After former SDLP leader and Nobel laureate John Hume was laid to rest this week, RTÉ news editor Roisin Duffy reflects on his legacy in the city she grew up in.

As they lowered John Hume into his grave in the city cemetery, on a hill overlooking Derry with a spectacular view of the River Foyle below, his family, we are told, broke into song: 'We shall overcome, we shall overcome some day...'

I imagined them in full voice as the familiar words rang out; the Bogside below, the Creggan estate all around and I was transported back to a different time in the city when the path ahead, for all of us, was far from clear and riven with risk.

It must have been in my last year at primary school. Those were dark days; The Troubles had erupted, Bloody Sunday would soon blight the city, the world's press had descended and the British Army had taken up a strategic position in a factory on the edge of the Creggan Estate, which looked down on the Bogside below.

John Hume’s house backed on to the site and our house was just across the road. IRA gunmen had taken up position in the Bogside below and nightly gunfire would be exchanged. Our houses were often caught in the crossfire.

Like many people during that period we had taken to sleeping at the back of the house with mattresses up against the windows, apparently to protect us from stray gunfire.

British Home Secretary James Callaghan (left) and John Hume (centre) talk in the wake of the Battle of the Bogside, August 1969

We were calmly warned by our parents never to open the curtains and look out the upstairs bedroom windows at night, for fear of the army thinking there was a sniper at work.

Usually there was a barricade across the road too, put in place to stop army saracens being able to gain access to the factory. There was a pattern; the army would clear the barricades with their heavy machinery in the daytime, the air heavy with CS gas, only for protesters to rebuild them in the evening.

One night, as I climbed the stairs to bed, the sound of music could be heard from below. I couldn’t resist it. I peered out to see a barricade blocking the road with young men sitting cross-legged in big coats - and there was John Hume with mad curly hair, a bottle of wine in hand and in full voice leading the song … 'we shall overcome some day’.

That song, so redolent of the civil rights struggle in 1960s America, was being sung by the man President Clinton would decades later describe as our Martin Luther King. It is my first memory of John Hume.

"Many of the mourners stopped to salute John and Pat, a random hand placed on his bowed back and people whispering 'keep going John, keep doing what you are doing'" 

His eldest daughter Therese was a friend. We caught the bus to the local Catholic grammar school together (now immortalised in ‘Derry Girls’) and in the evenings we did the normal teenage things.

I have fond memories of staging home written plays in somebody’s garage. John, and all that he did, faded into the background, except on occasions when we would be jolted back to reality because of a threat to the family. At one stage there was a fear that one of the children might be the target of a kidnapping.


It is a bleak, dark, low cloud day in November 1993 and I (the reporter) am in another cemetery in Greysteel. Thousands of mourners walk in silence to the Star of the Sea church, the only sound the muffled impact of shoes on tarmac.

A shell-shocked Co Derry community is reeling from the attack on the Rising Sun bar. ‘Trick or treat’ the gunmen shouted, no bullet missed its target, it was said, as loyalist paramilitaries shot dead eight people who had been enjoying a quiet drink in a rural pub the Sunday before Halloween.

Everyone in that graveyard held their collective breath - Catholic and Protestant - fearing what horror would come next.

Greysteel was considered the reprisal for the Shankill bombing a week before. We had been the first camera crew to arrive on the scene of that IRA atrocity at Mr Frizzel’s fish shop on the Shankill Road, where a bomb exploded without warning on a busy Saturday.

The scene of devastation after the bomb exploded on the Shankhill Road in 1993

Amid the chaos I remember turning to my cameraman and saying ‘please God let this be a tragic accident, a gas explosion and not a planned attack’. Nine people were killed that day with children among the dead. Later, Gerry Adams would carry the coffin of one of the IRA bombers caught in the blast.

At that time John Hume, behind the scenes, was talking to Adams. Seeking an end to the bloodshed, he aimed to find a way to put all arms beyond use. It was controversial, little was known about their meetings.

Hume was mercilessly attacked from the pages of some elements of the southern print media. The level of vitriol was shocking - and from the political class, including elements in his own party, there was little support. He was on his own.

Then the Shankill happened, followed by Greysteel and sectarian murders most days in between. It was bleak.

Ashen-faced, John Hume walked with his wife among the mourners, head bowed, devastated at what had happened. At one point captured, if memory serves, by an ITN cameraman, he broke down as a woman leaned in. A relative of one of the dead of Greysteel, she told him that the family had prayed for him and his quest for peace around the coffin of their loved one.

It was all too much, his tears flowed as Pat, his wife held him. Six of the eight people who died at Greysteel were buried that day, laid to rest one after the other. Many of the mourners stopped to salute John and Pat, a random hand placed on his bowed back and people whispering ‘keep going John, keep doing what you are doing’. 

Bishop Daly on Bloody Sunday in 1972

The message from the pulpit was the same. His friend Bishop Edward Daly, the white hankerchiefed priest on Bloody Sunday, was there with clergy from many denominations ‘we will not be forced to hate' and placed the responsibility on the politicians to bring about an end to the violence.

That must have been some comfort to the Hume family too. Later John would say that Greysteel was a turning point; his resolve, I imagine, strengthened by the people.

I am reminded too of something Mark Durkan, the former MP for Foyle and John Hume’s right hand man, said to me on the phone this week when I called to sympathise.

He said John would often say ‘it's important not to react to the reaction, because you lose judgement and perspective’. Wise words.

How thankful are we that he didn’t.