Edward Daly: An accidental bishop who disliked the limelight

‘Bloody Sunday changed my life in every way’ said Dr Daly, whose stroke liberated him

Archive footage from Bloody Sunday in Derry, January 30th 1972, showing former Bishop of Derry Dr Edward Daly as he helped victims of the shootings. Video: Reuters

 

Bishop Edward Daly 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,” along with the comparative lack of pastoral contact with people, he said. He has died aged 82.

In fact he believed he would never 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 January day in 1972 when 13 people were shot dead by members of the British army Parachute Regiment.

“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.”

We met in Derry that time in 2007 for an interview to mark his 50 years as a priest. He was content then. Retired as Bishop of Derry since 1993 he sat in his study with a pile of letters on the desk congratulating him on his ordination 50 years before.

He had found the previous “10 to 12 years” to be his “most fulfilling as a priest. Pastoral ministry is what I joined the priesthood for,” he said. He was essentially a people person. He found the dry tedium of administration a deeply irritating distraction.

In many ways his stroke in 1993 was a blessing. It meant he could retire as Bishop of Derry. It liberated him. He began working with the hospice movement, “one of the most important developments to emerge from the last century,” as he put it.

It had added “a whole new dimension to my own faith, for which I am extremely grateful.” He was also at that time the acting archivist for the diocese of Derry.

From Belleek in Co Fermanagh, he won a scholarship to St Columb’s College in Derry where he was a boarder. 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 in Dublin during 1974 as a religious adviser at RTÉ, he remained in Derry. To the broader public he was forever identified with the city.

1960s Derry

Derry in the 1960s 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.

From its beginnings, he was totally supportive of the civil rights movement as it tried to improve the lot of nationalists in the city 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 that 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 own father had been in the Old IRA and he himself had been influenced by the Old IRA exploits of Tom Barry in Cork and his flying column as outlined in the book Guerilla Days in Ireland.

All that romance ended with Bloody Sunday in 1972. Forever afterwards he held steadfastly to a conviction 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 throughout 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,” was how he put it.

The Irish Catholic bishops discussed excommunicating IRA members on a number of occasions during those years, he said. It usually followed an atrocity but it was always agreed anger was not the right background against which to make such a decision.

He had reservations about taking such action. He had seen how excommunication had affected “a saint” and her family in Derry. The woman had been excommunicated during the war years when she married outside the faith. “Better to communicate than excommunicate” became his motto, for which he said he was “berated by Fleet Street” and such media.

Pope John Paul’s visit

That day in August 1979 when the possibility of Pope John Paul going to Northern Ireland the following month had to be dismissed, was one he remembered vividly. Word had come through that then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher had approved plans for the pope to go to Northern Ireland, to Armagh.

He was at the Irish College in Rome that day with then Catholic primate Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich, Archbishop of Dublin Dermot Ryan, and Fr Michael Smith (now Bishop of Meath). They were discussing Pope John Paul’s forthcoming visit to Ireland the following month when there was a knock on the door.

They were told Lord Mountbatten had been murdered at Mullaghmore in Co Sligo. Then, shortly afterwards, news came through that 18 British soldiers had been blown up at Warrenpoint, Co Down.

“Cardinal Ó Fiaich was deflated, completely disheartened, and he thought the entire visit would be called off,” Dr Daly recalled. The following morning Cardinal Casaroli, then Vatican secretary of state, announced that the pope would not be going to Northern Ireland.

The Armagh visit was transferred to Drogheda in the same archdiocese, as had been the agreed fall-back location. It was in Drogheda that Pope John Paul appealed to the paramilitaries to lay down their arms. “On my knees I beg you, to turn away from the path of violence and to return to the ways of peace,” he pleaded with them.

Peace talks

Dr Daly had become involved “in a very minor way” in peace talks with Martin McGuinness and Mitchel McLaughlin before he fell ill in 1993. He knew “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 the late Fr Alec Reid of the Clonard monastery in Belfast.

Where he was concerned the war in Northern Ireland ended in Derry on October 24th, 1990. On that day Patsy Gillespie was tied into a car and ordered to drive a bomb to a British army checkpoint where he and six soldiers were blown to bits. “Violence does dreadful things to a community,” he said.

He spoke then of his “enormous, unbridled admiration for John Hume. His fingerprints are all over the Good Friday agreement. He gave enormous leadership.”

As for a sidelining of the SDLP and the UUP in subsequent Assembly elections, he said, “one has to respect the wishes of the electorate”. He also said that “as a Christian one has to forgive” and was reminded of the parable of the prodigal son. “Nobody is beyond salvation,” he said.

But he warned against a hierarchy of victims expressing a hope that members of the 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 recalled “huge arguments” with many of them when he visited the prisons. He recalled how deeply they had felt morally justified in what they did.

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