Last March, Retired Bishop Edward Daly and his Church of Ireland counterpart, Right Rev Dr James Mehaffey were afforded the highest accolade the local council could give.
There was a standing ovation from the crowds who had packed into the Guildhall’s Council Chamber to witness the conferring of the ‘Freedom of the City’ of Derry on the two men on the evening of Tuesday, March 24, 2015.
The warm reception bore testament to the regard the city as a whole had for them, and both men were clearly moved and typically humble as they received the honour.
Both also spoke candidly and honestly about how they had shepherded their respective flocks through a time which Dr Daly termed Derry’s own ‘valley of darkness’, often working together for the greater good and helping bring about an end to the violence that had pockmarked the city and left an indelible mark on its people.
On that special day last year, Bishop Daly, in one of his last public appearances, said: “We have been privileged to serve the people of this city and diocese.
“In a few weeks’ time, I will have served for 53 years here in this city, since May 1962. Time passes so quickly, in the blink of an eye.”
He added: “Inter-Church dialogue and Church leadership here in the 1970s and 80s was not just ‘nice people talking to nice people about nice things’.
“It involved getting one’s hands dirty, it meant talking honestly and bluntly, confronting difficult issues, making difficult decisions”.
Bishop Daly spoke of how he was “shocked and terrified” when the Troubles engulfed Derry.
He also spoke of how Bishop James Mehaffey and himself had joined forces during those years to try and bring Catholics and Protestants together, and enact social changes for local people.
He outlined how the two bishops had worked with Paddy Bogside Doherty to set up the Inner City Trust in 1980 to give local people a chance of work, as well as input into their own city centre. From this, he added, sprang the Waterside Churches’ Trust.
Casting a glance back over those years, he said: “In 1983 we were both involved with Dr Tom McGinley here in this Guildhall in the initial public meeting and the foundation of the Foyle Hospice. Both the Inner City Trust and the Foyle Hospice have been wonderful examples of the power of positive influences in our city, positive influences of true Christianity at work.”
He added: “The past 53 years have been for me an incredible experience. I greatly enjoyed the pastoral and cultural involvement of the early years of ministry here.
“I was shocked and terrified during the years of conflict; those years provided me with great challenges that I found daunting and, sometimes shocking; sometimes terrifying; and then, for the last 21 years, I have served in the hospice. Those years spent in that remarkable place have formed an edifying and life-enhancing experience and gave me a new sense of the precious and unique nature of every human life.
“My experience here over five decades has convinced me of one thing above all others – that we can do much more together than we can do apart. Difference should be seen as enriching rather than threatening. There is a rich tapestry of cultures here – and each of them has made an important contribution to who we are and what we are and each should be cherished by us all.”
Looking to the future, Bishop Daly said efforts needed to redoubled to ensure the lot of local people was improved.
He said: “There have been many advances – better housing, better living conditions – the city looks so much better – the work that this Council has done on the waterfront is truly stunning.
“But, as was the situation 53 years ago, there are still unacceptable levels of unemployment.
“The campaign for a university worthy of this ancient city must be sustained and the road and rail connections must be improved as part of the fundamental answer to this problem.”
He went on to speak about the “great affection” for Derry he encountered among diverse groups of people while travelling abroad.