Sadly last week Father Matt Wallace took his own life. His death has shocked many and here on 107 Cowgate an ex POW pays tribute to the man known to many as the ‘people’s priest’.
By Pádraic Mac Coitir
Many words have been said and many articles have been written about a man a lot of us knew very well for years. He was often referred to as Father Matt or just Matt
I remember Matt Wallace when I was a young Catholic growing up in Lenadoon. I can honestly say he was really down to earth and for a lot of us it was the first time we’d met a priest who didn’t lecture us or look down from on high. He would often be seen out on the streets remonstrating with British soldiers who were harassing people, especially the young.
When I first went to prison and ended up on the blanket protest in 1977 Matt came on to the stinking wings and gave out cigarettes, sweets and even the odd cigar- these had to be smuggled in because we were denied parcels. There were a number of lads from Lenadoon and Matt made sure to go to all of our cells and spoke to us like the friend we viewed him as. He was dismissive of the screws, unlike some other priests, because he was so angry at the treatment meted out to us.
It was during my time on the blanket that I started to question religion and in particular Catholicism and I even asked Matt some tricky questions. He never tried to lecture me nor say I was wrong to ask questions.
When I got released I would meet him regularly and as well as having a bit of craic we had serious discussions about religion. Although he knew I was now an atheist he never judged me. He wasn’t out to curry favour with anyone but I never heard a bad word said about him.
A few years ago a local family asked me to put the flag on their husband and father’s coffin, which I was proud to do. The funeral was very early on Christmas eve morning, leaving Lenadoon for Roselawn crematorium. I said to Matt that the flag would be coming off on the main road as we didn’t want to go through loyalist areas with a tri-colour on the coffin. He said to keep it on but the family was concerned it might be attacked. Before and since then he would often let coffins enter churches with flags on and this was in stark contrast to other parishes.
Matt was one of those men who lived with the people and supported them as much as he could. He would try to talk to young people involved in anti-social behaviour; indeed he was instrumental in setting up schemes to tackle the scourge of joy-riding. His door would be knocked at all hours by parents concerned about the arrest of their children by the British army and the RUC.
No doubt there are many people in Lenadoon and in other areas where he worked who could talk endlessly about that great human being. He will be sadly missed by us all.