Austin Currie welcomed home to Edendork, Co Tyrone

Service held to remember ‘courage and conviction’ of the civil rights leader

In the bright winter sunshine, the people of Edendork waited to welcome Austin Currie home.

They stood on the pavements, and clustered outside the entrance to the chapel; among them were the Primate of All Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin, SDLP politicians past and present, representatives of the GAA in Tyrone - including the chairman, Michael Kerr -and, above all, local people, neighbours and friends of the extended Currie family.

This was Mr Currie's homeplace; he had been baptised in this church, and in his homily Dean Kevin Donaghy recalled meeting him at the annual Blessing of the Graves, which he "never missed."

“He and I had a short, final conversation together and he expressed his hope and desire that when his own time would come his resting place would be Edendork. Today, his wish his granted.”

“He never lost his sense of who he was and where he was from,” Archbishop Martin told The Irish Times. “We were blessed to have people of calibre to lead us and show us the way.”

Requiem Mass for Mr Currie had been celebrated in Allenwood, Co Kildare on Friday – attended by, among others, the President and Government ministers – ahead of his final journey home for burial at St Malachy's on Saturday.

As they awaited the arrival of the cortege, three political opponents stood chatting at the church gates – the Sinn Féin MP Francie Molloy, former Ulster Unionist MP and member of the House of Lords, Ken Maginnis, and the former SDLP MP Alasdair McDonnell.

March

Both Mr Molloy and Mr Currie had been there at the start; both had marched on the first civil rights march from Coalisland to Dungannon in August 1968.

“He was one of the ones that stood up the very start,” said Mr Molloy. “We probably disagreed on most things, but I admired that he did stand up ... it was high risk, all of it, it was unknown territory, but he had the courage to do it.”

“Austin and I were very close,” said Mr Maginnis. “When the civil rights movement started I was at the first few meetings with Austin – he invited me along - and we had the same mind on the unfairness of housing allocation.

“Austin was the fairest-minded man that I ever knew and ever worked with, and we were always able to work together. He had an eye to the future and could see beyond differences and knew what was important - housing and jobs.”

“He was a political colossus but he was also a friend of mine since the early 1970s, and I admired him,” said Mr McDonnell.

“My son, who is a history buff, says he was the Rosa Parks of the civil rights movement, because he was the guy that had the courage to do things that were dangerous.

“He was always there for people – and he paid a high price – but he never put his own interests first.”

As the cortege made its way towards the church, preceded a piper and accompanied by a guard of honour from the local GAA club, its route echoed that of the first civil rights march.

Members of the SDLP unfurled a civil rights banner and stood guard behind it as the coffin - covered in the Tricolour that was his due as a former Minister of State - was removed from the hearse and carried up the hill into the church.

“He fought the good fight for justice and equality and for peace in a long an exemplary political life,” Dean Donaghy told mourners.

It was no wonder, he said, that since his passing there had been such tributes to his “courage and conviction ... his understanding of the power of peaceful protest, his determination not to be deterred by attacks on him and his wife and family [and] his utter conviction that peaceful means were the correct and only way forward.”

His family – his wife Annita and their five children and 13 grandchildren – were at the heart of the service; his daughter Estelle read a tribute on behalf of the family, and the gifts – including a poster for the civil rights march in Duke Street in Derry in 1969, Edendork and Tyrone GAA jerseys, a copy of his autobiography and a tv remote - were brought up by his grandchildren.

Shared

In a special reading on behalf of her mother, his daughter Emer shared the words her parents would say to affirm their love for each other.

Yet for all his achievements – not least as the only person to have served in government both North and South – Mr Currie's greatest legacy, said SDLP veteran Joe Hendron, will always remain the sit-in in Caledon, Co Tyrone in June 1968, which drew national attention to housing discrimination and, it is argued, sparked the civil rights movement.

“Even if he had never done anything else but that .... that was fantastic,” he said.

Today, more than 50 years on from the beginning of the civil rights movement, many reflected that this was the "end of an era"; the last time they had seen Mr Currie was at the funeral of Pat Hume last September, who herself had been predeceased by her husband John, by Ivan Cooper and by others whose names will be forever associated with the civil rights movement.

Among the mourners, a few wore pins bearing the civil rights logo – an oak leaf in black and white – on their lapels in tribute; the civil rights anthem, We Shall Overcome, played as Mr Currie’s remains were carried from the church.

He was buried beside his parents, Johnny and Minnie; Austin Currie, the son of Edendork, had finally come home.