By Máirtín Mag Uidhir
The people of West Belfast and beyond will this week mourn the passing of revered local priest and social activist Fr Des Wilson. I am far away in Newcastle, NSW, but his death has brought great sadness to me and a deep, painful yearning to be back home i measc pobal an iarthair at this time.
Fr Des was known by everyone where I grew up. He was held in awe, affection and with a small dose of apprehension by most. Not that Fr Des was necessarily an intimidating character or a firebrand (there were enough of those around), but he exuded quiet confidence, courage and conviction even when taking a back seat. When it came time for him to speak for his community, he did so with all of these characteristics to the fore. He was articulate and authoritative in his advocacy for human rights, equality, justice and true Christian values.
Fr Des understood Jesus Christ to be a revolutionary leader, and a wrecker of unjust societal norms. Radical kindness. Unequivocal, fearless dedication to the marginalised, the oppressed, those without a voice. Other people are much better placed to write about the events of his life, and indeed the tributes are flowing. I can best write about his effect on me as a young man.
I was a young, angry man struggling to understand his own place in an unjust and violent world. A young man trying hard to come up with a coherent view of the world as an atheist, a socialist, a republican, a Gael. Although I was, and still am, thoroughly opposed to organised religion, I found a mentor and role model from afar in Fr Des. I couldn’t help but relate to his radical honesty and decency, even if I couldn’t come close to his standard. Those qualities brought him into stark disagreement with his own church, but without remotely shaking his faith in the message of Christ.
I had the privilege of getting to know him over the years through various activities in the community and local activism. I can still remember coming back to the Falls from a long spell in Australia and seeing him in Cultúrlann MacAdam Ó Fiaich. My own lack of self-confidence led me not to approach him and assume that he wouldn’t remember me. Of course he did. He remembered me, and everything he knew about me and mine. As always he was full of questions and good wishes. But like that other local giant and personal idol of mine Séamus Mac Seáin, there was still in that brief conversation the opportunity to slip in a gentle, but unmistakable challenge to me. Was I making sure that despite where I had found myself living out my life and raising a family, I was making a difference to my community. Was I a force for good? Was I a person to be reckoned with? Was I making sure I would be remembered as a person who put himself last and others first? Especially those who felt left behind for whatever reason. Could I look at myself in the mirror at night and know in my heart of hearts that today I had worked hard for the most important things in life?
Perhaps he didn’t mean to impart any or all of that to me in our brief conversations, but the strength of his influence on me, and the impression that his own life and actions had left on me meant that anything he said forced me into self-examination. These were galvanising conversations. Inspiring conversations. Conversations that raised a feeling of self-esteem and agency.
A conversation with Fr Des was a conversation that left you feeling that wee bit taller, stronger and more certain of what a life well lived should be. The world is poorer for Fr Des’ passing, but I have no doubt that during his mourning, scores of people will feel his strength coursing through them as yarns are exchanged, tears shed and laughs had, remembering this warrior priest. This thoroughly decent and indomitable man.
In Australia I can’t help but remember a great Irish Australian Bearnaí Ó Doibhlín, late of Belfast and Canberra. He and I shared a few memories and reminiscences about Fr Des during scoileanna Gaeilge. Barney looked up to him too. I looked up to Barney. I feel proud and fortunate to keep coming in contact with so many incredible people worth looking up to.
If I am wrong about what awaits us at the end of this life, I know that Fr Des will be there and I hope would advocate for me getting through those pearly gates despite my failings and lack of faith. I have no doubt he’ll have the ear of the right people up there.