Remembering Pat Hume

December 22, 2021 in Guest blogger

FIONNUALA O’CONNOR :: Pat Hume’s death this year evoked many fond tributes for the woman who lived her life as a regular member of Northern Irish society but who also lived most of that life in a parallel, rare, even unique realm as the wife of John Hume. She was with him at the tentative beginnings of his career with all the promise that it held, she was with him through his global fame, and she was with him all through his drawn-out dementia.

Pat had a total admiration of John’s verbal talent, his way with words. She ended up speaking for him, however, when he could no longer speak for himself. She confirmed his memory loss, a chronic disability, on RTE television. Other sufferers of this illness, and their carers, were grateful for the calm manner in which she spoke about this once-unmentionable disability. Derry journalist Seamus McKinney recalls going to John and Pat’s home, looking for a comment from John on a certain story. At the time, the full reality of John’s disability had not sunk in with Seamus, but he soon realised it was Pat who would be answering the questions: “As John struggled to find the words, he would turn to his wife and ask, ‘Pat, how would you say that?’ and she was always there with the ready words.”

Seamus also added that “no journalist would ever presume Pat was a soft touch”. She would leave them in no doubt that a line was being crossed if they came up with a misplaced question.
‘John Hume’s wife’ was a committed Catholic, and while in some ways she was a woman of her time, in some ways she was not. She had been the teacher whose salary kept the family going through John’s early career. They had five children together. And as John himself said at one stage, she raised the children largely on her own believing that his dreams and passion should take proper precedence.

She was his most important support, satisfied to be the background figure for her husband whom she always saw as a talented genius.

But she also won hearts and minds in her own right. One of her talents was the ability to engage with journalists without taking it on herself to speak directly for the SDLP, a party that diminished as her husband declined. She herself worked tirelessly for the party and spoke out to the end in its defence.

For decades she ran the SDLP party clinics in Derry and nearby Strabane, for John. It was a city with consistently high levels of deprivation, and she was familiar with its endemic poverty and attendant problems. She may have made tea for Bill Clinton and other ‘big name’ visitors, but she also knew about the lives of many ‘ordinary’ women. She spent years helping them with queries about benefits and housing or listening to their problems with drugs and domestic violence.

Pat also won the Irish Red Cross Lifetime Achievement award. She was particularly proud of that.

Foreign journalists in particular loved her for her warmth, intelligence and her ‘starter pack’ for newcomers. She wanted them to see more than just the riots, so she used to ask if they had been to St. Columb’s Church of Ireland Cathedral, inside Derry’s walls. If they said no and she had the time, she would escort them on a visit.

Her other offer was to take them to An Grianán, a druid fort situated on a hill just a few miles over the Derry border in Donegal. In a few small hours the journalists were treated to a Protestant church inside Derry’s old but intact walls, and an ancient sacred temple in Donegal.

One of the most emotional public tributes paid to Pat Hume was from 86-year-old Bríd Rodgers, born in the Donegal Gaeltacht and one of the original major SDLP figures. She was strong-voiced and clear on air when recalling Pat. She described her as ‘the beautiful young woman’ making the best of Gweedore summers surrounded by children, whilst her husband nipped in and out of their holiday, on trips to Dublin and later to Brussels or Strasbourg. It was another reminder of the broader geographical context of Hume’s politics and its impact on their lives.

Journalist David McKittrick has a telling story about the life Pat lived with John, particularly in the early 90’s when Hume went to Gerry Adams to get peace talks going. He was facing mounting criticism for this, which peaked after the Shankill bombings in 1993 when nine Protestants were killed by the IRA.

The UDA retaliated, killing Catholics in a Greysteel bar in Co. Derry. John Hume broke down in the graveyard at their funerals and was taken to hospital. Many thought the peace process was over. “One Dublin paper carried nine articles in a single issue lambasting him,” McKittrick noted.

Later that month McKittrick phoned the Humes and was told by Pat that the media picture was not the real one and that her husband was receiving huge waves of support. He asked what form the support took and she handed him two shopping bags containing over a thousand letters, notes and cards, most of which were urging John to persevere. McKittrick recalls the words of one woman who wrote from Belfast: “My husband is a Methodist minister who is glad I’m sending you this note. I am ashamed I have never written before to say I admire the way you have given of yourself”.
If John Hume gave of himself, then so too did Pat. And if there was deep sadness in Derry at his death, then there was deep sadness too that Pat Hume lived for no more than a year without ‘me bars’, as Derry women used to call their husbands. And there was pride also in this woman who lived a life of love, dignity and devotion to the end.