Bishop receives Freedom of Derry with his friend and counterpart

Derry Mayor Brenda Stevenson confers the Freedom of the City to Bishops James Mehaffey (left) and Dr Edward Daly.
Derry Mayor Brenda Stevenson confers the Freedom of the City to Bishops James Mehaffey (left) and Dr Edward Daly.

All sections of the Church of Ireland and Roman Catholic communities – and the Christian fellowship far beyond – rejoiced when one of the final acts of Derry City Council was to confer the Freedom of the City on the two legendary retired Bishops, Edward Daly (Roman Catholic) and James Mehaffey (Church of Ireland).

The congratulations reverberated strongly throughout the Portadown and Tandragee areas. Bishop Mehaffey hails from this area – originally a parishioner of Mullavilly Parish Church and a distinguished Old Boy of Portadown College.

The post of Bishop of Derry and Raphoe was the climax (and the most fondly remembered) of his wonderful career. It started as a curate in Belfast, and continued via London, Downpatrick, Kilkeel and east Belfast (and the various clerical levels) until his appointment as Bishop (1980-2002). Now 84, he is still living in the Maiden City with Mrs Thelma Mehaffey (a retired teacher), his wife of 59 years.

“We loved this city from the start,” he enthused. And they loved Raphoe in Donegal just as much, as they have a cottage in the Republic’s most northerly county. He retains his chairmanship of City Trust, which incorporates all the properties in the area administered by the Church of Ireland – properties that also include the Raphoe part of the domain. As well as St Columb’s Cathedral, Derry. Raphoe, too, has a cathedral.

His service to Derry and Raphoe overlapped with the Bishop Daly era in the city – the RC incumbent served from 1974-93 – when they established a firm friendship in a city renowned for its divisions. Bishop Daly was appointed just two years after Bloody Sunday, when the iconic photograph of him waving a white handkerchief was beamed throughout the world.

“Of course, there were differences in the city,” said Bishop Mehaffey. “But Edward Daly and I – as two religious leaders – managed to strike up a friendship in a city where the people are often misunderstood. They are a very personable people, ready to welcome visitors and who showed us both great respect.”

A series of Portadown College rugby pictures on Jim Lyttle’s ‘Portadown Photos’ site shows that the young rugby-mad Jim Mehaffey played for the first XV three years running in the 1940s – his 84th birthday was this very week.

The picture on this page shows him (very recognisable) on the left of the front row – he was swift-footed wing forward, hard in the tackle.

Back row left to right - Leslie Hurst, Gerald Hampton, Denys Hawthorne, Dennis Johnstone; Middle – team coach and maths teacher Jimmy Chambers, Jack Carrick, Roy Livingstone, Tom Gamble, George Fleming, John Dobson, Conrad Steel, Donald Woodman, headmaster; Front - Jim Mehaffey, Eric Heyburn, David Vaughan (captain), Oswald McKee, Kenneth Alexander, John McMurray.

Gerald Hampton went on to become headmaster of Clounagh and most of the players made a real contribution to Portadown and other areas.

Denys Hawthorne was quite a character, studying law at Queen’s but going on to become a distinguished actor – he starred in the TV series ‘Within These Walls’ as the prison doctor and in the movie ‘Emma’ with Gwyneth Paltrow.

But his most hilarious appearance was in the Father Ted episode ‘The Tentacles of Doom’. He was the Bishop who had a close encounter with ‘The Holy Stone of Clonrichet’! Not quite in tune with the real future bishop in the photo!!

When James Mehaffey left PC, he went to Trinity College, Dublin, where he spent six years pursuing his dream to enter ‘the cloth’. It was there that he met future wife Thelma. She graduated as a teacher and then they began their ‘tour’ of life and the various parishes. Her final post was as a language teacher in Limavady.

They are the parents of Brian and Helen and sadly lost son Philip who died along the way. They have four grandchildren. Bishop Mehaffey’s parents were Sarah and John Mehaffey, his father having been a timber merchant and farmer from the Drumnakelly area. He has a brother and sister still living in the Portadown area – Brian, a mechanical engineer graduate from Queen’s University and Helen McClenaghan, retired CEO of the Southern Education and Library Board.

He recalled, “I loved rugby of which I got a taste in Portadown College from the legendary Jimmy Chambers, and I played as long as a I could, well into my 40s!”

His great friend Bishop Daly was born in Belleek in County Fermanagh, the older brother of former politician Tom Daly. He was a boarder at St. Columb’s College in Derry and studied for the priesthood in the Irish College in Rome. Before taking on the role of bishop he was a curate in the parish of St Eugene’s Cathedral in the Diocese of Derry.

He took part in the Civil Rights marches, had first-hand experience of the early years of The Troubles, internment and the events of Bloody Sunday in 1972. The image of the then Fr. Daly leading a group carrying the dying Jackie Duddy through the streets of Derry in search of aid while waving a white handkerchief on Bloody Sunday is famous around the world.

The Freedom of Derry was conferred at the Guildhall in front of 2,000 people by the Mayor Brenda Stevenson – the final ‘Freedom’ before Wednesday’s super council, uniting Derry and Strabane, came into being.

Bishop Mehaffey said, “When I was consecrated a bishop in St Columb’s Cathedral, Bishop Daly was there and from the beginning. It takes two people to work together and we found that, in spite of our background in different churches, different theology, we had a lot in common.”

Dr Edward Daly said he was happy to share the honour with his colleague and long-time friend. “I’m delighted that such a wonderful honour has been made to the two of us jointly.”