In praise of those whose time has run out

Several years ago, in response to a column I had written to do with the Catholic Church, Cahal Daly wrote a letter to me, which I remember as a magnificent put-down.  It was witty, clever and respectful, but a put-down. I responded in a similar vein, acknowledging the put-down, and we corresponded occasionally since then. (Unfortunately, I do not now recall what the point at issue was, nor can I find any of his letters).

I visited him at his home in Belfast some time later, and we talked about politics and religion. Although he was physically frail, he was robust intellectually. And witty, self-deprecating and respectful. He took me up on an another column I had written about Jesus. My point then had been that if Jesus was indeed God, then that was the most salient fact about the universe and our being, for it showed there was indeed a supreme being, and that this supreme being was so involved with us that he came into this world to secure our happiness in the afterlife. I wondered how then, if this was so, Jesus never stated unambiguously that he was God.

Cahal Daly’s response was that Jesus did say he was God. He quoted some passages from, I think, the gospel of John, which, he insisted, amounted to claiming he (Jesus) was God. My point, however, had been that Jesus did not say (or rather was not quoted as saying) this unambiguously, and that this must be surprising for believers. For, were he God, it would have been of such enormous consequence that he surely would have said it unambiguously –or otherwise made it manifest. According to the gospels, his disciples certainly seemed to think he was the Messiah or the son of God, but there was no suggestion that they thought he was God. Certainly, nothing unambiguously so.

Cahal Daly insisted the gospels said otherwise. He invited me to the launch at the Veritas bookstore in Lower Abbey Street, Dublin, of his last book, The Breaking of Bread: Biblical Reflections , and we spoke afterwards, this time just about politics. He invited me to visit him in Belfast again. I regret I did not.

There are other regrets about people who died this past year.

I stayed with Dick Ferguson at his home in Lisburn in early 1970. Dick was a Unionist MP at Stormont at the time. He was one of the moderate unionists and was under a lot of pressure from the loyalist faction of his party. It was one of my first forays to Northern Ireland, where I was to live for a few years from September of that year onwards. I don’t recall how I came to stay with him, but I vividly recall an incident during the visit. He and I were in the family kitchen, around midnight, when there was a massive explosion. We both leapt across the kitchen, hiding in the doorway. I thought someone was firing at us into the kitchen. It transpired someone had thrown a bomb at the house.

I kept up contact with Dick Ferguson for many years, until he left Northern Ireland suddenly in 1984, leaving his practice at the Bar and leaving his family. He went on to have a hugely successful career at the Bar in London, where he defended republicans, victims of abuse of justice and Rosemary West. I regret losing contact with this fine man who was great fun.

I have more regrets about failure to keep contact with someone very different. This was Billy Kelly of New Lodge Road, Belfast, who died in February. I did not hear of his death until recently. Billy was one of the leaders of the Provisional IRA in Belfast in the early 1970s. He was brother of John Kelly, a co-defendant in the 1970 arms trial with Charlie Haughey. Some of what he got up to and what he got others to get up to was awful. But there was another side to him that was gentle and daft and charming. I last saw him at the funeral of his brother, John, in Maghera a few years ago and, again, there were promises to remain in contact.

I have further regret over a boyhood friend, George Bucke, who was a schoolmate at Broadford National School. George was the best in the class – by far. He went for a year to St Mary’s Secondary School in Dromcollogher, where again he was an outstanding student and a lovely fellow. But then he left education and worked for a while, I think, as a farm labourer; and then like everyone else in that class he emigrated to England in his mid-teens.

Some of the class had miserable lives; one, another close friend from those days, a particularly sad life. Others did well and, unsurprisingly, George was one of those. But, had we a fair society, what would he have contributed, over and above what he did? We met at home in Broadford a few years ago and promised to stay in touch, but we never met again. He looked for my phone number in November and I expected a call from him. He died in his sleep in December. He is being buried tomorrow in Broadford.