Life

Lynette Fay: John Hume 'really believed in this place, in all its people and in its future'

John Hume's life was spent as an activist. While he preached the same thing again and again in an effort to make himself heard, his actions were the actions of a man who really believed in this place, in all its people and in its future

Former US President Bill Clinton on the Derry Peace Bridge with John and Pat Hume. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
Lynette Fay

I FOUND myself getting very emotional when I heard of John Hume's death last Monday morning. I looked at my baby and felt very grateful to someone I didn't know. I then started to explain who he was to the teenagers in the house, one of whom is studying GCSE history.

I mentioned that she should listen to the radio and learn about this great man. "Oh we're not doing that bit" was the reply. You can imagine the response.

During the hours that followed I drank in the radio coverage of his death, while reading tribute after tribute on social media. He was 83, but from everything that was being reported and said about him, it seemed that he had lived five lives.

As someone who seems to be constantly chasing her tail at the moment – never fully feeling on top of things – all I could think about was the amount of work John Hume did that will never be spoken of or reported. The nights he must have spent on the road, at meetings, taking phone calls at all hours of the day and night, the reading, the writing. The determination it must have taken to know that he was making a difference and not to give "two balls of roasted snow" about the thoughts of his critics – of which there were many.

The more I heard about him, the more I realised that as brilliant a man as he was, he had an equally brilliant woman, Pat, by his side, who absolutely understood that this exceptional man had a big difference to make, and they did it together.

So many images of John Hume have surfaced in the days since his death. The one that really struck me was a black and white photo taken outside Downing Street on October 20 1971 of himself, Austin Currie and Paddy O'Hanlon, all of whom were Stormont opposition MPs at the time, and Bernadette Devlin, Independent MP for Mid-Ulster. They were on hunger strike to press their demand for a public enquiry into the treatment of detainees in Northern Ireland.

When the activists in that generation identified social injustice, they acted. They slept rough all night to get a hearing, striving to be the difference for all. A number of them still modestly walk among us, and we reap the fruits of their labour every single day.

John Hume's life was spent as an activist. While he preached the same thing again and again in an effort to make himself heard, his actions were the actions of a man who really believed in this place, in all its people and in its future.

In the John Hume's America documentary, we see John give an impassioned speech in the European parliament. When I watched this, what struck me was that he wasn't there as leader of a particular political party, he was there as a leader, pleading for a better future for the people of the north because he genuinely cared about ordinary people. I wonder how many politicians can honestly say that they put the public before their party in such a way?

My John Hume story is about three great Derry men. I was working in Radio Foyle one day. I was in the upstairs office, sitting at the desk at the door. Gerry Anderson and Seán Coyle were working away in the corner. I felt someone hovering over me, who very directly asked, "Who are you?".

I couldn't believe that John Hume was talking to me. I explained who I was, he asked me a few more questions and continued on his way. About 10 minutes later, the phone rang. It was reception asking if Seán Coyle was still in the office, because John Hume was here to see him. I thought this very strange. I passed on the message, Seán jumped, took John to the kitchen for a cup of tea, and Gerry Anderson came over to me.

He spoke admirably of the greatness of John Hume. His intelligence, his wisdom, his humility. He told me that John Hume had taught him in St Columbs. Then he told me that things hadn't been the same with John since he retired. When he stopped, his brain had let him down. He told me this wasn't common knowledge. I understood.

That moment was the beauty of Derry at work. The scholar looking after the master. Derry people looking after one of their own.

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