Gifted broadcaster and playwright, and a respected priest

Sat, Sep 15, 2012, 01:00

FR DES FORRISTAL: FR DES Forristal, who has died aged 81, was the former parish priest of Dalkey, Co Dublin. He also was an author, television documentary-maker and playwright, and his work was well known to RTÉ viewers and Dublin theatregoers.

Closely associated with the Gate Theatre, he had several plays chosen for the Dublin Theatre Festival. One critic described him as “one of the most intelligent Irish playwrights” of the 1970s.

The True Story of the Horrid Popish Plot (1972) centres on the role of Charles II in the execution of Oliver Plunkett. David Nowlan in this newspaper found it too detailed, but suggested that with some editing a “more precious theatrical gem” could be fashioned from the “wordily opaque stone” presented at the Gate.

Black Man’s Country (1974) examined the consequences of the Nigerian civil war for Irish missionaries in Biafra. It was commended for its accurate depiction of Biafra and for portraying a complex problem “with a wry clarity”.

The Seventh Sin (1976) is set in “heaven, hell and Italy”, and the cast of characters includes the seven deadly sins as well as princes of the Catholic Church and kings of the realm. Séamus Kelly described it as Forristal’s best play yet, “full of comedy for all the seriousness of the theme”. His other stage plays are Captive Audience (1979) and Kolbe (1982).

Born in Dublin in 1930, Desmond Timothy Forristal was one of two sons of Anthony Forristal and his wife Maureen (née McInerney) and grew up in Glasnevin. He was educated by the Christian Brothers at O’Connell Schools and the Jesuits at Belvedere College. At Belvedere in 1948 his essay won the George Dempsey memorial prize, named after James Joyce’s English teacher.

He studied philosophy at UCD and theology at Holy Cross College, Dublin, and was ordained a priest in 1955. He was awarded a PhD in philosophy in 1956.

A curate at Halston Street church, Smithfield, in 1959 he and Fr Joe Dunne were sent to New York by archbishop John Charles McQuaid to learn television broadcasting techniques. This was in anticipation of the establishment of Telifís Éireann.

On their return Forristal and Dunne launched Ireland’s first independent television production unit, and the initial documentary in the groundbreaking Radharc series was broadcast by Telifís Éireann in January 1962.

Radharc took an innovative approach to religious programmes, and covered stories and issues the length and breadth of Ireland. The series also reported from abroad – Biafra, Poland and Tanzania, for example – and was noted for its historical documentaries, always with a religious angle or context. Forristal proved to be an accomplished scriptwriter, and his insight and wisdom contributed much to the success of the series, which continued until the mid-1990s.

He wrote for a range of journals, and was film and television critic of the Furrow. His books include The TV Generation (1970), Superstar, or Son of God? (1973) and The Christian Heritage (1976), as well as biographies of Edel Quinn, Oliver Plunkett and Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish priest killed in Auschwitz.

A former member of the Dublin Diocesan Council of Priests, he was involved in organising the visit to Ireland of Pope John Paul II in 1979. In 1983 he contributed the IR£5,000 royalties for Kolbe at the Abbey to the Irish Polish Society relief fund for Poland.

Fluent in several languages, he was almost impossible to beat at Scrabble. Music was a great passion and the Pilgrim’s Chorus from Wagner’s Tannhauser was a favourite piece. He played the piano with some aplomb.

In 1985, having served as a curate in Cabinteely, Bray and Iona Road, Glasnevin, he was appointed parish priest of Dalkey. A priest first and foremost, he relished pastoral work.

“My only ambition, really, is to be a good priest. Both my television and playwriting are secondary,” he said in 1974.

“I became a priest because it seems to me the most valuable thing that one can do. There is nothing else as useful. Even as a doctor, a profession which most people consider extremely worthwhile, you only cure someone this year to see him die the next year or the year after. As a priest you are concerned with the immortal part of man.”

He was a popular and respected parish priest, with a calm, quiet presence and sense of spirituality. He retired in 2001. He will be missed by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, his brother priests of the Dublin diocese, friends and former parishioners.

His brother Ciaran, sister-in- law Flicka and nephew Timothy survive him.

Fr Des Forristal: born September 25th, 1930; died September 9th, 2012.