
A colour party of nine older men and a younger woman, all dressed in black and with black berets and Easter Lily badges, flanked Whacker’s coffin as it left the church, draped in a Tricolour and led by piper Christy O’Brien.
As mourners hugged family members and shared fond memories, the great casket slid into the hearse for his final journey to Mount Jerome, preceded by a funeral car carrying floral wreaths, including one in the shape of a teapot, another a bright blue Ford transit van and the Irish flag.
Music by soloist Mary Flynn, and Deirdre Doyle on keyboard, included Be Not Afraid, Make Me a Channel of Your Peace and May the Road Rise. Recorded music included Andy Williams's version Speak Softly, Love, the theme from The Godfather.