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Fr Des Wilson: New documentary on west Belfast priest to be screened tonight

Almost two years after the death of highly respected west Belfast priest Fr Des Wilson, director Vincent Kinnard has made a new documentary ‘Fr Des – The Way He Saw It' on Fr Wilson's life and legacy. Claire Simpson looks at the legacy of a cleric described as among the best known and best loved priests in Ireland but also one of the most controversial.

Stephen Rea with Fr Des Wilson

Fr Des Wilson had an “immense impact” on Ireland, Bafta-winning actor Stephen Rea has said.

The north Belfast-born actor has narrated a documentary on the work of Fr Wilson, due to be screened tonight by Docs Ireland as part of Féile an Phobail.

Mr Rea also features in the film, which is primarily recounted in Fr Wilson’s own words.

The documentary also includes contributions from Rev Brian Smeaton, a Church of Ireland minister on the Shankill road in 1969; academic Eilish Rooney, and civil rights activist Bernadette Devlin-McAliskey.

Mr Rea, who was Oscar-nominated for his role in Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game, told The Irish News he became friends with Fr Wilson many years ago.

“I think I first met Fr Des in the Cultúrlann, can’t be sure, his was a gentle charisma that grew on you over time, along with the undeniable firmness of his intellect,” he said.

Fr Des Wilson celebrating Mass

Fr Wilson, who was from the Ormeau Road area of south Belfast, died on November 5 2019 at the age of 94.

Ordained in 1949, he was appointed spiritual director at his former school, St Malachy's College in north Belfast, before moving to St John's Parish in west Belfast in 1966.

In the 1970s, Fr Wilson, along with the late Fr Alec Reid, acted as a facilitator to end conflicts between republicans.

He also started a dialogue with loyalist paramilitaries.

Fr Wilson set up Springhill Community House in Ballymurphy.

But he also found himself in dispute with the Catholic Church.

In an interview with The Irish Catholic in 2014, Fr Wilson said that in 1975, while he was a curate in St John’s Parish, he asked Bishop William Philbin for “retired status” so that priests who disagreed with diocesan policies could remain “without ceasing to be priests”.

However, he said his request was rejected and he was not allowed to celebrate Mass in church.

Mr Rea said his friend had left a huge legacy.

“The impact of his work has been immense, his insistence on treating every person as equally human and his refusal to yield on that principle has been the single greatest ideal that a society based on sectarian division can learn,” he said.

“Fr Des’s humanitarian philosophy transcends all the unpleasant authoritarian negotiations of Church and State.

“That he continued to say Mass in his own house after the church had denied him that right speaks for itself.”

Mr Rea said he was proud to bring Fr Wilson’s play about Dublin trade union leader James Larkin to the stage.

“It was my honour to perform in a public reading of Fr Des’s James Larkin play, a tremendous piece of work, that he needed to hear before he sadly passed,” he said.

“Larkin’s socialism was laced with the determined humanity, anger at injustice, and love for all people that typified Fr Des’s philosophy and instinctive response to the world.

“His warmth, gentleness, kindness and intelligence are his legacy that we must learn from and use to transform our disfigured society.”

Fr Des Wilson died on November 5 2019 at the age of 94

Director Vincent Kinnard said Fr Wilson was “an extraordinary man in extraordinary times”.

“It’s an honour to be able to document the life of Fr Des Wilson. His incisive, well-informed, no-nonsense, humanitarian approach and perspective need to be heard, particularly today,” he said.

Fr Des – The Way He Saw It will be screened tonight at the Odeon cinema in Belfast. For tickets visit docsireland.ie

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