A Reflection on the Life of Des Wilson, November 2020
Fr Des Wilson was such a big part of our lives that all of us who were his friends still miss him very much. He has left a wonderful legacy. Each of us has his/her own personal impressions and memories.
I first met Des/Fr Des when I was a student in Maynooth, 1969 or 1970. He had been invited to give the annual student retreat. Very interesting – may have helped persuade me to keep going – as he did many times over the years. He was already well known from his writings in the Furrow magazine and from appearances on TV relating to the attacks on Catholic homes in Belfast.
As I said in the homily at the funeral, Des was surely in line to become a bishop – probably the bishop of Down and Connor. But as Ciaran Cahill said, ‘thank God he did not play his cards right or we would never have got him in Springhill.’
He did not become a bishop but he remained a priest for the people and became a Prophet, a speaker of Truth. He was a true prophet in the biblical sense. He was admired the world over by those who sought justice and truth like Daniel Berrigan and the Walshes in Baltimore and many others. He also had his enemies in high places and was monitored by the forces of the Crown and other subservient forces on this island.
Des was a learned man and a thinker. He was a great writer, very meticulous and able to present cogent arguments on many issues, national and international, religious and secular. We can go back to those writings and learn from them. We soon discover the radical and the revolutionary – and the prophet. We also discover the mystic who saw how everything in the world is connected. We discover a man of wisdom and deep understanding. Like Saint Francis of Assisi in the 12th century, Des lived a life of simplicity, frugality and humility. He lived what he preached. There was no contradiction. His life was transparent, an open book for all to see.
He was a man who followed his conscience just like John Henry Newman – the English cardinal now declared a saint – who when asked if he would drink a toast to the Pope replied, ‘Yes I will drink to the Pope – but to conscience first and the Pope afterwards.’ It was the same for Des, though I hasten to add that he was not a drinking man.
Des identified with all kinds of different causes, some not too popular at the time. I think of his support for the Save Sailortown group. He went there on many Sundays to offer Mass on the street outside the church building which had been closed by the diocese. After many years and thanks to the good sense of Bishop Noel Treanor, the locals succeeded in gaining back control and saving the church from demolition. Des played his part in that victory.
Des Wilson showed that priesthood is not only about service but is also about empowering people, providing leadership when called upon and offering encouragement. He was always engaged in educating in the real sense of inspiring people to discover their own potential. He was also about community building. He had strong principles but was not into moralising.
Des was committed to the Truth at a time when the Truth was becoming an endangered species at the hands of British politicians and British army generals. He was fearless in speaking and writing the truth about any form of injustice or any attack on the poor and working class. He spoke up for Palestinians, African-Americans, women’s rights and the rights of prisoners. As far as he was concerned, ‘an injustice to one is an injustice to all.’
He came to Ballymurphy (St John’s Parish) in 1966 after spending 15 years teaching in St Malachy’s College. He got his eyes opened about the reality of deprivation and poverty. It was not that the Catholic people in the Falls were worse off than the Protestant people on the Shankill. It was the class divide that he saw and this annoyed him most of all. He was especially annoyed with the official Church’s alignment with the ‘nice people’, the well off. The Catholic ascendancy and the Protestant ascendancy were doing alright. The working class in both parts of Belfast were not doing so well. It was the same in almost every country.
His confrontation with the Church authorities about their hopeless response to the demand for basic human rights in 1968, led eventually to his having to leave the institutional Church and to go it alone in Ballymurphy. There the people welcomed him and supported him all through the years. He was blessed that Noelle Ryan heard about his work with the people in Ballymurphy and came to lend a hand. She stayed for the rest of her life.
Des was constantly seeking the truth about the political situation in which he found himself, about the reasons for the long struggle and the armed insurrection. He constantly challenged and confronted the pro-British propaganda broadcast in both the local and the Dublin media.
One word that describes Des is ‘insightful’. His writings are always insightful. He had great insights into the workings of the British government and also into the Catholic Church. He always had something interesting and novel to say about the political situation, about the Church, about education and about a whole range of subjects – except perhaps pop music! His writings were often amusing. I’d say he got great fun and satisfaction from writing!
In many of his writings Des Wilson named the great evil inflicted on the Irish people over the centuries by the British government as ‘Tyranny’. It was inflicted on Irish nationalists and republicans and Catholics and even some Protestants – anyone who challenged the colonial status quo. They were seen as a threat to the state and to the security of the state. They had to be dealt with. Some were arrested and thrown in jail. Others were summarily executed.
Des Wilson realised that the best way to counter this assault on the people was to confront it with the truth –especially when censorship was introduced by the Dublin government and RTE. One of his constant quotes from the Scriptures was, ‘The Truth will set you free.’
Des had developed his own liberation theology, quite apart from that of Latin America or South Africa. He was always trying to develop an Irish liberation theology based on the Gospels, the prophets and the Celtic experience of nature and monastic living. In some ways, he might be compared to Pope Francis in that his approach followed the Franciscan model of Christianity. Simplicity was the key. He was not ambitious for power.
His sympathies were always with the underdog, with the working class, (God Bless the work and the workers) and with prisoners. He was an avid reader of history and political commentary and was most impressed with the writings of James Connolly. He was also an admirer of James Larkin, the great union leader. He wrote a number of plays, two of them about those favourite Irish thinkers and patriots.
He was always concerned to challenge the school of political revisionism of Irish history. He set about recording Irish history based on his own research. Just like James Connolly, Des interpreted the history of Ireland from the perspective of the oppressed.
Des loved to tell stories and jokes. He always enjoyed his own jokes – they were often about other priests and bishops and deaf Judges! Judge to lawyer; And how is your client pleading? Guilty but insane, me lord. Oh, he is guilty alright – but what is he doing in Spain? He sometimes could hardly finish his own jokes for laughing!
I think Des made us think about the important values in life. He has left us a great legacy. His light shone in Ballymurphy and throughout Ireland during a very dark time. He enjoyed life. He loved to travel and he loved to spend time in the community house near Falcarragh in Co Donegal. He was always developing new ideas, new ways of doing things, new ways of thinking. His life’s work challenges us to think, to commit to the Truth and to show compassion to all who are excluded and downtrodden. He was indeed an exceptional human being. A scholar and a gentleman.
Des has left us an approach to the problems we now face especially with Covid-19 and Brexit and the continuing attacks on the working class: challenge, confront, rage, campaign and dialogue if and when possible.
Do not ever be indifferent and do not be ambivalent about the constant threat of fascism.
Fr Joe McVeigh is an assistant priest in St Michael’s Parish, Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh