Thousands filled the streets in homage to their departed hero

The coffin of Northern Ireland's former deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness leaves St Columba's Church Long Tower, in Londonderry, following his funeral service
The coffin of Northern Ireland's former deputy first minister and ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness leaves St Columba's Church Long Tower, in Londonderry, following his funeral service

When you stand in the street where Martin McGuinness lived, and look down its row of houses and above them to a church spire in the background, you could think for a moment you were in an English cathedral town.

The terraces are period and pretty and red brick.

Martin McGuinness's widow Bernie (far right) watches as an Irish tricolur is placed on his coffin outside his home in the Bogside

Martin McGuinness's widow Bernie (far right) watches as an Irish tricolur is placed on his coffin outside his home in the Bogside

There is a large tree on the corner, which towers over Mr McGuinness’s house – a more modern semi detached with plants in the front garden.

He used to enjoy pottering around in that space and greeting passing neighbours, one of them recalled fondly yesterday.

At the end of the street, Westland Terrace meets Westland Street, which swoops down a hill and then looks out across a facing slope, with a large grassy area in front of the walled city.

The pleasant immediate surroundings of the McGuinness home are not what comes to mind when you think of an IRA commander.

But then if you walk a few feet down Westland Street, the similarities with the Home Counties evaporate.

The other terraces are not so pretty and become apartment blocks, and there are paramilitary murals everywhere.

The moderate ones celebrate leading Provisionals such as Bobby Sands but others seem to be dissident inclined, about ‘internment’ in present day Maghaberry.

Martin McGuinness was a hero in these streets, judging by the thousands of people yesterday who crammed Westland Street to join his cortege, but some of the republican imagery on nearby walls and buildings meant that he was surrounded by clues of more hardline elements than his mainstream Sinn Fein.

The procession yesterday took about an hour to make its way to St Columba’s Church, Long Tower, less than a mile away, visible on the skyline with a cross coming out of a dome, like an eastern Europe orthodox church.

The pavements en route were several people deep with onlookers and the width of the road filled with mourners the whole distance. The News Letter walked perhaps only 25 metres there were but hundreds of people behind the coffin and in front of it the hearse.

A rolling wave of applause travelled through the crowds as the coffin, draped in a Tricolour, passed by where people stood. It was carried the whole way to the chapel, past Free Derry corner and then up the hill of a flyover road that formed part of the route.

The pall bearers changed – his children for the first few metres from the family home, and then others including Sinn Fein politicians, rotating all along the slow journey.

There was sunshine and sustained applause as the coffin then turned back down a narrower, crowded lane to a side entrance to St Columba’s.

From there the service was broadcast on speakers to the large crowd of mourners who had no chance of getting a space inside.

Some mentions, including a reference to the presence of former first ministers, got applause inside and out.

There was laughter at points during the addresses of the Presbyterian minister, the Reverend David Latimer, and of the former US president Bill Clinton.

The latter joked about the fact that Mr McGuinness, after years and years of cursing the Brits, had worked with two prime ministers and shaken hands with the Queen. There was further laughter inside and outside the church when he quoted imaginary comments by Mr McGuinness in which he said he had been married “to Gerry almost as long as I was married to Bernie”.

When Mr Clinton paid special tribute to Arlene Foster’s presence at the service the speakers relayed the applause inside the church. Then there was an electric silence when he noted that her life had been “marked in painful ways by the Troubles”.

There were legitimate griefs on both sides, he said, and went on to talk about how Nelson Mandela had put aside bitterness over his own huge losses, including 27 years of his life being spent in prison.

Among the many journalists on a stand outside the church was Fergal Keane, of RTE, who recalled having been at St Columba’s alongside a bitter crowd in very different circumstances in 1988, when Mr McGuinness was present for the funeral of an IRA man killed on an attack on the RUC.

On that day, the coffin was not allowed into the building with paramilitary trappings.

“It was very, very tense,” he said, and utterly different to yesterday.

There were no paramilitary trappings for Mr McGuinness. But while his was not a military funeral, it was almost a royal one – Sinn Fein royalty. Almost every major name in the party, past or present, seemed to be there and formed an honour guard on either side of the road wearing Tricolour armbands for the departing coffin.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

Other McGuinness reports by Ben Lowry:

McGuinness travelled a long way but his was so ruthless that it cannot be ignored

Why they came to pay respects to McGuinness – the mourners young and old

Dignitaries are asked about SF man’s violent past