Daly is born in Ballyshannon, County Donegal, but raised in Belleek, County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland. He attends and boards at St. Columb’s College in Derry on a scholarship, after which he spends six years studying towards ordination to the priesthood at the Pontifical Irish College in Rome. He is ordained a priest of the Diocese of Derry in Belleek on March 16, 1957. His first appointment is as a Curate in Castlederg, County Tyrone. In 1962, he is appointed a Curate in St. Eugene’s Cathedral in Derry, with responsibility for the Bogside area of the city. He leaves briefly in the 1970s to serve as a religious advisor to RTÉ in Dublin in the Republic of Ireland but spends the majority of his career in Derry.
During his time in Derry, Daly takes part in the civil rights marches. He has first-hand experience of the Battle of the Bogside in 1969, the early years of the Troubles, internment, and the events of Bloody Sunday, in which British soldiers fire on unarmed protesters on January 30, 1972, killing 14 people. He becomes a public figure after he is witnessed using a blood-stained handkerchief as a white flag in an attempt to escort 17-year-old Jackie Duddy, a wounded protester, to safety. Duddy dies of his injuries soon after and Daly administers the last rites. He later describes the events as “a young fella who was posing no threat to anybody being shot dead unjustifiably.”
Daly gives an interview to the BBC in which he insists, contrary to official reports, that the protesters were unarmed. He testifies as such to the Widgery Tribunal, though he also testifies that he had seen a man with a gun on the day, to the anger of some of those involved. The Widgery Report largely exonerates the British Army, perpetuating the controversy. Years later, he says that the events of Bloody Sunday were a significant catalyst to the violence in Northern Ireland, and that the shootings served to greatly increase recruitment to the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
Prior to Bloody Sunday, Daly is sympathetic to the “old” IRA, of which his father was a member, but the events of Bloody Sunday leave him of the opinion that “violence is completely unacceptable as a means to a political end,” which leads to tension with the Provisional Irish Republican Army throughout his career.
Daly is appointed Bishop of Derry in 1974, a position he holds until he is forced to retire in October 1993 after suffering a stroke. He continues in the role of chaplain to Derry’s Foyle Hospice until February 2016.
Daly makes headlines in 2011 when he says there needs to be a place in the modern Catholic Church for married priests. He addresses the controversial issue in his book about his life in the Church, A Troubled See. Allowing clergymen to marry would ease the church’s problems, he says.
Daly is awarded the Freedom of the City by Derry City Council in 2015 in a joint ceremony with Bishop James Mehaffey, with whom he had worked closely while the two were in office. He is “hugely pleased to accept [the award], particularly when it is being shared with my friend and brother, Bishop James.” The city’s mayor, Brenda Stevenson, announces that the joint award is in recognition of the two bishops’ efforts towards peace and community cohesion.
Daly dies on August 8, 2016 at Altnagelvin Area Hospital in Derry, having been admitted after a fall several weeks previously. He had also been diagnosed with cancer. He is surrounded by family and local priests.
Daly’s remains are taken to St. Eugene’s Cathedral, where he lay in state with mourners able to file past. His coffin is sealed at midday on August 11, 2016 and buried after Requiem Mass in the grounds of St. Eugene’s Cathedral alongside his predecessor as Bishop of Derry, Neil Farren. The bells of the cathedral toll for one hour on the morning of Daly’s death while many local people arrived to pay tribute. The mayor of Derry, Hilary McClintock, opens a book of condolence in the city’s guildhall for members of the public to sign. The funeral, conducted by the incumbent Bishop of Derry Donal McKeown, is attended by multiple religious and political leaders from across Ireland and retired leaders from throughout his career. A message from Pope Francis is read aloud at the beginning of the service. Hundreds of members of the public also attend the funeral, some lining the route from the cathedral to the gravesite. His coffin is greeted with applause as it is carried out of the cathedral for burial.
(Pictured: Father Edward Daly, waving a blood-stained white handkerchief as he escorts a mortally-wounded protester to safety during the events of Bloody Sunday (1972) in Derry, Northern Ireland, an image which becomes one of the most recognisable moments of the Troubles)