'A colossus, filling us with great pride and admiration'
Published 09/08/2016 | 02:30
The image of a cowering Fr. Daly waving a bloodstained handkerchief as he led a group of men carrying a mortally wounded teenager through the gunfire of the Parachute Regiment in 1972 is now an icon of modern Irish history. Bloody Sunday and Edward Daly are intrinsically linked and his fearlessness in speaking truth to power in the following hours and days etched him forever into the hearts of the people of Derry and Ireland.
I was fortunate to know Edward Daly in several capacities. During the mid-70s, he accepted me as a seminarian for the Derry Diocese and when my father's illness necessitated my returning home to help my mother, he told me that he would always be glad to welcome me back, should that be my choice.
I knew him too as a great thespian, who supported and encouraged musical and theatrical talent throughout the northwest.
We were both members of the '71 Players and found ourselves working side by side in two plays performed at Derry's Little Theatre.
The names of many of Derry's and Donegal's illustrious sons and daughters - Phil Coulter, Séamus Deane, Dana, Roma Downey and the late Joseph Locke, Kevin McCallion, Séamus Heaney and Brian Friel, to name but a few - knew Edward Daly with deep affection and respect.
His first memoir was 'Mister, Are You a Priest?'. Daly's memoirs will, I am certain, rank in Irish literature alongside An t-Athar Peadar O'Laoghaire's 'Mo Scéal Féin'. In many respects, Edward Daly's story begins where An t-Athar Peadar's ends. Ó Laoghaire's life, like Daly's, straddled two centuries but ended just prior to partition. Edward Daly's began a decade later on the Border of two very different and evolving realities.
Edward Daly enunciated with great passion on the injustices that the majority Catholic community of Derry encountered under a minority unionist-controlled local government.
Poor housing, unemployment and the need for better educational opportunities for young Catholics were amongst the social needs that consumed his pastoral energy.
He was supportive of the non-violent aims of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association and grieved the corrupting influence of murder and mayhem that climaxed with Bloody Sunday.
He testified before both the Widgery and Saville Bloody Sunday inquiries. In 2001, Bishop Daly entered the witness stand in Derry's Guildhall to testify before the second inquiry. It was a day the bereaved and wounded had waited almost three decades to see.
Despite ill health in recent years, his voice was strong and his mind agile and resourceful in unravelling, with great clarity, the mind puzzles which are the lot of lawyers.
When asked to comment on an actual theory being proposed by a British legal team that IRA gunmen had been shot dead on Bloody Sunday and secretly buried, he described it with laconic brilliance as "offensive nonsense". With that, the theory itself was buried.
When he had concluded his testimony in the mid-afternoon, the gallery erupted. Lord Saville and his co-panellists appeared uncomfortable as they glanced in the direction of the applause. The Derry public were unperturbed.
This once-traumatised priest stood as a colossus, filling us with immense admiration and pride.
In November 2000, in response to an invitation for him to launch my second investigative book 'The Dublin and Monaghan Bombings', he wrote to me: "I would be happy to officiate at the launch."
As with his "offensive nonsense" comment, Bishop Daly had an uncanny skill of speaking historic truths in a few words.
I recall on the 25th anniversary of the publication of the Widgery Tribunal report in 1997, he described the culpability of Lord Widgery as having "found the innocent guilty and the guilty innocent".
Similarly, despite failing health, at the launch of my book, Bishop Daly stung both the Irish and British governments.
Describing the experience of the victims of the greatest unsolved mass-murder case in the history of the Irish Republic, he protested their political abandonment as having been granted "not even a Widgery!".
Edward Daly is a huge loss to the Irish hierarchy. Even in retirement, he remained a bishop who commanded respect by a media that is considered generally hostile to the Church.
In correspondence with me, he once wrote: "I can truthfully say that I did my best. Most times, I got things right; on a few occasions, I got it wrong."
A wounded Church, especially a hierarchy that appears to be at war with itself in recent weeks, has much to learn from Edward Daly's courage and humility.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dilís.