John and Pat Hume's life and legacy celebrated in new musical drama

As Derry's Guildhall prepares to host a major new musical drama about John Hume's life, and his odyssey for peace and hope, Jenny Lee chats to director Kieran Griffiths and actor Conor O'Kane about the emotional production

Jenny Lee
John and Pat Hume. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

“John and Pat Hume’s achievements, love and resilience were beyond belief”.

These words, from Playhouse producer and director Kieran Griffiths, come ahead of their latest musical drama, which charts the life and legacy of the late SDLP leader and his wife.

Marking the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, Beyond Belief - The Life and Mission of John and Pat Hume, honours the lives of these inestimably influential peacemakers.

Spanning a period of 60 years, the show does not shy away from the painful realities of the Troubles and some of the worst atrocities of our history, including Greysteel and the Shankill and Omagh bombs. But Griffiths believes it’s also a story of hope, determination and love, with some Derry humour thrown in.

“John and Pat wanted to give up on occasions, but they never did.” He adds that the production celebrates their “sublime achievements” as well as the “subtle acts” they did for the people of Derry and Ireland. 

The play is part of a peacebuilding trilogy by The Playhouse, following the resounding success of The White Handkerchief, written by the late Liam Campbell, which premiered in January last year on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.

Conor O'Kane has been cast as Nobel laureate, John Hume in the forthcoming musical drama based on the life and work of Mr Hume and his wife, Pat. Picture by Teresa Lyle
Written by Damian Gorman with original music by composer Brian O’Doherty, Beyond Belief runs at Derry’s Guildhall from March 31 to April 7. Although sold out, the final performance will be livestreamed and broadcast all over the world.

In terms of the timeframe, it spans John Hume’s confrontation with the British army at Magilligan Strand - the week before Bloody Sunday, and the reason he didn’t attend the march - right up to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

John Hume was described by former US President Bill Clinton as “Ireland’s Martin Luther King” for his role in bringing peace to the north of Ireland. Others refer to him as a “Titan” and a “hero of reconciliation”, but in Beyond Belief the Nobel Peace Prize winning politician will be remembered through words and music as a human being first and foremost, showing all facets of his character.

“There are moments of real grief for John in the piece,” says Kieran, who produces and directs the production.

This includes the Greysteel funeral in 1993 when mourner Finuala Wyer, moved by a grief-stricken John Hume, reassures him of the importance of his work in the peace process and encourages him to go forward.

Beyond Belief also features the onset of the former SDLP leader’s dementia. 

“There is a quiet decay and helplessness towards the end,” says Kieran, who adds that stalwart Pat’s vulnerability is also explored through her husband’s illness.

A former teacher, Pat worked alongside her husband from the beginning of the civil rights movement in Derry in the 1960s, including running his Foyle constituency office dealing with community issues, housing and poverty in the city.

Having a shared mission for peace and equality, the production team were very keen to make it a story about "John and Pat”.

“Pat is an integral part of the story. Much of what we heard during our research was that whilst John held the hands of power, much of the action was taken by Pat. That woman was holding that man up,” says Kieran.

Actor Conor O'Kane, who plays John Hume in the Playhouse musical drama Beyond Belief in Derry's Bogside
“Bríd Rodgers, one of the architects of the Good Friday Agreement, told a brilliant story that they were all gathered round one day and Pat said to John, 'You know, if I ran in Derry I'd probably beat you', to which he agreed.

“They are two people whose destiny was intertwined and that, to me, also makes this very much a love story.”

The development was very much community-led and included a call out to the general public asking them for their stories about when John and Pat showed them acts of goodwill.

“The general theme from a lot of those stories is that because of the acts of goodwill and time John and Pat gave individuals, a lot of people feel they own they.”

As well as well-known political figures, the writer has weaved fictional characters into the narrative.

A new mural of the late Nobel Peace Prize winner John Hume has been created on a gable wall in Derry. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
Kieran adds that  these Derry characters allow for “pockets of light and laughter”, including a lady who believes John, with his European MEP connections, could get ABBA to sing at her wedding party.

“Because of the atrocities that we take them through in our history, these comedic moments are 10 times funnier,” he adds.

Beyond Belief features a cast of 25 actors, as well as 16 local children. The role of Pat is played by Niamh Morgan, with John portrayed by two actors.

Gerard Doherty - a former IRA man once convicted of blowing up Derry’s Guildhall in a June 1972 bombing - takes on the role of John in the latter stages.
The younger John is played by 30-year-old CO Derry actor Conor O’Kane, who played Fr Tom O'Gara in The White Handkerchief and also runs his own London-based theatre company, Golem!
He believes the script provided the cast with the perfect combination of historical context and fiction to “allow for playfulness and creativity”.

John Hume's credit union membership card

The production begins a partnership between the John and Pat Hume Foundation and The Playhouse whose shared mission is to promote leadership for positive change and social justice.

Excerpts of the show were performed for the Hume family during development to ensure they were comfortable that their parent’s story was being treated with “grace and dignity”.

Conor is all too aware of the responsibility he has in playing the role of John. “Representing somebody who was so beloved in the community carries with it a duty of care. 

“It was lovely to meet the Hume family and hear little stories about how John would have presented himself. Those personal details were really interesting and helped me with my portrayal,” adds Conor, whose grandfather, a former SDLP councillor in Limavady, worked with John in the past.

A powerful piece, the medium of musical drama has the power to challenge and heal audiences at the same time.

Emotions are already running high in the rehearsal room, but Conor describes it as a “loving and safe environment”.

“We're touching on very difficult topics and events and the intensity of that is very real. But we have on hand an emotional support therapist counsellor that we can talk to if required.”

Director and producer Kieran Griffiths, actor Conor O'Kane and writer Damian Gorman

John passed away in August 2020, with Pat following just over a year later in September 2021.

Kieran is conscious that because of Covid restrictions upon funerals during that time, many Derry people felt robbed at giving them a proper send off, and hopes that Beyond Belief will play a role in filling this void.

“I hope that through this production, audiences get to find John and Pat again and celebrate what they were to us and what they still are to us now.”

Irish News political correspondent John Manley reflects on John Hume's legacy
Beyond Belief opens at the Guildhall on March 31. To buy a ticket for the livestream of Beyond Belief, visit, or call 028 7126 8027