A phobal Dé agus a chairde go léir,
Tá muid bronach inniú. Tá ár gcara Des imithe ar shlí na Fírinne. It’s a fitting way to describe the death of our friend – a man whose whole life was committed to the Truth-speaking the truth and writing the truth.
The Indian poet, Rabin-dranath Tagore once wrote: “Death is not putting out the light/It is only extinguishing the lamp/Because the Day has come.”
For Des the Day has come -at last – the Day of Freedom from the limitations and pains of this life. And while we will miss him terribly, we thank God that the Day has come for Des so that he will have no more suffering.
The last few years have been difficult for him. He often said to us that he would like to go. In fact, he told us one time –about a year or so ago, that he went to the Novena in Clonard to pray that God would take him and when he came out of the monastery he fell and broke his hip. He remarked wryly; ‘Somebody up there has a weird sense of humour!’
Through all his trials and tribulations Des never lost his wonderful sense of humour- nor his humanity. I admired many things about Des –but I think it was his humanity and humility that I most admired! He was such an amazing human being -gentle and kind, firm and principled, joyful and humorous- compassionate and caring.
“Blessed are the poor in Spirit”
To mark his ninetieth birthday a few years ago – Des decided to publish a small book of reflections called “Ninety (Merrily) in the Shade.” It is both humorous and serious.
“We left Maynooth college in the sunny days of June 1949, more than eighty of us, newly ordained Catholic priests, some of us wisely hoping to change the world, others hoping unwisely to keep the world and the church the way they were. We moved happily out of our studious world with its answers we couldn’t question into another world of questions we could not answer.
(He loved that line! He said recently he was proud to have come up with it.)
In the Introduction, his dear friend Eilish Rooney, writes:
“Des has been one of our closest companions. The people who know and love him will be saddened when he leaves this world. His words will be both a comfort and a challenge. They are those of a radical thinker sitting merrily in the shade of ninety looking back and encouraging us all in the words of Jesus of Nazareth “Don’t be Afraid”
He raises radical questions about the married priesthood , women in the church, justice in the market place, power and politics, workers rights fun in the Bible, and democracy in the Church. It’s a heady mix, writes ELISH. Let’s gather together to talk at the gate, he says. Bewildered believers, evangelicals, doubters, dissenters and ardent atheists alike are all welcome.
“He looks loss, fear and human suffering in the face and he finds reasons to be hopeful. We accompany each other in life’s adventure, he tells us. Des has been one of our greatest companions.”
I wanted to share these inspiring words by Eilish about Des. They capture the essence of the man -the thinker, the contemplative, the activist, the challenger and the great companion.
I too valued his friendship for more than 40 years. Whenever I was in any bother which was not too often (joke), my first port of call was to Des either here in Springhill or in Falcarragh. All I needed was a good listener and Des was a great listener. I always came away feeling a lot better for having talked to him.
The great spiritual writer, Thomas Merton, once described a prophet: ‘A prophet is one who cuts through great tangled knots of lies.’ Des fitted that description of a prophet and was in the same league or tradition as the prophets through the ages. He shared their passion for truth and justice. The rage of the prophet against injustice sometimes came through. Des was also a humble man –never seeking the limelight for himself but only to show solidarity with the oppressed and the downtrodden. Des probably did not see himself as a prophet. He sometimes described himself as a ‘mischief maker’.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for Justice..”
Des was a man of courage. The Gospel he believed in is the Gospel of Freedom. His God was the Spirit of freedom that lived in his soul and in the soul of the community-the Spirit that lives on when the earthly body dies. The gifts of the Spirit were evident. The God he believed in was not a distant God in the sky –but the God of Power who took sides, who was present with the people in their struggle for justice, for freedom and for democracy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart.”
Des Wilson was born in 1925- the youngest of five boys. The others were James, Gerard, Kevin and Liam. It was wonderful to see the close bond between himself and his older brother Gerard when he used to come over to visit him each week. His father was from Mullaghhoran in Co Cavan and his mother was a Turley from Saval in Co Down. They both came to Belfast in search of work in the early 1900s. His father worked in the pub trade and eventually owned his own pub. Des grew up on the Ormeau Road area. They were fairly comfortable. Education was important in the home. Aunt Cissie lived with them. She expected high standards and good results. His parents were not very political but he always remembered something his Father said to him: “Son, You can never trust John Bull. Even if he was giving you the present of a pair of trousers, he would cut off the buttons before he gave them to you!”
Recently, Des told us (Ciaran and myself) that in his early teens he wanted to be either a writer/journalist or a physicist. He even attended extra physics classes –such was his interest and enthusiasm for physics! But after the Belfast Blitz in 1941, when more than 700 people were killed, Des felt a strong call to be a priest –in order, as he said in one of his books, “to change the world!”
After studying in St Malachy’s, he went to Queens University to study literature and philosophy. He then went to Maynooth for four years to study theology and was ordained to the priesthood in 1949 along with 80 other young men –all ordained for the mission in Ireland. How things have changed!
So, in the summer of 1949, Des set out “to change the world” in the parish of Glenravel. He wrote a humorous account of that first appointment in his autobiography! He was then sent by Bishop Mageean to the Mater hospital as chaplain for a year. After that he was sent to St Malachy’s college to teach. Many students found him to be an inspiration –and many have fond memories of this great teacher.
In 1966, after teaching and acting as spiritual director in St Malachy’s for fifteen years, Des was sent by Bishop Philbin to St John’s parish. He was living in the Parochial House on the Falls Road with some other priests.
By this time Fr Des had begun to question the relationship of the official Church with wealth and property and the powerful in society. He wrote about this. The Church authorities were not impressed. He was inspired by the Worker priests in France in the 1950s and by the thinking of the Second Vatican council in the early 1960’s.
Like some other priests in different countries -who, even though they came from a comfortable background, left all that to become advocates for the poor—Des Wilson also left it all in 1971 to live among the people in Ballymurphy in west Belfast.
When he went there he got his eyes opened. He had never been in the West of the city before. He had never seen such deprivation and poverty.
In 1971, when he had been a priest for about 21 years -mostly living a sheltered life in St Malachy’s College, Des made a decision to stand with the poor and powerless against the powerful and the privileged. It was a momentous decision.
The move out of the Priests’ house on the Falls Road to a council house in Ballymurphy in 1971 did not meet with the approval of the Church authorities at the time. It led to his resignation from the Diocese. However, he felt he was doing the right thing-even if it was a painful time in his life. I think time has proved him right.
Des said to Ciaran Cahill and myself recently that the two happiest days of his life were 1. the day he was born into a loving family and 2. the day he moved to Springhill in Ballymurphy.
In 1972, a year after he set up the Community House, a woman called Noelle Ryan arrived from Dublin and offered to help in the Community House in whatever way she could. She took on the management role and remained until her death in 2014. (Suaimhneas Siorraí uirthi). She, along with her friend Elsie Best, made a huge contribution to the Springhill Community.
At the beginning of his ministry in the parish in West Belfast the British army-the Parachute regiment- had set up a base in Ballymurphy in the Henry Taggart hall.
In a chapter in his book he writes: “They were Trained to Hate us”. These British soldiers abused the people verbally and physically. They beat the people on the street, including himself. This was another new experience for him.
On 9 August 1971, the day of Internment, the Paras murdered ten innocent people on the streets -including his friend, Fr Hugh Mullan. That massacre has been very much in the news with the new Inquest that has been taking place. Today, it is only right to remember those who died in the Ballymurphy massacre in August 1971: Father Hugh Mullan, Noel Phillips, Joan Connolly, Eddie Doherty, Joseph Corr, Frank Quinn, John McKerr, Joseph Murphy, John Laverty and Danny Teggart. Paddy McCarthy was shot in the hand, then beaten afterwards by the British soldiers. He suffered a massive heart attack and died.
The following year on 9th July 1972, another priest and close friend, Fr Noel Fitzpatrick, was shot dead by the British army in Whiterock Drive as he went to give the last Rites to a young girl of thirteen-Margaret Gargan. Des had preached at his first Mass some ten years earlier. Fr Noel was based here in Corpus Christi.
All of this tragedy and trauma inflicted on his friends and on the people he was sent to serve changed Des’ life forever and caused him to be even more determined to stand with the people against their oppressors.
Des saw that the official Church’s response to all this repression of the Catholic people was very weak. It was then he realised that the official Catholic Church in Ireland had become far too removed from the poor and too closely identified with the well off. Many times he said how much more the Church leaders could have done with all their resources! They might have helped to avoid much of the suffering.
In 1971, Mother Teresa (now Saint Teresa of Calcutta) arrived in West Belfast with some of her sisters. Des welcomed them and found them accommodation –and on 3 October 1971 Des celebrated Mass here in Corpus Christi to mark their arrival. Mother Teresa (now St Teresa of Calcutta) was in the congregation. A short time later they got their marching orders from some authority in the Diocese. The headline in the Andersonstown News the following week read “Canon fires Nun!” (nice one Máirtín)
Des had a deep love and respect for the people in the Ballymurphy/Springhill community in which he lived. He always had time for a conversation and a cuppa tea. The door was always open. There was always a céad mile fáilte. Conversations at lunch in Springhill were a lively and interesting experience.
Springhill Community House became ‘a house of hospitality’ somewhat like the Catholic Worker houses in America – set up by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in the 1940s and 1950s, and indeed somewhat like the Celtic monasteries in years gone by.
Des Wilson appreciated our rich Celtic culture and appreciated the beauty of the Irish language. He wanted everybody to discover the richness of our own native language.
There were two central tenets to Des Wilson’s faith:
– the conviction that Good will always triumph over evil
– and his belief in the Gospel saying of Jesus –“the Truth will set you free.”
These were like two mantras that he repeated very often.
I first got to know Des when I was a student in Maynooth about 1969/70 -50 years ago!- when he was invited to give the Retreat to all the students in Maynooth. It shows how orthodox he was at the time. He was regarded as a Vatican II priest -a breath of fresh air. There is no doubt that if he had played his cards right he would have become a bishop! But as Ciaran Cahill said to me recently “Thank God he did not play his cards right! Or we wouldn’t have got him!”
Fr Des was a man with a vision of how the Catholic Church should be – a church in which the leaders stand with the powerless, a Church that abhors any kind of authoritarianism and clericalism. He often said that the Church of the future should be a Church of small communities made up of people who want to keep the vision of Jesus alive.
All of his life in Ballymurphy, Des advocated for a peace based on justice and respect for human rights and human dignity. He detested sectarian politics, bigotry and the arrogance of those who thought they had a god-given right to lord it over others. He encouraged people and politicians to engage in dialogue. He set an example by reaching out to political opponents. In the late 1980s, he went to see the then Taoiseach to urge him to open lines of communication with parties in the north –a move which I believe contributed greatly to furthering to the peace process. He never sought any publicity for himself.
“Blessed are the peacemakers..”
Fr Des wrote many wonderful articles in the ‘Andytown News.’ They were always a source of encouragement and even entertainment. He used satire to good effect when describing the antics of some of the ruling class-especially the Royals. It was for him a most important task every week to write his articles. The early days of each week were devoted to writing. On those days he was not to be disturbed! He also wrote for other newspapers like the Northern Standard and the Irish People in the United States. He made numerous broadcasts on TV and radio which were always incisive.
Des was always concerned to build friendships with members of the other churches. Long before ecumenism was heard tell of His message was always; ‘We in the Catholic Community are your friends, the best friends you will ever have. Let us work together for the common good. Let us together build a new society of equals.’
Some, like Reverend Eric Gallagher were willing –but many were frozen. He told me recently that not all Catholic priests were enthusiastic about ecumenism.
I believe Des is one of the great Catholic priests of this or of any century. He is one of the great sons of Belfast. He was proud of the radical tradition here in this city. He identified with the people of Sailortown who were left without a church building. He identified with anybody or any group who found themselves out on a limb.
Des has devoted most of his life as a priest to serving the people of Ballymurphy, raising the morale during those dreadful years and defending the people then under attack from the British army and the RUC and the loyalist death squads. Des was busy finding ways to promote recreation and employment –only to have them taken over and destroyed by the British soldiers.
Through all these years, Des Wilson worked tirelessly for peace, justice and human rights. I doubt if anyone devoted more time and energy to this project – in order to create a more humane society, a better future for all the people. During the local disagreements he was there to help heal the splits and offer people another way of settling disputes.
His passion for justice led him to get involved in many justice and truth campaigns – the MacBride Principles and the Equality campaign along with Oliver Kearney and others, justice for the Ballymurphy victims and the victims of many British organised death squads –like the Cairns brothers and Patrick Shanaghan and so many others. He was always committed to finding the truth-urging us to set up our own inquiries and not wait for the government.
Des was awarded a number of International prizes for his work for peace and justice. -eg MacBride Peace Award and Pax Christi award. He received honorary degrees in Italy and elsewhere –but alas none in Ireland! What does the Gospel say about the prophet in his own land?
Des was most unselfish and generous with his time and talents. He travelled all over the world to inform people about the truth of what was happening here because he was aware of the effects of British propaganda.
He was truly blessed by God for the life he was chosen to live – and in spite of the hurts and difficulties and disappointments down through the years, he cherished his life as a Catholic priest.
I am pleased to say that in recent years Bishop Noel and Des became good friends and a close bond had grown between them. Des was really happy about that.
Des loved Falcarragh in Donegal. He loved the garden and going for walks along the sea-shore. He loved nature and the birds of the air. He loved the mountains and the trees and the expanse of the country. He loved to stand on the bridge over the Ray river beside the Community house there and talking to the neighbours and all who passed by.
Des has left a wonderful legacy which will be fully appreciated in the years to come –Springhill Community House, the Conway Mill, Feile an Phobail, his many writings and books but his greatest legacy is the example he has given of living his life in solidarity with the people of Ballymurphy in their hour of greatest need.
Since his death in the Nazareth Care Home on Tuesday afternoon, many fine tributes have been paid to Fr Des. That is only right and to be expected for he has been a major influence on so many people and such a positive influence for good in this country and in this community-and beyond. His loss is immense -but he has fought the good fight and he has left a great legacy. Today we give thanks for his life and his legacy.
Ba mhaith liom mo chomhbhrón a dheanadh le teaghlach Wilson. I offer my deepest sympathy to Des’ nieces and nephews and cousins and family circle, Des always spoke lovingly of his immediate family.
I offer my sympathy -and also to the Springhill Community -my deepest sympathy. You really cared for him when he needed you most. He loved you all -each and every one. I saw your love for him in action these last few years and especially these last few months and weeks. Thank you Ciaran, Pete, Louise, Margaret Pat and Janette-and all who have helped.
A word of thanks to those friends in America, especially Elizabeth Logue & family in Doors of Hope, who have supported Des all through the years.
If Des’s life has any lesson for the Catholic Church in Ireland and throughout the world – it is that it must, in conscience, take the side of the poor and powerless and stand firmly for social justice and against the tyranny of abusive power, of excessive wealth, of greed, of selfishness. It must no longer allow itself to be co-opted by any State, but should always keep its distance, so that it is free to evaluate the behaviour of governments and to stand foursquare against those who violate the rights and the dignity of citizens. Such a stance will be uncomfortable. But then Comfort is not consistent with the path least travelled, -the path of truth and of conscience.
In his autobiography, ‘The Way I See it’, Des concludes:
‘We have learned a lot of lessons through trial and success as well as through trial and error. Having learned enough lessons, now we have to create freedom for us all to experiment with our new ideas. That pleasant task could last to the end of time and I know only two reasons to make me glad to live for ever in this world. One is to enjoy the beautiful things of the world, like you see standing with friends on a bridge across the Ray River in Donegal looking towards Muckish; the other is that it would give me time to put all the lessons I learned into practice. And maybe we could change the world after all.’
Ar Dhéis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.
All will be well!