Oscar Knox: Smiles and tears at a celebration of the tot whose spirit captured our hearts
In a tiny white coffin adorned with characters and quotes from his favourite film Peter Pan, wee Oscar Knox started his final journey to what he'd been told was his own Neverland yesterday. As if on cue from an unseen hand, the heavens opened the minute his parents carried him from the Children's Hospice where he'd lost his titanic quest for life last week.
His father Stephen later told hundreds of mourners at a 'Mass of the Angels' for his five-year-old son: "I think Oscar was having a right good laugh us all there coming up the O'Neill Road getting drenched."
His comments were greeted with laughter but seconds later there were tears of a totally different kind even from the hardest of Ulster's hard men as Stephen and his wife Leona spoke with heart-breaking emotion about their little hero with the huge heart.
The Knoxes had urged people to transform the funeral into a day of colour, an upbeat celebration for their inspirational son who was a Celtic fan but still managed to become an icon for Rangers supporters as well. Football tops which are usually frowned upon in public places here were actively encouraged in St Bernard's Church, Glengormley, and while green and white hoops were the predominant shirts, a number of Northern Ireland supporters wore their colours with pride too as did Belfast Giants ice hockey fans, GAA enthusiasts and Ulster Rugby followers.
Several men wore Superman outfits in honour of Oscar who was photographed before his death in a similar superhero suit.
It was an Oscar ceremony like no other. On the Antrim Road, a family held aloft a homemade banner saying 'You'll Never Walk Alone. RIP Oscar'.
And he didn't. Hundreds of people had followed his coffin from the hospice to the church which was destroyed in a sectarian arson attack 13 years ago.
All of the 1,000 seats were filled and 300 people watched a video-link of the service in a nearby parochial hall where there was also standing room only and dozens more mourners had to stand outside in the rain.
It was the sort of funeral normally reserved for statesmen or sports stars, not for a child of five.
But wee Oscar was no ordinary boy. He'd fought relentlessly after he was diagnosed in 2011 with neuroblastoma, a rare cancer, and his mother Leona told mourners that they thought he could have died two years ago but he didn't give in.
Leona and Stephen mounted an unprecedented campaign on social media to raise money for research into the disease and to make people more aware of it. Tens of thousands of people from both sides of the Northern Irish divide supported Team Oscar and the wee warrior became a household name as his engaging smile won over the province.
In April last year spirits soared after it was revealed Oscar had been given the all-clear. But it was only half-time and the cancer returned in August.
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness was in St Bernard's to pay his respects along with a raft of other Sinn Fein politicians including Alex Maskey, Gerry Kelly and ex-Deputy Mayor of Belfast Tierna Cunningham, who wore a commemorative scarf produced for the European game between Celtic and Cliftonville last year when Oscar led his Parkhead heroes onto the pitch.
Tierna smiled as she recalled how Oscar literally left his mark on Belfast's City Hall.
He'd led a St Patrick's Day parade in Belfast last year and doodled with a highlighter on the wall of her office, a scrawl which is still there.
Boxer Paddy Barnes read a prayer of the faithful and his friend Carl Frampton, who wore a Crusaders football shirt, stood at the side of the church.
Fr Damien McCaughan admitted he was telling mourners what they already knew – that wee Oscar was remarkable.
"People in Northern Ireland and across the world have been touched by Oscar's bravery and joyfulness. He has inspired so much goodness and generosity from many extraordinary people."
But he said Oscar was essentially just an ordinary child even in the face of extraordinary difficulties. "He inspired other people to move beyond ordinary to do extraordinary acts of goodness. He united people from all sides of our community, from all backgrounds and from all over the world.
"He brought out the best in people and there's a lesson there for us too if we want to make a real legacy for Oscar – our ordinary lives can have an extraordinary impact for good on the world around us."
Fr McCaughan said that ultimately Oscar was just Stephen and Leona Knox's little boy who had his likes and his dislikes. He remembered how Oscar was particularly fond of Spiderman and superheroes and his cuddly Scooby-Doo toy which his three-year-old sister Izzie held tightly.
Fr McCaughan spoke of a special happy memory he had of Oscar from just a few weeks back when despite his illness, he took part in a St Patrick's Day show at his primary school – St Mary's on the Hill, Glengormley.
Former Sinn Fein minister Michelle Gildernew wasn't alone as she wept during tributes to Oscar from his parents.
But the church fell silent as Oscar's coffin with the motif 'Straight on 'til Morning' from Peter Pan etched on his side was borne from the church to the sound of the choir, some in football shirts, singing "This Little Light Of Mine – I'm going to let it shine."
The glow of wee Oscar Knox, one suspects, will radiate for some time to come.