Northern Ireland

Fr Alec Reid: funeral for priest whose rule was 'never give up'

Fr Reid's funeral
Image caption Fr Alec Reid's coffin is carried from the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer, Clonard

It was a funeral with heart and soul: warm with words and strong in respect for a priest whose golden rule was: "Never give up".

Fr Alec Reid did not give up on the Northern Ireland peace process.

He was the go-between who played a pivotal role in early talks between Sinn Féin's Gerry Adams and the SDLP's John Hume.

Mourners at his funeral heard him described as the "backroom coach", working off stage, urging the team on towards the ultimate goal - peace.

By 11:00 GMT on Wednesday, the crowds began to gather to mourn him in his home of 40 years, Clonard monastery off the Falls Road in west Belfast.

An elderly woman rushed over to talk.

"Are you a reporter, write down this," urged Anna McCann.

"I was born in the next county to Fr Alec in the Republic, but I married and lived in west Belfast.

"I just want to say that he was the best of Ireland. That's all, He was the best of Ireland."

In the church grounds, the television camera crews, the photographers, the journalists with notebooks and mobile phones, tweeted, texted, watched and waited.

There was a flurry as politicians and churchmen arrived.

Among the first was former SDLP leader John Hume who seemed older and more frail. He must have traced this route to the monastery many times down the years for those early secret meetings.

The great and the good and the ordinary folk arrived to the whirr and click of cameras outside.

At the church doors, dressed in cream, were Fr Reid's fellow priests who greeted all with a warm hand clasp.

Inside, some final moments were snatched by Fr Reid's close family. An hour before the official ceremony, they had gathered in the church - his sisters and his close family and friends - and said their private prayers.

They filed past his open coffin and touched him gently on the forehead, biding him goodbye before the coffin lid was put in place.

Image caption Former Irish president Mary McAleese, a friend of the priest, spoke at his funeral

By noon on Wednesday, the wooden pews were filled. Hundreds were inside looking up the aisle towards the marble altar and the coffin placed in the centre.

Priests and dignitaries were seated on the altar.

The hymns were a mixture of English and Irish favourites, for a man born in Dublin, raised in Tipperary and who made west Belfast his spiritual home.

They heard Fr Michael Kellegher talk about Fr Reid's love of Belfast's streets, in the shadow of Cave Hill and Divis, and the lessons he learned from the people of the city.

"For Fr Alec, the golden rule was: 'Never lose your courage, never give up; do your best and leave the rest to the Holy Spirit," he said.

He had "a thing about people's names", said Fr Kellegher, and he always said thank you.

The picture he would remember of his good friend was when he gave the thumbs up to the Queen at a state banquet in Dublin.

On a recent visit to Rome, Fr Kellegher saw a postcard of Pope Francis giving the thumbs up.

"I bought a copy for Fr Alec and told him on my return that Pope Francis had given him the thumbs up. He got a hearty laugh out of that," he said.

Image caption Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness was among the mourners

That postcard was placed inside the coffin with the dead priest.

Fr Kellegher said Fr Reid was a good companion and a fond friend.

"We will miss his courage, his vision and his remarkable modesty," he said.

Former Irish president Mary McAleese told the congregation about her friendship with the priest.

"He did things his way and Christ's way," she said.

"There was a famous occasion when he was to be moved from here (Clonard) to Dundalk. He agreed to go: he just never went."

Mrs McAleese said Fr Reid "bought deeply into the healing power of love".

She talked of the "quiet and humble figure" of Alec Reid who "toddled" between people and groups who, "over their dead bodies" were not going to talk to each other. But somehow he believed they would.

She said that when she would ask him how his talks were going, he'd reply in terms of the Holy Spirit - whom he saw as one of the hurling team.

If things were not good, he might say: "The Holy Spirit is on the subs bench", or "He came down an all-merciful clatter", or even "That fella missed the bus".

When talks were going better, he might say: "The Holy Spirit is playing a blinder."

He was always, she said, in the backroom, coaching the team.

"He skilfully set up the goals that others scored," she said.

After Requiem Mass, Fr Reid's coffin was carried out of the church by his four nephews. The crowds gathered and there was a pause for an Irish song, Slievenamon.

Then, the priest's coffin was put into the hearse and set off on its final journey, across the streets that he knew and loved and walked so many thousands of times in 40 years ... down from Clonard, up the Falls and onto Milltown cemetery, his final resting place.