The Aisling Awards

                             Fr Des Wilson and the Aisling Roll of Honour Award
                   Fr Des, Deputy Lord Mayor of Belfast Tierna Cunningham and myself
Tonight, as a former recipient, on the invitation of Máirtín O Muilleoir, I was delighted to present this year’s Roll of Honour Aisling Award to Fr Des Wilson.  If anyone epitomises the grit and the genius of Belfast, it’s Fr Des : people’s priest, raconteur, educationalist and amateur wine maker, especially the latter. In fact, because he has all these qualities he is, for me, a second Columbanus.
Columbanus, who died on 23 November 615, was an Irish missionary from Bangor notable for founding a number of monasteries on the European continent from around 590 in the Frankish and Lombard kingdoms, most notably Luxieul (in present-day France) and Bobbio (Italy). He stands as an exemplar of Irish missionary activity in early medieval Europe at the time of the decline of the Roman Empire. Bobbio became famous for its wines. The Ullans Academy celebrate his Feast Day every year.
Columbanus spread among the Franks a Celtic monastic rule and Celtic penitential practices for those repenting of sins, which emphasized private confession to a priest, followed by penances levied by the priest in reparation for the sin. He is also one of the earliest identifiable Hiberno-Latin writers. When the Frankish bishops  insisted the abbot was wrong in obedience to St. Patrick’s canon, he laid the question before the Pope, St Gregory I. He dispatched two letters to that pontiff, but they never reached him. Fr Des would not be averse to writing such letters himself.
One of my great friends was Tomas Cardinal O’Fiaich, who wrote a fine book on Columbanus..In his introduction to my own book on the Bangor Antiphonary he wrote that twenty years before he had paid his first visit to Bobbio where the manuscript of the Antiphonary of Bangor was lovingly preserved for many centuries. He then proceded to try to see the manuscript itself in the Ambrosian Library in Milan but was not allowed and did not see it for another three years. Yet the production of a Ferrari Cap signed by Eddie Irvine, when produced by his father, my friend Edmund Irvine Sr, when he visited from Monza, allowed Big Ed to see it right away.
 For 40 years, from his community house in Springhill, West Belfast, Fr Des has been a beacon of humanity and endeavour for all those who believe that the status quo is there to be challenged. I first met him there when in 1975 he wrote the introduction to our mutual  friend Rev Brian Smeaton’s book “The Manifesto of Christ”, and a beautiful introduction it was. Brian Smeaton was a Curate in St Geoge’s Church and a missionary from Dublin to the Shankill Road. Des was a signatory to Brian’s Manifesto of Christ, given in Nazareth–

Good News to the Poor, Healing to the Broken-hearted, Freedom to the Prisoners, Sight to the Blind, Liberty to the Oppressed, The Acceptable Year of the Lord..
Fr Des continues to write epistles to the faithful and to the not-so-faithful — pithy, questioning columns in the Andersonstown News which started when the newspaper itself was born 40 years ago this month. Since the late sixties, the Belfast cleric has disavowed pomp and ceremony, throwing in his  lot instead with the ordinary people of the city he loves. In 1982, he pioneered the transformation of Conway Mill from an abandoned factory to an oasis of education and community ambition. In parallel, he developed the role of the Springhill Community House, reaching out across any and all barriers to enhance understanding and encourage learning.
All his activities were subordinate to this end, by which he worked out our pathway to salvation by the wondrous pathway that he knew, He is a missionary through circumstance, a priest by vocation,so frquently driven to action by the wrongs of this world, a pilgrim on the road to Paradise.
And so, for his services to Belfast, Fr Des is a worthy recipient of this Aisling Roll of Honour Award. I give him a Sioux Blessing.. Woyaglaka Lakota hwo..Woyaglake Wasicu… You may not know Lakota.. I will speak in English.. May you be ever blessed; So long as the Sun shines; And the rain falls , And the wind blows; And the rivers of our beloved Ireland run to the sea..God bless you Fr Des… 
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