Two of Derry’s most distinguished clerical figures received a standing ovation as they were awarded the rare honour of the Freedom of the City on Tuesday night.
Retired Catholic Bishop Edward Daly and his Church of Ireland colleague, retired Bishop James Mehaffey spoke of their delight as they accepted the framed scrolls during what was the final official act of Derry City Council before it is dissolved at the end of this month.
The two men gathered with family and close friends at the Guildhall on Tuesday night and were met at the entrance by Mayor of the city Brenda Stevenson in her full official regalia including crimson robe and Mayoral chain.
There was standing room only in the Guildhall’s Council Chamber as the hour-long official ceremony got under way, with friends, relatives and clerical colleagues of both Bishops filling the public gallery and lining the back of the hall as they joined Derry City Councillors in what was to be there final formal meeting.
Thunderous applause filled the chamber as both men were handed the scrolls after cross-party praise for them from all quarters.
Speaking during the ceremony, Fermanagh native Bishop Daly said he was honoured and “hugely pleased” to accept the honour alongside “my friend and brother Bishop James”, after the proposal by SDLP Councillor John Boyle was seconded by Sinn Fein Councillor Elisha McCallion and received the full backing of all councillors.
In a wide-ranging speech he touched on the physical, spiritual and emotional journeys the two men have shared since they both arrived in Derry as young men at the start of their respective Ministries.
He said: “Inter-Church dialogue and Church leadership here in the 1970’s and 1980’s was not just ‘nice people talking to nice people about nice things’. That gets nobody anywhere. It involved getting one’s hands dirty, it meant talking honestly and bluntly, confronting difficult issues, making difficult decisions, speaking one’s mind.”
He said the past 53 years in Derry had been “for me an incredible experience”, and contrasted his “pastoral and cultural involvement” of his first years in Derry with wait was to come.
“I was shocked and terrified during the years of conflict; those years provided me with great challenges personally that I found daunting and sometimes shocking; sometimes terrifying; and then for the last 21 years I have served in the Foyle Hospice- those years spent in that remarkable place have been for me an edifying and life-enhancing experience.”
There was laughter as he spoke about how when he first came to Derry many streets didn’t have a phone between them whereas today “most people over 10 years of age have a powerful micro-computer in their hand or in their pocket”.
Returning to the theme of reconciliation he added that Dr Mehaffey and himself had “learned to share rather than to impose, to tolerate rather than to squabble, above all we learned to respect rather than distrust.”
Among the guests at the ceremony were fellow Freeman of Derry John Hume with his wife Pat, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, Paddy Doherty, who worked with both men to develop the Inner City Trust, Bishop Mehaffey’s wife Thelma and Bishop Daly’s sisters Marian and Anne.
Speaking in the council chamber, Portadown native Dr Mehaffey said that while he was also a Freeman of the City of London, “being a Freeman of the City of Derry is so much more in my mind”.
“I love this place,” he said adding that “wild horses couldn’t drag me back to Belfast”.
He described Mrs Mehaffey as having been “a loving woman and a rock in my life” and added:
“During my time as Bishop I had a great friend in Bishop Daly. We have got on remarkably well and I think it shows you people you might think are far away could be your closest friend.
“Bishop Daly has been my counterpart here for almost all my life in Derry and I want to thank you for all that you have been and the good health and happiness you have brought to us.”
Primate Of All Ireland, Archbishop of Armagh Eamon Martin was among the first to congratulate the two Bishops last night following the ceremony.
He said: “This special accolade is a fitting tribute to their Christian Ministry and leadership. It is also appropriate that this honour is being conferred on both men at the same time because for many years they have worked hard to build bridges in the City and in doing so together they have both made a tangible difference to the lives of the people of Derry and beyond.”
Current Catholic Bishop of Derry Dr Donal McKeown meanwhile also praised the two men. He said: Their dogged work in public and in private were signs of hope at a time when there was little or no political engagement. They - and other lesser known figures across Church and civic society - laid the ground for the later agreements.
“In a city, marked by death and confrontation, they burned brightly themselves as beacons of hope. Nearly fifty years after the conflict erupted in Derry City, it is wonderful that the work of these two remarkable men is being recognised by a city where both of them are remembered with great love and admiration.”
Mayor of Derry Brenda Stevenson said the honour was a very deserving one and was in recognition of the great work they have done to promote peace and cross community partnerships over the past five decades.
“The Freedom of the City honour is a fitting tribute to two men who have taken huge risks over difficult times in our city. They were to the fore in promoting peace and being a voice of the people, offering a beacon of hope for a new and brighter future,” she said.