There was rapturous applause as Bishop Edward Daly left St Eugene’s Cathedral in Londonderry for the last time.
Described by many as a “true friend” of the community he served for almost 60 years, it appeared that entire community had turned out to bid him a final farewell.
Inside the impressive St Eugene’s Cathedral, in the heart of Londonderry’s Creggan area, there was standing room only with hundreds more gathered in the grounds or peering through the railings of the surrounding streets.
Mourners were told that since Monday, some 25,000 people had flowed through the church doors to pay their respects and share stories of the much-loved cleric whose memorable image from Bloody Sunday was known the world over.
Archbishop Eamon Martin, leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland who was ordained by Bishop Daly 29 years ago, said: “Many hearts are hurting in Derry and around Ireland this week.
“There was never any doubt that Edward Daly was a great priest.”
Among those packed into the cathedral for the hour-and-a-half-long service were Irish President Michael D Higgins, Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, former MP and Nobel peace-prize winner John Hume, Foyle MP Mark Durkan, Anglican Archbishop Robin Eames and Londonderry-born musician Phil Coulter.
Lord Lieutenant of Co Londonderry Denis Desmond and Kieran Carey, representing Taoiseach Enda Kenny, were also in the congregation alongside staff from the Foyle Hospice where Bishop Daly was chaplain since his retirement.
Phil Coulter said: “They don’t build them like Eddie Daly any more. This is an end of an era for a lot of us.
“He was Bishop Daly but most of us knew him as Eddie and that was part of his magic - he was a man of the people. It is a very sad day.”
As a young priest, a photograph of Bishop Daly waving a blood-stained handkerchief as he led a fatally injured civil rights protester Jackie Duddy to safety on Bloody Sunday was beamed around the world and became one of the most memorable of the Troubles.
The events of that fateful day in January 1972 helped shape his ministry.
In his homily, current Bishop of Derry, Donal McKeown said: “His ministry was marked by total dedication to the people he served, wherever he was called to minister.
“That dedication was visible in outstanding courage. He showed physical courage on Bloody Sunday and his moral courage was evident in his passionate struggle against violence and injustice from all quarters.”
His efforts for peace were also hailed.
Bishop McKeown added: “It takes enormous courage to be a peacemakers and he was an apostle of mercy, whether as a curate, as a bishop or as a chaplain in the Foyle Hospice.
“It took enormous courage to build healing on the burning sands of conflict.
“We are all blessed because we have seen how love can transform a blood-stained piece of cloth into an unforgettable symbol of divine compassion. Today we are grateful for Edward Daly and thousands of others across our community and churches who took risks and paid the price that peace might take roots in our hearts and communities.”
Meanwhile, veteran civil rights campaigner Ivan Cooper, who also witnessed the carnage of Bloody Sunday, said he would remember Bishop Daly’s “kindness, goodness and humanity.”
“He did a great deal for this city and for peace in general,” he said. “He was a man of great humanity and great spiritual commitment.
“His death is a great loss to the community.”
Kay Duddy, a sister of the 17-year-old civil rights protester Jackie Duddy, said her family had lost a dear friend.
She said: “He brought comfort to our Jackie in his dying moments and through the years he was always there for us.
“As far as I am concerned he was a saint.”