Peace Itself Is the Prize: A Nobel for John Hume

By Kelly, Mary Pat | Commonweal, November 20, 1998 | Go to article overview

Peace Itself Is the Prize: A Nobel for John Hume


Kelly, Mary Pat, Commonweal


It was a great day to be in Derry. All week, speculation about the Nobel Peace Prize had been a part of every conversation as headlines in the Belfast papers tipped John Hume as the most likely recipient. But there was still the fear of jinxing the outcome so that oblique references were the order of the day. "Any news about it?" John Hume's answer to those who alluded to the possibility was, "The peace itself is the prize." As late as the night before, Hume waved off any attempts at handicapping the race. When a friend toasted "you know what," he shook his head. Surely, he said, the committee had already notified the winner; after all, the announcement was now only twelve hours away. A young French journalist replied that no, this was one secret that did not leak. Until the announcement in Oslo at 10 A.M. on October 16, no one would know for sure. Again Hume repeated that although international recognition for the peace process in Northern Ireland would be a wonderful thing, because it could help strengthen that process, he had not entered politics thirty years before expecting prizes or rewards.

Which was a good thing, because there were none going for that young teacher drawn into the electoral fray by a sense of responsibility to the people of the city who had shaped him. "My life changed because I passed an exam," he says. The British Labor government had introduced free education in 1947 for those who qualified by scoring well on the "11 +" exam. He did and entered Saint Columb's College, a grammar school (grades seven through twelve). Hume attended with Seamus Heaney, who would win the 1996 Nobel Prize for literature. Heaney recalled this early connection: "When I knew John Hume at Saint Columb's College, Derry, in the 1950s, he already displayed the qualities that led him to this new eminence. You had the impression of somebody with a very steady moral and intellectual keel under him, somebody reliable and consistent, who operated from a principled and definite mental center" (Irish News, October 17).

This does not negate the lighter side of that boy. His Aunt Bella, his sisters, and the "mates" he grew up with in the Glen remember him as a great singer and storyteller. He was enterprising enough to act as a tipster for the U.S. Marines, based in a camp near his street during World War II, when they attended races at the illegal greyhound track nearby. "I was so wee," Humes recalls, "that no one noticed me watching to see which dog would get a shot from Dr. Iodine. I told the Marines, that's the winner - bet on him! Afterwards, they gave me sweets to take home. They taught us all to play baseball."

All the while, though, he was aware of the injustice that blighted the lives of his family and neighbors. His father could find no employment in a city where Catholic men were denied jobs while their wives worked in shirt factories to support their families. Annie Doherty Hume did piecework at home while raising her seven children. John Hume remembers the exorbitant rates of interest she and her sisters paid shopkeepers for food and clothes bought on credit. He would cite these as the reason he founded Derry's first credit union and then helped spark the credit-union movement throughout Ireland. He served as the president of the Credit Union League of Ireland from 1964 to 1968. He still considers this one of his proudest accomplishments: "If I had done nothing else in public life, my work with the credit unions would satisfy me."

Next came housing. Because of gerrymandering and a local electoral system that granted votes only to those who paid property taxes, Catholics had little voice in the municipal government that decided who would get a house. "Housing had to be taken out of the hands of politicians." The first civil rights marches had this as a goal. In addition, Hume helped form a cooperative that built hundreds of new units - a feat government had said was impossible. Simultaneously came the crusade for "one person, one vote. …

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