Catholic Outlook has obtained this first-hand report from the funeral of the late political leader John Hume at St Eugene’s Cathedral in Derry, Northern Ireland.
Hume, who died aged 83 on 3 August, was credited as being the key architect of the Good Friday peace agreement during the Northern Irish conflict between the 1960s to 1990s. Hume was acknowledged for his commitment to peacebuilding with a Nobel Peace Prize in 1998, and in 2012, was conferred with a papal knighthood from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
It felt wrong, unnatural at first.
The weather was wrong, the quiet was wrong, the masks were wrong.
Mostly the emptiness of the streets was wrong.
Here we were, not far from the former home of the late John Hume at the funeral of one of the world’s most ambitious peacemakers, a man of the same stature as Martin Luther King and John Lewis, a leader who had made growing up in peace in Northern Ireland possible for ours and subsequent generations. The streets should have been full.
The Pope, the Dalai Lama, U2’s Bono, former Presidents and Prime Ministers had sent messages of condolence. They spoke of his faith, tenacity, tolerance and ability to deliver on a promise of peace made in the days of civil disobedience in the 1960s when he first emerged as a young leader. And yet here we were, his people, small huddles of umbrellas in the pouring rain, outside the railings of the Cathedral.
We are Irish. We celebrate our highs and lows together. We do it in numbers. We mark them with touch and talk, drawing comfort from shared stories and familiar voices, feeling the slices of history fitting into place in the telling. Yet we couldn’t be where we felt we were supposed to be.
Coronavirus put paid to crowds gathering to say goodbye and even though we aren’t a people known for our respect for rules, unless we’ve been involved in their making, this time it had to be different. Pat Hume, John’s wife and partner in everything he did, had requested that it be so.
A planned clap along the route of the funeral cortege, which has come to replace the more traditional wakes during the COVID-19 pandemic in Ireland, was cancelled as a result of her appeal for people to stay in their homes and stay safe from the virus. Instead, we lit candles for peace in the windows and on doorsteps as she asked.
Only a handful turned up to pay respects and clap him out of the cathedral and onto the last leg of his journey to the cemetery on Wednesday. In the main Derry showed it’s respect for the family by staying away.
“I don’t want to be inside,” said one neighbour, “I came out for a look and to nod the head at the family, then I’m away back home.
“The family says it wants us all to stay away and stay safe and the family will get what it wants because it’s the first time they’ve asked for anything,” he added.
So we listened to the Requiem Mass on radios or followed the live stream from St Eugene’s Cathedral in Derry as Fr Paul Farren, spoke of a giant of a man whose sharp, impassioned thinking delivered peace in a conflict dubbed ‘intractable’.
“We should never underestimate how difficult it was for John to cross the road and do what was intensely unpopular for the greater good,” he said.
“Even in the darkest moments, when people who have been forgiven for having no hope, John made peace visible for others”.
Pope Francis remained “mindful of the Christian faith that inspired John Hume’s untiring efforts to promote dialogue, reconciliation and peace among the people of Northern Ireland”.
The Dalai Lama spoke of his deep conviction in the power of dialogue and negotiation.
“Although my fellow Nobel laureate is no longer with us, his message about peace and non-violence in the resolution of conflict, no matter how protracted or difficult it may seem to be, will long survive him. He lived a truly meaningful life”
It was left to the Nobel Peace prize winner’s youngest son John Jr to distil the essence of John Hume as he painted a picture of a warm, humble, funny, inquisitive lover of chocolate, news and people. He told the socially distanced cathedral congregation of his father’s passion for the planet and its people, the urgency of working together to alleviate poverty and open up opportunity and thanked the Derry people for the ‘profound gift’ of the care and protection that allowed his father to live a full, independent and dignified life for as long as possible as his dementia progressed.
He spoke of a home full of visitors and of the sacrifices of Pat and John’s five children during the dark years of the dirty war in Northern Ireland and we were reminded that John Hume was never a one man band. He brought his family and a whole city with him when he took the risks that delivered the framework and infrastructure for the Good Friday Agreement.
“There were times, I think, when we all felt he was absent. But he wasn’t,” said his son. “He was with us from somewhere else.”
There was connection today after all! It could be no other way. Connectivity had driven everything John Hume had done in his lifetime and it was there at his funeral. It may not have been what we were used to but in the end as John’s body left the church to the strains of ‘The Town I Loved So Well’, played by composer Phil Coulter, accompanied by fellow Derry musician Frank Gallagher, we were all there, from somewhere else.
Reproduced with permission from Independent Catholic News.