Brendan Hoban’s Western People Article 11th Aug 2020 on John Hume.

John Hume taught us that living for Ireland makes more sense than dying for Ireland.

Western People 11th August 2020


When John Hume was eighteen years of age, having just completed his secondary school education in St Columb’s College in Derry, he decided to go to Maynooth College to study for the priesthood. One of his mentors there was Tomás Ó Fiaich, the professor of history, (later cardinal).

A few years on, Hume decided to leave the seminary, and later under Ó Fiaich completed his MA in history. Hume never made any secret of why he decided the priesthood wasn’t for him – the celibacy requirement was the given reason.

Students of the ‘If only’ school of history may ponder the might-have-beens if Hume had been ordained. Where would he have found his niche in the Catholic Church? Where would such a natural leader have ended up? Where would such a visionary have found a role commensurate with his vision? Archbishop of Armagh? Bishop of Derry? Or, more probably, let’s be real, as a curate in the Creggan and later parish priest of Bellaghy.

God had other plans for him. Instead of analysing a solution to the intractable Northern Ireland divisions, as Hume so compellingly did way back in 1964, as a priest in the years after the Second Vatican Council he would have been carried on the crest of a great wave of enthusiasm and possibility. He can be easily imagined putting flesh on the scaffolding of the insights of that Council, creating the church equivalent of the architecture of the Good Friday Agreement and, with resilience and patience, doggedly holding to his dream waiting for everyone else to catch up.

In hindsight, Hume made the right choice in opting for the less intractable Northern problem. Seamus Mallon’s famous aphorism about ‘slow learners’ in the North would be even more appropriate to the Catholic Church, as we know.

The difference, of course, was that Hume (almost single-handedly) created a platform for himself: a new party (SDLP); a seat in Europe; a strategy for bringing Irish America on board. He exploited the hunger for change in a society dying (often literally) for light at the end of a tunnel of death, violence and misery by presenting a vision that everyone eventually could buy into because it had at its heart respect for others (or, as Hume put it so often, accepting difference).

It had too, in Hume, a stubborn advocate who had the resilience to pursue his dream for decades. And unlike the Catholic Church, when there’s no other game in town, the person holding the key to the only foreseeable future, eventually gets an audience. It was, in a real sense, a vocation, a call to service in his community – beyond what a curate in the Creggan might be expected to achieve.

Hume believed in possibility and change, a quality lacking in moribund institutions holding grimly to the past and incapable of imagining a workable future. When the later politician Paddy Ashdown, then serving in the Royal Marines, arrested Hume at a civil rights protest in Derry in 1968, the basis of a unionist-nationalist understanding – that ‘the Chuckle Brothers’, Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, represented as they smiled on the steps of Stormont in May 2007 – seemed centuries away. And yet, there they were, the product of Hume’s unwavering determination to bring to the altar, not just two reluctant candidates for a political marriage of convenience, but heretofore sworn enemies who couldn’t bring themselves to be civil to each other for half a day.

That such a marriage would happen at all was improbable; that it might survive the trials of a close relationship was fanciful; and that more than a decade later it would still exist was unthinkable. And yet here we are.

It was as if a demented conductor was determined to gather into one orchestra a retinue of musicians, who disliked and distrusted each other, were cajoled into giving it a last try because the hall was in danger of collapsing and who later discovered that, after all, there was a kind of music they could make that, like the cellist of Sarajevo, would raise the hearts and minds of their respective tribes. It wasn’t always the music of what might have been but what was important was not the standard of music but the playing. Like Joyce’s famous dog walking on his hind legs, what was important was not how well they could carry it off but that they could do it at all.

Watching the tension over the years between Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness and more recently, Arlene Foster and Michele O’Neill, the wonder is that Hume’s architecture of accepting difference is still in place. Groggy at times, wobbling dangerously at others but still standing because of the carefully stage-managed buttresses that continue to sustain it – not least the security and promise that has already delivered so much – a delicate spring peace is savoured after a long winter of death and despair.

The unquestioned consensus is that the North wouldn’t be where it is without the vision, initiative and perseverance of John Hume, a patriot who represented what an adult nationalism could be and a figure on the international scene now compared to Mandela and King, civil rights activists who led their people to the Promised Land.

It was for Hume a long and lonely road but he held true to his vision when lesser figures were happy to use him as a handy punch-bag and, for their own individual, commercial or political purposes to misinterpret his intentions.

In a strange way his legacy is beyond what we see it now. It’s about character, values, respect, decency, morality and particularly about drawing those who know no better to a place they never imagined they might be. It is about accepting who we are, where we’ve come from and where, with good-will, we can get to.

In simple terms he taught us that living for Ireland makes more sense than dying for Ireland.



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