‘John Hume gave us a future to look forward to’: Derry’s young pay tribute to peacemaker
Post-Belfast Agreement generation are grateful for former SDLP leader’s legacy
Tom Burns, outgoing head boy of St Columb’s College in Derry, with the bust of past pupil John Hume that is displayed in the school’s foyer. Photograph: Enda O’Dowd
To this day, a sculpture of the former SDLP leader sits in the main foyer of the boys’ school, where Hume was himself a pupil at its former Bishop Street location, and where he also taught for five years in the 1960s. “I walked past that bust on my way into school every day for seven years,” says outgoing head boy Tom Burns. “I never met him, but I feel like I know him so well.
“That’s something that I think every [St Columb’s] College boy, past and present, holds very proudly in their hearts, that John Hume was one of us.”
Burns was born in 2002; at 18 years old, he is part of the post-Belfast Agreement generation that has grown up in the peace that Hume created, but which has no memory of the role Hume played as a politician and a peacemaker.
Their reminiscences are of the older Hume, suffering from the dementia that marred his later years, walking the streets of Derry, and how its citizens would always make sure he got home safely.
“You would have seen him walking about, and everybody would have known him. ‘Ah, there’s John Hume,’ is what people would have said. He was sort of like a celebrity,” says Grace Downey.
The 22-year-old recalls asking her parents: “What did he do?” She knew he had won a Nobel Prize, and was “a very big figure”, but admits: “I didn’t know much about him, only that he was a peacemaker like my granda.”
Downey has an unusual perspective: her grandfather, Brendan Duddy, was the “secret peacemaker”, the Derry businessman who was the intermediary between the IRA and the British government. Hume and Duddy were good friends, says Downey, and Hume was a visitor to her grandfather’s home. Yet even with her own family’s history, she admits that it is only since Hume’s death that she has “realised how big he actually was on a worldwide profile”.
She is now “more aware of the work he did, and how it impacted on the lives of our generation . . . we wouldn’t have the peace we have here today if it wasn’t for the likes of John Hume, and without him I wouldn’t have this life.”
Burns agrees on Hume’s impact. “Everyone in Derry knows John Hume and the impact he had. People my age, born after the Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement, didn’t have to grow up through the Troubles and the fighting that he worked to stop.”
Burns hopes to go to Queen’s University, Belfast, to study law and politics in the autumn; he says Hume was the difference between “walking through the rubble the way my parents did” and the opportunities – and the safety – of Burns’s own upbringing.
Hume’s work, he says, was the “preparation for the lives we have now . . . you can still feel his legacy everywhere you walk in this city.”
Sense of reverence
Rebecca Doherty has also felt it. Born in 1999, as a 13-year-old she watched in St Eugene’s Cathedral as Hume was awarded a papal knighthood.
“You could sense the reverence, the respect and the admiration for him,” she recalls.
It was at this ceremony she realised Hume’s significance; he was not just a person in a history book, or an image on the Bogside’s murals, but someone who had made a difference to her own life.
“He was somebody who was important to everybody there, from the older generation who had lived through the Troubles to the younger people who, because of him, were able to have the upbringing we had and a future we could look forward to.
“We can have our social lives, and go to school and go to work without the fear of the violence of the Troubles, of bullets and bombs going off and people dying. We don’t have to go through that, because we live in a time of peace, with the complete freedom to go about our daily lives without having to fear for our lives.
“Without John Hume that wouldn’t have been possible.”
Influence on soccer
Hume made much possible, not least a friendly between Barcelona FC and Derry City at the Brandywell stadium in 2003. “I’ve always been a Derry City season ticket holder,” says 23-year-old Ciaran Hurley, “and John Hume was a massive part of the club as club chairman.”
“Over the years I’ve come to realise his importance in Northern Ireland politics as well,” he explains. “He talked to the IRA when other people wouldn’t have been trusted to do that, and I don’t know how he managed it but nobody else could have done it. He was so forward-thinking – he got us to where we are today.”
Tegan Nesbitt agrees. The 18-year-old regrets that “we never got to see him in his prime”, but adds that she is “thankful that his prime came when there was murder on the streets and the Troubles. He’s a man who did so much for his generation and for our generation.”
Monday, when Hume’s death was announced, was “a solemn day” in Derry, she says; equally, it was a day with “so much love for him” in the city.
“It’s like when an artist passes, and they leave behind a trail of beautiful [art] works,” she says. “That’s what John Hume has done.”