- It has been clear by the outpouring of tributes to Father Matt that he was loved and appreciated by so many people – Pat Buckley
*****When Matt Wallace died in June it was yet another sinew linked to a past that has now dissipated. At the age of 69 the final stretch of the way proved insurmountable to this old dog for the hard road. Along the route he bore witness to adversity, deprivation and political violence.
Matt was a priest who would on occasion come right into the putrid cells of the H Block protest era. His ministry at the time was in Lenadoon and there were quite a few prisoners on protest from that area. Like Denis Faul and Alex Reid, he did not merely come in to give spiritual solace. The man referred to by Tory Minister Richard Needham as ‘the extraordinary West Belfast priest’ also eased the tobacco craving of any who smoked, with his John Players or Gallaghers Blues - apparently he later changed to Marlboroughs - while Needham’s party was brutalising prisoners on a daily basis.
He was very much the man described by his colleague Thomas McGlynn, who delivered his funeral homily, as ‘someone who always attended to the needs, worries and troubles of others with little regard for his own.’ As the Irish Times reported ‘recipients included prisoners who made it clear they had left the Catholic Church’. One of those very men phoned me from Belfast to tell me Matt’s funeral was massive, one of the biggest he had attended in West Belfast. And he had been at quite a few large ones.
I recall Matt as the priest who in July 1979 told blanket man Seamus Kearney quietly and compassionately that his brother Mick had been killed by the IRA. A prison governor had moments earlier with typical callousness heartlessly told Seamus that his brother Michael was Michael no more. The priest was everything the jailer was not. Matt would also officiate at the mass for Mick 25 years later where it was announced that the IRA officially accepted Mick was a volunteer, not an informer as he had been initially maliciously labelled.
On the world outside the jail Matt was a priest who made a difference. Within his ministry he functioned as a community activist. As the Irish Times said:
That ministry covered many of the most marginalised. He worked with young people involved in anti-social behaviour, with those at risk of suicide, and in supporting families bereaved by suicide.
Even then he was not spared the savagery of some local thugs who stabbed him in the face at his church.
Nor was he to be dictated to by the Church hierarchy. Under pressure because of their handling of the child abuse scandal the bishops instructed that one of their letters be read at mass. Rather than read it Matt announced:
if you are really interested in what bishops are saying you can read it for yourselves. We all know what the bishops should do. They should clear all this up. And if they are not prepared to do this then they should resign.
They were not prepared and they did not resign. But Matt continued within the Church, holding onto his faith and fulfilling his ministry despite the loneliness caused by the unapproachable stance of many of his colleagues.
That he could engage with those around him was largely due to his refusal to live in the ivory tower. As Kevin Cullen said:
He smoked like a chimney. He took a drink. He loved to flirt with women. He would sometimes use words that, had I used them, I’d have to go to confession.
Matt didn’t seem the type that wanted to hear your confession, just your craic. Externally robust and resilient, an incoming tide able to lift all vessels but his own.