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A working class hero is something to be

By Patrick Van Roy On November 5th, 2019

Guest post by Paul

Few if anyone here will know the name of Father Desmond Wilson (or simply ‘Farr Des to al who knew him), but to the West Belfast community Farr Des was an enormous hulk of a man.

Des Wilson was a grammar school Catholic priest who came from a middle class class area in South Belfast and moved across the city to St. John’s parish at the junction of the Falls / Whiterock roads in 1966 after 16 years as the spiritual director at St. Malachy’s College in North Belfast.  Ballymurphy was one of those estates constructed in the wake of WWII and ike so many other similar developments there were initially no schools, shops, play facilities, and little employment and the new Corpus Christi church had no living accommodation for a priest. Its space was not available for community use outside of religious services. It sat like a large carbuncle, detached and aloof from the people who had paid for it to be built.

Allocated to Ballymurphy but living outside the area, Fr. Des and Fr Hugh Mullan, (later to be murdered by the British Parachute Regiment in the Ballymurphy Massacre), were indignant at Church resources not being used to their full potential and decided to forsake their large Church owned house and move into a council house to be closer to their parishioners. The Church authorities were not impressed and pressurised both priests with Fr Mullan eventually moving to a privately owned semi-detached house in Springfield Park on the fringes of Ballymurphy.  Farr Des found himself increasingly in dispute with the Catholic Church authorities regarding lack of resources in the Ballymurphy area and resigned from his clerical positions after being banned from officiating on church property and moved into a council (social) house – 123 Springhill Avenue –in January 1972 where he promptly started the Springhill Community Education and Development Project which gave education classes to those kids who were excluded and marginalised from mainstream schools. 

Farr. Des never lost his desire to help the people of west Belfast. Springhill House helped to raise awareness about the extent of poverty and deprivation in west Belfast. It produced some of the first surveys into living conditions and discrimination in employment. He championed the MacBride Principles campaign, and produced a submission to the Patten Commission on Policing in 1998. Later, along with Fr. Joe McVeigh, Fr. Des established the Community for Social Justice. One of their early campaigns was against the strip searching of republican women prisoners in Armagh Women’s Prison.

Farr Des passed away earlier today and was hugely respected and loved as a priest, a community activist, an educator, a defender of people’s rights, an author, dramatist and writer and both his projects and achievements could fill volumes, below is just a snapshot:

https://conwaymilltrust.org/fr-des-wilson/

I’m going to leave the last words about the late, great Farr Des to my life long friend Natalie from Ballymurphy:

 There will never be another Des XX. What he did for the kids the system failed is legendary. I have two sisters who ended up with Des aged fourteen,  one now runs her own business in the States and the other is a rehab counsellor. My best friend was dumped out of at school at fourteen and Des took her in. She later became a lecturer at Magee college and now runs her own tour business and not to forget to mention that all three were also sent to Middletown, a home for wayward girls, before Des got them. 

Des you were a legend. ( although I think it was the Catholic Church and their nuns who were the wayward ones)

We’ll never see your likes again Farr Des.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

17 Responses to “A working class hero is something to be”

  1. Sincere thanks Pat.

  2. An absolute legend of a man. Countless peoples lives were changed for the good because of his tireless work. Ní bheidh á leithead arís ann (there will never be the like of him again)

  3. Absolutely everything that a priest is supposed to be and more. The positive effect that he had on the West Belfast community and area cannot be overstated.

    An incredible human being.

  4. Really great post, Paul, on a sad occasion. Written straight from the heart.

    You didn’t mention Fr Wilson writing for the Andersonstown News, I think he kept up a regular column in that paper for years.
    I also have a book of his here, really a diary from the second half of 1972. It gives an account of his activities over a wide range of issues at the time. Meeting the simplest of men or women from his area or meeting world leaders was always the same for Des Wilson. He was committed to improving the lot of the people of his community, but also doing his best to find a solution to the NI problem at a time when things were really dark. If I remember right, he travelled to Switzerland and Belgium and other places in a bid to find some way out.

    His description of how British army violence went from the occasional and accidental to regular military policy was very credible, I remember.

    R.I.P.

  5. He wrote a column for the ATN for as long as I can remember Noel. The post was written fairly quickly and if I had included all Des’s acheivements I’d still be writing it tomorrow.

    A man who stood with his parishoners when they were being vilified by all sides, including the institution he served for many years, and another of the unsung behind the scenes heroes of the relevant stability we now have in the North.

  6. “There is no chain this love can’t break ”
    I think Fr.Des Wilson lived that out throughout his life, touching many lives.
    Extraordinary a True Saint:
    interviewed here on Northern Visions seven years ago
    by the very lovely and delightful Miléne Fegan

  7. I knew of Fr. Wilson but did not know of him personally. I always heard about his important mission and what a good person he was. He leaves a legacy to be admired.

  8. It is good to hear of this fine man of God.

    May he rest in peace.

  9. Interesting post.

  10. Met him several times years ago. God rest his soul; he was a good, good man. I remember a “nonbeliever” (from Belfast) whom I introduced to him repeatedly referred to him as “Mr. Wilson” to his face during the course of a lengthy discussion. Father Des took no offense and responded with the utmost respect at all times, ignoring the slight.

  11. I remember a “nonbeliever” (from Belfast) whom I introduced to him repeatedly referred to him as “Mr. Wilson” to his face

    Some are morons. Good for the father for being the better man.

  12. He was my Uncle Des.
    Thank you Paul for writing this. I always loved visiting him because he always had interesting stories and loved debate. Someone you could chat with for hours and never notice the time. One of the best piece of advice he ever gave me was to always treat people with different views to me with courtesy and respect.

    He continued to write a blog at wilson-des.blogspot.com although he wasn’t sure if anyone read it.
    I will miss him.

  13. There’s no need for thanks Declan, it was an honour and a privilege to have known him.

    The epitome of human decency and dignity. He made a positive contribution to so many, many lives.

  14. Declan, should you still be reading I’ve just had this sent to me and it might interest you:

    https://vimeo.com/297722703?fbclid=IwAR0XhxRJClTQc-vcwTtZL88S-yyIjVgwZ5Vdzbxs2Ygjb5cvH4v4xVEyb0A

  15. Thanks Paul

    I hadn’t seen that one.

  16. Fr. Des was buried this morning. Unfortunately, due to work commitments, I was unable to attend, but by all accounts there was a huge crowd, at the church and the graveyard, despite the cold, the wind and the rain.

    Ní fheicfidh muid a leithead arís/we won’t see the likes of him again.

  17. That was a interesting post Paul thank you.
    A true unsung hero who worked tirelessly to improve the lives of others.
    May he rest in peace.