Northern Ireland news

Mourners told west Belfast priest Fr Des Wilson now 'free from limitations and pains of life'

The funeral of popular west Belfast priest Fr Des Wilson leaves his home in Springhill Close surrounded by friends and family. Picture by Mal McCann.
Mairead Holland

MOURNERS at the funeral of popular west Belfast priest Fr Des Wilson were told that he had been freed from the "limitations and pains of this life".

Fr Joe McVeigh, a personal friend who conducted the homily, said the last few years had been difficult for the 94-year-old but that through all his trials and tribulations he never lost his "wonderful sense of humour nor his humanity".

"He told us one time –about a year or so ago, that he went to the Novena in Clonard to pray that God would take him and when he came out of the monastery he fell and broke his hip. He remarked wryly; ‘Somebody up there has a weird sense of humour’," said Fr McVeigh.

A prominent campaigner for peace and justice and a community activist, Fr Wilson passed away in the Nazareth House Care Village on Tuesday.


Hundreds attended the requiem Mass at Corpus Christi Church in Ballymurphy in west Belfast on Saturday, including members of the local community, family and friends from Canada, Ireland and the UK, as well as clergy from different faiths.

Bishops Noel Treanor, Anthony Farquar and Patrick Walsh presided at the funeral.

Church of Ireland minister, canon Brian Smeathon and his wife, who Fr Wilson worked closely with on cross community matters during the early years of the Troubles, were among the mourners.

Also in attendance were senior Sinn Féin politicians Gerry Adams and Michelle O'Neill and veteran civil rights campaigner Bernadette McAliskey who were among those who took turns to carry Fr Wilson's coffin.

Fr Wilson was previously one of the most senior priests in Down and Connor, serving his community for more than five decades.

He was also well-known for setting up the Springhill Community House in Ballymurphy and educating young disadvantaged people.

In the 1970s, along with the late Fr Alec Reid, he acted as a facilitator to end inter-republican conflicts and started a dialogue with loyalist paramilitaries.

Fr McVeigh said Fr Wilson was in the same tradition as the prophets through the ages, sharing their passion for truth and justice.

"Des was also a humble man –never seeking the limelight for himself but only to show solidarity with the oppressed and the downtrodden. Des probably did not see himself as a prophet. He sometimes described himself as a ‘mischief maker’," he said.

The youngest of five brothers, in his early teens Fr Wilson wanted to be either a journalist or a physicist, even attending extra physics classes.

But after the Belfast Blitz in 1941, when more than 700 people were killed, he felt a strong call to be a priest –in order as he said in one of his books “to change the world”.

Mourners were told that in 1971, Fr Wilson took the controversial decision to leave the parochial house and live among the people in Ballymurphy in west Belfast, becoming ‘the voice of the voiceless’.

Said Fr McVeigh: "Des said to some of us recently that the two happiest days of his life were the day he was born into a loving family and the day he moved to Springhill in Ballymurphy.

"Des had a deep love and respect for the people in the Ballymurphy/Springhill community in which he lived. He always had time for a conversation and a cuppa tea. The door was always open. There was always a céad mile failte."

He said there were two central tenets to Fr Wilson’s faith - the conviction that Good will always triumph over evil and his belief in the gospel saying of Jesus –'the truth will set you free'.

Fr McVeigh said Fr Wilson's greatest legacy "is the example he has given of living his life in solidarity with the people of Ballymurphy in their hour of greatest need".

Fr Patrick McCafferty, parish priest of Corpus Christi and celebrant at the funeral mass, described Fr Wilson as a man of action for justice, peace and reconciliation.

Fr Wilson was interred at Milltown Cemetery.

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