Where to begin? Fr. Des will be 90 on July 8th. It’s hard to believe. He has lived a full life. A good life. And in the course of his years of service Fr. Des has helped thousands of people. During the dark years of war and violence he lived and worked in Ballymurphy and Springhill and was often in the thick of it standing up for citizens against the British Army and RUC, comforting the bereaved, and helping frightened people.
It feels like I have known him all my life. He has been a crucial part of the greater Ballymurphy family from the time he was first moved to St. John’s parish in 1966. Ballymurphy was one of those post second world war estates that was built without thought or planning. No schools, no shops, no play facilities for children, no local employment and no church. Corpus Christie was built to serve the Ballymurphy and Springhill communities but someone neglected to build a priests house.
Fr. Des and Fr. Hugh Mullan came up with the radical idea of getting a council house within the Ballymurphy estate. Most priests lived separately from the working class communities who made up the bulk of their parishioners. Theirs was a novel proposal. Unsurprisingly the idea was not well received and Fr. Mullan found himself in Springfield Park – a small estate of semi-detached houses, just across the Springfield Road from Ballymurphy.
On August 9th 1971 Fr. Mullan was one of 11 local citizens who died in the Ballymurphy Massacre – victims of the British Army’s Parachute Regiment. Fr. Mullan had gone to the aid of neighbour Bobby Clarke who had been shot in the back. Fr. Mullan was waving a white babygrow when he too was shot in the back. Eye witnesses said Father Mullan could be heard praying as he lay bleeding to death.
Fr. Des eventually secured a small four bedroomed terrace council house – 123 Springhill Avenue – and took up residency in January 1972. From that point on it was an ‘open house’ – Springhill Community House - a place of refuge and learning and spirituality. Fr. Des made everyone welcome. His home was also one of the few places in that huge sprawling area with a working phone. Consequently each day harassed parents, mainly mothers, were there trying to get news of those arrested in British Army swoops; or to phone the local dole office about the non-arrival of social benefits.
Father Des teamed up with Frank Cahill and other local activists. They founded the Rock furniture group and other co-ops, started a Peoples’ Theatre and developed outreach with working class unionist communities.
The Church hierarchy looked increasingly with disapproval on the work of Fr. Des. More and more he found himself at odds with the political stance of the hierarchy. In 1975 he resigned from the Church but not from the priesthood and continued with his work.
During this time I approached Fr. Des and Fr Alec Reid to see if they were prepared to act as facilitators to help bring an end to the occasional inter republican conflicts that broke out in Belfast. They agreed and helped put in place a process of arbitration and mediation that undoubtedly saved lives. They also started a dialogue with loyalist paramilitaries and both priests were very supportive of the republican prisoners, especially during the hunger strikes. Springhill Community House was also very active in the campaign to end the strip searching of the women prisoners in Armagh Women’s prison.
Along with Noelle Ryan and others Fr. Des successfully turned Springhill Community House, into the largest academic outreach centre in west Belfast. It provided a meeting place for people to discuss and study whatever was of interest to them. Its objective was to promote social inclusion and self-help and to assist the most disadvantaged and prepare them for further education and training. By 1980, there were over 200 enrolments. Many of them were young people expelled from school or adults who had left school early to find work.
In 1982 Springhill Community House extended its programmes into Conway Mill with the opening of the Education floor. The old Mill, which had been lying derelict for years, was part of an innovative self-help project founded by the late Tom Cahill. Tom proposed that Conway Mill should be turned into a community enterprise project providing education, self-help and local employment opportunities.
The first management committee included many well-known local republican and community activists, including Frank Cahill, Liam Burke, Alfie Hannaway, Jimmy Drumm, Jean McStravick, Sean O’ Neill, Tom Cahill, Colm Bradley and Fr. Des Wilson
A crèche was established and staffed by ACE (Action for Community Employment) workers and teachers and tutors were provided by the Workers Educational Association (W.E.A.) and the Ulster Peoples College.
I found the people very sophisticated; they don't get the credit for it. I used to make a joke: If suddenly the Pope came out on the balcony of St. Peter's and announced that he was going to get married, it's the people of Ballymurphy and Springhill who would take a very rational view; whereas a lot of middle-class people would react as if the world was falling apart - and a lot of ecclesiastical people too. But the people here would consider it very rationally, as they do so many things - because they're so close to the reality of life. A lot of the so called "problems" which the Church talks about are false problems; they're manufactured problems about marriage, etc. They've created these problems - like crossword puzzles. The problems that people in Ballymurphy face are real, not theoretical. They're not whether you stand up or sit down at the Creed. It's whether you live!
Fr. Des has lived well and he has more living to do. Go raibh maith agat. Lá briethe shona duit.