John Hume felt completely at home when at the MacGill Summer School which was fairly frequent. Having family connections with the county he had, of course, a special relationship with Donegal and a sense of belonging and was held in huge esteem by Donegal people as a whole who always greeted him with the warmest of welcomes and with expressions of gratitude.
Furthermore, with my work in RTÉ current affairs throughout the 1980’s, his path and mine often crossed as, against the background of terrible and heart breaking violence, he struggled to find a way forward to peace. He was forever searching for a formula that would end the violence and that would lead to, what he came to refer to, as an agreed Ireland. In other places and in other times perhaps I always thought that he would hold a senior political position. His appointment as Minister for Industry and Commerce in the first power-sharing government led by Brian Faulkner filled me with hope and expectation as well as anxiety. Alas, it was only the anxiety that was justified. This ray of hope was extinguished in six months by the extremes on both sides of the divide. But as we now know, Hume’s despondency and despair didn’t last and he took up the challenge again that would endure until 1998.
The MacGill School celebrates its fortieth birthday this year and John was in attendance on many of those years, first of all as a contributor and then, when we inaugurated the Annual John Hume Lecture when he retired from active politics in the year 2001, as a guest-always accompanied by his wife, Pat, who was his pillar of strength. John himself delivered the inaugural Hume lecture and he used it to repeat what he had proclaimed so passionately and so forcefully over the previous three decades-that death and destruction during that time had brought nothing but pain, grief and hardship and, far from leading to a united Ireland, had, au contraire, led to alienation, bitterness and division.
Going back in time somewhat, in 1991, when we had a full week celebrating the life and work of Brian Friel it was John whom we invited to perform the opening ceremony which he did with remarkable sensitivity, insights and skill and into which he had obviously put much thought and effort. It was a wonderful occasion in Glenties with the presence of John, Seamus Heaney and Brian Friel himself-all St Columb’s boys two of whom went on to be Nobel laureates and the other to be celebrated as one of our greatest playwrights. John showed a different part of his makeup that seldom emerged-an interest in and understanding of literature and the arts which obviously was a luxury that time and constant commitment to the cause of peace did not allow him to indulge in. I still have a copy of the speech on Friel’s work he delivered, written by hand on pages from a copybook.
John and Pat continued for more than a decade to attend the opening night of MacGill which included the Hume Lecture. It was very difficult emotionally to observe this man, who had given a new and powerful resonance to the term, “uniting hearts and minds”, and who had still so much to offer to both parts of the island, descend gradually into ill health. He was given little time in fact to live a full normal life in a society in which people did not wake up every morning to news bulletins leading with stories of killings and bombings.
The Hume Lecture at MacGill has, I believe, helped to remind us all just how powerful an influence John Hume has had on the evolution of this island, North and South. In 2014, another great Northerner, the late Dr Maurice Hayes, delivering that year’s Hume Lecture had this to say: “Like Martin Luther King, whom he admired and rivalled in rhetoric, Hume never lost sight of the ultimate goal-of a better and fairer life for all in a settled society marked by the embrace of diversity, toleration of difference and mutual respect. His concept of a united Ireland involved uniting people rather than territory and his practical common sense came through in his repetition of his father’s mantra that “you can’t eat a flag,”. Like all great leaders, he was essentially a teacher, articulating a vision of the way ahead as much by iteration as by passion.”
The 20th Annual John Hume Lecture will be delivered online as part of this year’s 40th MacGill School in October.
Joe Mulholland , Director MacGill School
5th August 2020