I no longer remember how I first learned of him but do recall on the morning of Bobby Sand's death Pat McGeown mentioning him while giving out the news that he had just obtained from the secreted radio each wing was in possession of. Des had told his BBC radio interviewer that the anger in West Belfast was molten, an entire generation of young people had become totally alieneted from the state. Later when the blanket protest was well behind us I read his book An End To Silence. I no longer recall the detail but remember the radical perspective that infused it. I would frequently read his columns in the Andersonstown News, often the sole font of wisdom within the paper, where he displayed an unwavering commitment to social justice.
He was the one cleric I met who most closely embodied the ethos of Helder Camara, the archbishop of Olinda and Recife in Brazil whose book The Desert Is Fertile I had read and been hugely impressed by during the hunger strikes. Camara's famous phrase is something I later came to see as capturing the political persona of Des Wilson: "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist." A powerful graphic depiction of him came via the one man play Des by the late Brian Campbell.
He lived in the midst of the community he served, for half a century, where he transformed a red bricked house in the middle of Springhill into a powerful community educational resource known as Springhill Community House. He was also heavily involved in the creation and development of Conway Education Centre, through which countless disadvantaged made the journey. Serious discussion took place within its confines, and as hard as Sinn Fein tried to stifle all alternative opinions, many radical ideas and critiques of Sinn Fein's increased drift from its roots continued to find an outlet in Conway Mill.
Indeed the last time I spoke to him was at a policing debate in the Mill. He told me he felt set up by the organisers who he feared had merely wanted to ambush Sinn Fein and by having his name added to the sponsors of the event were mischieviously mixing things a bit. While knowing little about it and only there as a member of the audience, I wasn't so sure he was right. When Sinn Fein turned up to take part, he visibly relaxed. Not that he was an uncritical supporter of Sinn Fein or even felt that its policy on policing as a boost to their political careers was worth the struggle - he had observed once in a very pointed comment the folly of selling a radical soul for political office - but simply did not like the thought of having been used. Nor was he hostile to dissident republicans, whom he treated much as he dealt with dealt with everybody else he interactediwith in the course of his business.
On a number of occasions after imprisonment I had visited him at his home in Springhill, sometimes on political business, on other occasions in a social capacity. He was erudite and engaging.
He knew we had no religious belief, nor had any intention of raising our children in the Catholic faith but it didn't deter him from blessing our wedding or performing the baptismal ceremony for our daughter and son. While having Des officiate was like a poke in the eye to the church authorities, that was hardly our reason for inviting him. We wanted him to do it as a sort of thank you for the times he had visited us in our living room or meet with us elsewhere during the time our home had been under siege from Sinn Fein after the Provisional IRA killing of Joe O'Connor.
His tireless endeavours rippled out quite some distance and when he died the President of Ireland Michael D Higgins praised him, acknowledging that he "was referred to by so many as a true 'champion of the people' who led a life "of dedicated service, inspired by what was a generous vision of a new, more inclusive, peaceful and welcoming Ireland".
Des Wilson lived a long productive life which ensured others lived their lives much better than they would have had he not been willing to share his with them.