In August, 1966, at a few days’ notice, Bishop William Philbin removed Fr Des Wilson from his post as Spiritual Director at St. Malachy’s College and sent him to St. John’s on the Falls Road – as a junior curate with responsibility for Whiterock-Ballymurphy, one of the most deprived areas in Western Europe at the time.
Des was not prepared for the level of poverty and the culture shock that his new appointment would bring. He was appalled by the living conditions, social deprivation, unemployment and standard of housing due to years of official neglect.
He found that his parishioners “faced a constant struggle to make ends meet and to live with dignity”. Des discovered that estates like Ballymurphy were built by the Belfast cooperation to house what they called ‘unsatisfactory’ or ‘problem’ tenants giving the estate a bad name. It was a constant battle fighting against the negative newspaper reports which he felt “gloried in describing degradation” and printed untrue stories just to sell papers.
In fact, he found the complete opposite, he described the tenants as “courageous and self-sacrificing” and found that the people of West Belfast had “done so much to understand, define, suggest remedies for their problems and to propose plans for their future prosperity” than people in any other part of Belfast.
Des felt powerless. On the one hand was the poverty of the people, and on the other the wealth within the church, but as junior curate he had no input into decision making within the parish.
The priests of St. John’s inhabited two large houses: one next to the church, the other (the Parish Priest’s) on the far side of St. Kevin’s Primary School. Des and his colleague, Fr. Hugh came up with the idea of securing a council house in Ballymurphy so that they could live and work with the people.
The idea was not well received initially, however, Bishop Philbin later purchased a house for Fr Mullan in Springfield Park. On the 9th August 1971 Fr Mullan left this house to attend to an injured man in a field opposite and was himself murdered by the British Army’s Parachute Regiment, ten others would also die in the following days.
Des’ idea of the worker priest, living and working within the community, never left his mind. The introduction of internment and subsequent attacks on the community by the British army strengthened his resolve to proceed. In December 1971 he secured the tenancy for a council house at 123 Springhill Avenue, however he didn’t move in until January 1972.
This was a leap into the unknown and a journey that would see Des become the People’s Priest and an integral part of the community. Springhill would be his home for the next 50 years during that time he: built peace, created work opportunities, organised education programmes, held public inquires, staged entertaining and thought provoking plays. All this to allow people to see the potential in themselves and to encourage them to take back control of their own future.
Des wasn’t sure how the people of Ballymurphy would react to ‘the priest’ moving in, as this extract from the archive demonstrates.
Des: “I don’t think they were particularly concerned about me moving there. What I did find was they were very reluctant, very hesitant to take up my “open door” invitation: because this was the priest’s house; the priest’s house you didn’t go into. It was only gradually that people began to get into the habit of coming in. The woman who came to look after the house, to cook meals and things, believed you had to have special dishes and all that kind of thing. It was interesting to see what people’s idea of a priest’s house really was…
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!”
It was some time before local people came to realise that 123 Springhill Community House was an “open house”, things abruptly changed as social structures began to disintegrate and the systematic abuse of the people by the resident British Army Parachute Regiment steadily increased.
It was one of the few places in the area with a working phone, and each day the house rapidly filled with distraught women making desperate inquiries about the non-arrival of social benefits without which they and their families could not survive, or they were distressed by what had happened to loved ones.
The Community House was an “open house”, it was a place of neutrality committed to finding a better way of doing things. Springhill Community House facilitated what the people perceived as relevant to their needs by promoting the concept of “free learning” – learning not imposed from above, but devised by the individual.
While others contented themselves deciding from afar who was fit and who was not fit to be listened to, Des made it a basic policy from the very beginning that evil started by telling others that they were not welcome or had no contribution to make.
Great things start from small beginnings, and we have Des to thank for giving us Springhill Community House, through this small project he has given us all so much to live for. The junior curate done alright!
From its inception the purpose of Springhill Community House/ the People’s School, has and will continue to be about empowering people to take control of their own lives. This remains at the heart of what Springhill Community House is about and involves tackling the apathy and frustration felt by individuals through programmes of personal development, life coaching, education, training, health awareness and confidence building. SCH has continued to build on the early ethos of free learning that Des started and provides a wide spectrum of courses and services.
During this year we are planning to celebrate our 50th by holding a few events, not the big birthday party we had hoped for but smaller gatherings to reflect on our achievements and plan ahead, so keep an eye on our Facebook page and Web site for details of those events.