They came from every corner of Ireland and beyond to join the people of Derry as the city laid to rest the man described yesterday as “the people’s hero”.
From early yesterday, people began arriving in the Bogside by the busload for what was the biggest funeral for an individual witnessed in the city in living memory.
The crowds, in places 10 deep, lined the route from Martin McGuinness’ family home at Westland Terrace down along Westland Street, out towards Free Derry Corner and from St. Columb’s Wells to the Long Tower Church.
As the funeral procession emerged, some of Martin’s favourite music was performed, as GAA squads from across Ireland in their county club coats formed guards of honour along the roadside, among them Brian Og’s from Steelstown, O’Donovan Rossa from Magherafelt and Clonoe in County Tyrone, the home club of Michelle O’Neill.
In poignant scenes, applause rippled through the crowds and there was more than a few damp eyes as the coffin, draped with the Irish Tricolour and carried by Martin McGuinness’ close family, passed by.
As the crowds thickened, Gerry Adams, Michelle O’Neill and Mary-Lou McDonald took over as coffin bearers as the procession moved towards Free Derry Corner behind a hearse topped and lined with floral tributes.
There, at Free Derry Corner, a large television screen had been erected, featuring a picture of a relaxed and smiling Martin McGuinness, next to a timer counting down to the funeral service.
Along the route, many spoke of the massive turnout, that ran into the tens of thousands, as a fitting tribute to a man who many described as their hero and their friend.
Rosemary Lawlor, from Ballymurphy in Belfast, had made the journey up to Derry yesterday morning along with six other members of her family.
Speaking at St Columb’s Wells, she said she felt moved to come as she had met Martin McGuinness many times over the years.
“He was our hero,” she said. “I first met him in Ballymurphy in a place then called the Bull Ring. It was just after the massacre and it was him and Gerry Adams. It was a pleasure.
“He was very considerate and he listened to you. I suppose there was no way he could know that the following year the same would happen here. He was the people’s hero, a working class hero. He was our Nelson Mandela.”
Ann Vallely, also from Ballymurphy, was there with her daughter and granddaughter who had travelled over from England to pay their respects. She said she had first met Martin in Dundalk in the early 1970s and many times since.
“He was a very strong person and he had deep sympathies with the people of Ballymurphy,” she said.
Close by were Oliver Curran and Christopher Murphy from the Sinn Fein Arthur Kelly Cumann in Kells in County Meath. The men had met Martin McGuinness last year.
Mr Curran said: “The people of Kells had great time for Martin.”
Mr Murphy added: “He had time for everybody and, when he came down to visit us, he was so happy to talk to everybody.”
And there were others from further afield. One man living in Australia, within half an hour of hearing of Mr McGuinness’ death, booked a flight home for the first time in 17 years.
There were also people who had travelled from the USA and other parts of the world. Closer to home, one man, upon hearing the news of Martin McGuinness’ passing, left his work in Cork and drove the 300 odd miles to Derry.
As the funeral procession made its way past Free Derry Corner, up at the Long Tower Church, thousands more people were gathering under cloudy skies to pay their respects. They waited in dignified silence as the coffin was carried up the Flyover.
Applause broke out as one local man, perched on an elevated spot along the railings, remarked, ‘Och, there he is’.
Some wiped at their eyes, while others produced their camera phones to capture what was undoubtedly an historic moment.
Inside St. Columba’s Church more than 1,500 people had packed in to the pews, with relatives, friends, parishioners and supporters of Martin McGuinness standing shoulder to shoulder with political giants such as President Bill Clinton, President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins and Taoiseach Enda Kenny.
There had been murmurings around the crowd earlier in the day about whether Tony Blair or DUP leader Arlene Foster would show up. In the end, the latter attended and the former didn’t.
Many of the key speakers at the Requiem Mass, including clergy and politicians, spoke of how significant it was to see people of different faiths and political persuasions gathered together for the service. It was, they said, not only testimony to Martin McGuinness and what he had achieved but augured well for the future and those people tasked with, as Bill Clinton said, completing what Martin and others had started.
And, as if to chime with his words, the grey clouds lifted slightly to expose a chink of blue as mourners emerged, as a cast of thousands accompanied one of the city’s most remarkable sons on his final journey, to his place of rest.