JOHNNY McDaid is part of the biggest rock group to come out of the North over the last two decades.
A key member of Snow Patrol, the versatile Derry-born guitarist, pianist, vocalist and songwriter has also contributed to record-breaking hits by global artists such as Pink and Ed Sheeran.
But none of this success would have happened without the inspiration he gained as a schoolboy from the Duchess of Abercorn, Sacha Hamilton, who died last December at the age of 72.
Back in June 1988, the then-pupil of St Brigid’s Primary School, Carnhill was the first-ever winner of the Pushkin Prize, the writing competition set up by the Duchess in honour of her great, great, great, grandfather, the celebrated Russian poet Alexander Pushkin.
From their first meeting at his school at the age of 11, he developed a close personal friendship with the Duchess, who lived at the Baronscourt Estate, outside Newtownstewart.
After her death at the end of last year, Mr McDaid was one of 800 guests at a service of thanksgiving in her memory at St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast last Thursday.
Also in attendance was Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, who was representing the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.
Paying a moving tribute, the acclaimed musician said that, without the influence of the Duchess, he did not know if he would have done the writing he had.
“Were it not for Sacha, I’m not sure I would trust, that anyone might listen to what I had to say,” he said.
Mr McDaid said he was just “one of so many thousands” to whom
Sacha gave that most precious of all gifts.
“It was not a voice that Sacha gave me; she gave me the gift of access to my voice, and then… she listened,” he said.
“My own truth, is… that, in every word, story or song I will ever write, there is something of
Sacha that is alive in it,” Mr McDaid added.
Mark Patrick Hederman, former Abbot of Glenstal Abbey, also paid tribute to the late Duchess.
He said Sacha had been a catalyst for peace and reconciliation, and an icon of elegance, nobility and a tireless promoter for creativity.
He said her wisdom, values and ideals must be nurtured and maintained by the Pushkin Trust, which has inspired more than 50,000 children from 28 of Ireland’s 32 counties.
Fr Hederman made reference to the trees and flowers that decorated the Cathedral for the service.
They came from Baronscourt, ‘the place on earth she loved the most,’ he said, adding that the original saplings had been brought to Baronscourt by Sacha from Pushkin’s grave.
Prayers at the service were led by the clergy and ministers of Baronscourt, Rev Sam Livingstone, Rev Jonathan Cowan, Rev Ivan Dinsmore and by Rev Tim Close, of the Cathedral staff.
The Duchess first came to live in Ireland in 1966 when she married James Hamilton, now Duke of Abercorn. They had three children, James, Sophie and Nicholas.