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John Hume anniversary: ‘It's hugely comforting to see that my dad's life's work meant something to so many people'

Ahead of the first anniversary of John Hume's death, Claire Simpson speaks to the Nobel laureate's youngest daughter Mo Hume about grief, losing a loved one during the pandemic, and her father's extraordinary legacy.

John and Pat Hume

As the man once voted the greatest person in Ireland’s history, former SDLP leader John Hume was expected to have all the trappings of an Irish state funeral.

But like so many families who lost loved ones during the pandemic, the Humes had no option but to hold a quiet family Mass at St Eugene's Cathedral in Derry following his death on August 3 2020, aged 83.

For Mr Hume's youngest daughter Mo Hume (48), a professor of Latin American politics at the University of Glasgow, the small Mass felt right.

“Lots of people have made the comment that he didn’t get the funeral he deserved but my sense, and the family sense is, he got the funeral he would have wanted,” she said.

“Certainly for us, we got a much nicer, smaller, more intimate funeral.”

However, the family’s grief was compounded by the fact that not all his five children could attend.

Aidan, who lives in the US, could not fly home due to Covid restrictions and was only able to visit Derry last month.

“Having to phone Aidan and him not being able to come was really hard,” Professor Hume said.

“Him having to watch his father’s funeral on the TV was really brutal.”

Unionist leader David Trimble, SDLP leader John Hume and Bono and U2 on stage in Belfast in 1998, before the Good Friday Agreement referendum. Picture by Paul Faith

She added: "For anyone who has lost anybody in the last 18 months, all our grieving rituals have been really challenged because they’re so family-based and community-based".

To the five Hume children - Thérèse, Áine, Aidan, John and Mo - their father was not "a political figure, he’s our da”.

“People have been very generous in their tributes to him,” she said.

"That has been very sustaining to see how well thought of he was. It’s hugely comforting to see that his life’s work meant something to so many people.”

Unlike some of her older siblings, she never knew a time before her father was a public figure.

An eloquent and witty speaker, she vividly remembers the 1979 European election.

Then aged six, she loved handing out SDLP stickers to “everyone I knew”.

“It was cool,” she said. “There were stickers. Phil Coulter had done the coolest tune ever (in support of Mr Hume’s bid).

“You got to go out in a speaker car and go canvassing with all these brilliant people from the Bogside branch of the SDLP.

“I loved the craic. I remember that energy around elections and loving being part of that, right up to when I was a teenager.”

John Hume and wife Pat in 1979 after winning his seat in the European Parliament. Picture by Pacemaker

Professor Hume said it was “a real privilege” to grow up in the busy Hume household.

“I learnt first-hand that my parents were very welcoming and very open to people from different cultures, different religions,” she said.

“There was no sense that somebody was an important person and somebody was less important."

With Mr Hume away most of the week in his roles as an MP and MEP, it was down to his wife Pat to take care of the family and help out with constituency work.

“Before the constituency office opened people would come in (to the Hume house) waiting to see either mum or dad,” Professor Hume said.

“Mum would come back from a full day’s work as a teacher and there would be a line of people waiting for her in the hall, wanting help with housing issues or maybe one of their kids had been arrested and they needed advocacy on their behalf.

“That was her role. Then she gave up teaching and managed the office, which was an extension of what she was doing anyway.

“She was an absolute tower of strength, unflappable. Whatever was thrown at her she would just find her way through it, with great humour and warmth."

Professor Hume remembers happy weekends and summers in Donegal where her father was partly able to step away from the pressures of politics.

But violence was never far away. The Humes' house in Derry’s Bogside was attacked and there were frequent threatening phone calls.

“On a few occasions the house was petrol-bombed,” she said.

“Paint was daubed on the house, there were letters and a few hoax explosions.

“But growing up the hoax explosions were everywhere so it was an excuse to see the wee robot coming up and everyone was excited to see that metal Mickey was out. It was part of a backdrop of everybody’s life... and it was much worse for many families."

Professor Hume said she did feel fearful when her father and her mother’s cars were burnt in separate attacks.

“The first one I was quite small and I remember dad was in the house,” she said.

“The second one it was just me and mum. I remember in that first one he had to comfort me. It’s only as an adult reflecting back that you realise that was a bit strange.”

On Tuesday, Professor Hume, her sisters Thérèse and Áine and mother Pat will visit Mr Hume’s grave at Derry city cemetery and go to Mass.

Her brothers John and Aidan wanted to attend but will not be in the country.

The family recently put up a simple slate headstone, topped with an oak leaf, at the grave.

“Mum was very clear that she wanted something simple,” Professor Hume said.

A music lover, Mr Hume loved singing and had several party pieces, including Phil Coulter’s The Town I Loved So Well.

“He was a big, generous person,” Professor Hume said.

Áine and Mo Hume, the daughters of the late John Hume in Derry. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

“He could be very thoughtful. He could also, because of the nature of the work he did, be very absent. He was very busy.

“He could be very funny and he loved to sing a song. Right up until he died he could still remember all the words and he could still sing the songs and music was really important to him.

“If I had to think of my dad it would be him singing a song.”

Professor Hume said her family was hugely touched by the messages they received and enjoyed hearing stories about Mr Hume giving lifts to hitch-hikers.

“The formal obituaries were about his political career but these (stories) were him, they were the essence of him," she said.

“Someone I know in Glasgow realised who my father was when he died and said her mother had told her this story about my dad giving her mum and dad a lift to Dublin.

"They were hitch-hiking in the 1970s. He picked them up and left them off at a party. They said: ‘Do you want to come in?’ He said: ‘No it’s alright but you’re the second couple I’ve left off to this house so it must be some party house’.”

Mr Hume suffered from dementia for many years before his death.

“For any family with a loved one with dementia you grieve a lot while they’re still with you,” Professor Hume said.

A simple slate headstone marks the grave of SDLP leader and Nobel Peace prize winner John Hume. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

“Dad was still dad... he still loved music.

“What it did was give us some quiet time with him where he wasn’t pressured.

"People were really kind. My mum is very committed to dementia awareness and she’s spoken about Derry being a really dementia-friendly city.”

She praised the workers who, in his later years, looked after him in Owen Mor care home.

“For any family, having to come to the decision that your loved one has to be looked after by people outside the family is hugely difficult,” she said.

She added: “I guess dad being a teacher he taught us a lot through his dementia. That community of families and carers around Owen Mor taught us so much about compassion and care.”

Professor Hume said her pride in both parents comes from the “values they lived”.

“Dad maintained those values and he maintained his integrity,” she said.

Known for her development work in El Salvador, Professor Hume said she feels grateful her parents encouraged all their children to forge their own paths.

She joked her father told people she was “saving the world” but “wouldn’t have been the sort of person who heaped praise to your face”.

Pat and John Hume with former United States President Bill Clinton at Guildhall Square in Derry. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

Professor Hume was working in the Central American country when her father rang her to say he had been jointly awarded the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize, along with Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble.

She laughed as she recounted her flat-mate waking her up to say her father was on the phone.

She ended up briefly falling asleep again before she got up and took the call.

“Afterwards Conall McDevitt, who was the press officer for the SDLP at the time, told me the ‘world’s press was waiting at the door and your da was going, hold on ’til I speak to our Mo’,” she said.

She said the week of the Nobel ceremony in Oslo in December 1998 was “surreal” but “special”.

“When we went to Oslo there’s a room with all the photographs (of previous winners) and you’ve got people like Nelson Mandela and Rigoberta Menchú, a Guatemalan recipient," she said.

"It was all a bit overwhelming.”

Mr Hume was a strong advocate for an independent university in Derry. In 1965, the city was rejected for Northern Ireland’s second university in favour of Coleraine - a move the late politician said was an impetus for the civil rights movement.

Asked if the Hume family would be in favour of any new university being named after her father, Professor Hume said they were more interested in seeing investment in the city.

“A statue? A plaque? What is that? It’s something static and he wasn’t about static, symbolistic politics," she said.

"He was about the politics of bread and butter, the politics of social justice.”

She added: “Dad loved Derry. What he would love to see is Derry doing well. Derry is doing well on lots of levels but it’s no secret that Derry needs investment. I think people like Colum Eastwood as MP have been doing really good work.”

Although she is cautious about ascribing thoughts to her late father, she strongly questioned the British government’s plans for a Troubles amnesty.

Secretary of State Brandon Lewis said the government intends to bring forward legislation to ban prosecutions related to the conflict.

“If you think about his (Mr Hume's) politics justice was at the core,” she said.

"If you deny justice then you’re denying people’s histories, their losses, their pain. To do that is a huge, huge violence.

“I think dad would have been absolutely appalled. But I hate using that language and I hate putting words into his mouth because a lot of people invoke ‘oh John Hume would be this’ and they use it very strategically for their own purposes.

“I don’t know what my dad would have thought but if I look at my dad’s values and I look at what his core ethos was, it would go against the behaviour of the Secretary of State.”

As a strong European, Mr Hume would not have “understood the smallness of the politics that promote Brexit”, Professor Hume said.

“If I look at his work, he was very committed to the European project,” she said.

"He himself said it was the single most powerful example of peace-building in our time.

“That philosophy of working together, that philosophy of inter-dependence was very much to the core of his political beliefs.

“If we look at the architecture of the Good Friday Agreement we see real resonance with the European project.

"That all got shut down in the Brexit narrative.”

Although the family are proud of his peace-building work and draw comfort from how well-respected his legacy remains, Professor Hume said she is mindful her father was first and foremost an advocate for communities.

“He himself always said that his proudest work was around the credit union,” she said.

“I think there’s something in that because it’s about rootedness in a community that he was very proud of but also a community that looked after him."

With that in mind, she is proud of the work of the John & Pat Hume Foundation, which was set up in November.

"It’s a legacy of both my parents," she said. "They really did complement each other in a very special and unique way.”

A board member, she said the foundation is looking towards the future, rather than the past.

“It’s early days, we’re building, but that core ethos is that future work, rather than a foundation to honour a memory,” she said.

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