Fr Des Reid obituary: Priest, adventurer and champion of the vulnerable

Renowned for his work with migrants in Australia, he once said if there were an eighth deadly sin, it would be saying ‘not in my patch’

Born August 8th, 1934

Died February 12th, 2024

Fr Des Reid, who has died aged 89, worked as a missionary priest in three continents and was also a teacher, an air ambulance pilot and a balloonist. He will be remembered in Australia for his advocacy work for migrants and is best known in Ireland for his association with Rockwell College. It was at the Tipperary school where he established the State’s first summer camp of its type and popularised hot-air ballooning.

Des Reid was the third youngest in a family of nine born to Kathleen O’Connor and John William Reid in Co Sligo. His older brother Don, who predeceased him, was a chairman of The Irish Times board.


His early years were spent in Ballymote where his father was a primary schoolteacher, before the family moved to north Longford when Des was three years old. Most of his childhood was spent in Moyne, where his father was the schoolmaster. This placed him under the flight path of planes going between the US and Ireland, which may have led to his lifelong fascination with the skies.

He talked about his love of flying in 2008, when he was one of six prominent figures interviewed by broadcaster Andrew Denton in the Australian television series Elders. Other interviewees included naturalist David Attenborough and former president Bob Hawke. Fr Reid recalled how, as a child he would visit his sister in Dublin and cycle out to the back road at Dublin Airport with a bag of sandwiches. “I could sit there for ages on end and just simply watch the aircraft coming and going,” he said.

From an early stage he was determined to be a pilot but then someone handed him a missionary magazine. The interest in missionary work was not out of the blue, however. As an altar boy, he had served Mass for many local priests who came home from the missions on holidays. The parish produced an extraordinarily high number of priests due to Moyne Latin School, which was seen as a preparatory school for seminaries. Over 100 years, some 560 men who had attended the Latin School were ordained to the priesthood.

Fr Reid told Andrew Denton how he began to rethink his future after hearing about the plight of children who were in serious need of food and education in developing countries. He felt that if he devoted his life to missionary work, “I probably would be contributing more meaningfully than if I were flying people around the sky”. Asked why he wanted to make a meaningful contribution, he said: “I think it’s part of the way God made me. I’m very anxious, even now, to make a contribution to the welfare of the people around me.”

He entered the Holy Ghost Fathers novitiate in Kilshane, Co Tipperary, in 1953 and, as well as receiving a degree in Hebrew and Aramaic, he emerged with the skills of an electrician, a mechanic and a house painter.

He was ordained at the age of 29 and dispatched to Kenya to teach in St George’s High School in Giriama the following year. In an extraordinary twist of fate, on the day he arrived in Mombasa, his superior asked him to train as a pilot so that he could fly the mission’s aircraft. “It was wonderful,” he said. “I loved it. I still love flying aeroplanes. I love the air, but it certainly would never have fulfilled me.”

Although Kenya combined the two joys of his life, it was also the place where his life took a dark turn. In that interview for Australian television, he spoke candidly about his struggle with alcoholism. He had his first drink aged 32, in Mombasa, and within 10 years it had taken over his life. “I lost everything, lost my pilot’s licence. I had full-blown alcoholism. I went to the pits.”

Old age did not worry him, a man who had dodged death “a couple of times”, including on one occasion when the engine failed on an aircraft

As a priest there was an added loneliness about his addiction because he felt he could not confide in anyone. He regained his sobriety with the help of St John of God hospital and Alcoholics Anonymous and later reasoned that he was given the disease in order to help others to recover from their addiction.

After Kenya, his appointment to Rockwell College saw him working as a teacher, a musician, a choir master, and a successful coach for Rockwell’s rugby and canoe teams. To raise funds for the college, he started a US-style summer camp in 1970, now called Camp Rockwell, thought to be the longest-running summer camp of its type in the State. He founded a ballooning club at the college in 1974, which generated huge interest. The blue and white hot air balloon was a cheering sight in the Munster skies, and he and some fellow balloon enthusiasts took it to a hot-air balloon competition in Filzmoos in Austria, where they came second.

Rockwell’s past pupils’ union said he would be most remembered as “the greatest adventurer Rockwell had ever seen”.

After regaining his pilot’s licence, he returned to missionary work in Papua New Guinea, Brisbane and Western Australia. The last appointment saw him serving in one of the most sparsely populated and largest parishes in the world, where the most remote parishioners were 400km from the main church. He also used his flying skills to volunteer for the air ambulance one week every month.

His final posting was in Port Hedland in 2001, home to a detention centre for illegal immigrants. It became a notorious flashpoint for riots and unrest, and he found himself ministering to the detainees and the guards. When he tried to organise transport for the detainees to come to the church, he recalled the forceful opposition of some parishioners. “There were those who stood up and said ‘Not in my church. They have no right to be here. I don’t want to see them here on Sunday’ ... I felt we were split right down the middle.”

He eventually succeeded in bringing the detainees to the church and said his heart bled for the children in particular. “We fought for a long time to get the Department of Immigration to allow us to take the children into the school.” He questioned how a nation of immigrants could turn their backs on people who needed protection and said if there were an eighth deadly sin, it would be the sin of saying “not in my patch”.

He returned to Ireland in 2008 and continued to serve in parishes in Dublin and Kildare, as well as in Knock Shrine, before ill health forced his retirement at the age of 85.

Old age did not worry him, a man who had dodged death “a couple of times”, including on one occasion when the engine failed on an aircraft. He was honest about his personal failings and in that interview with Andrew Denton he talked about how he was still learning how to control his temper and was trying to be a more patient man.

And despite all the troubles of the world, he said he was still optimistic for the future. “There are enough good people but the not-so-good ones, the negative thinkers, are much more vociferous. They are louder; they are rowdier,” he said.

Following his lifelong fascination with flying, it was fitting that his final resting place was Dardistown cemetery, close to Dublin Airport, where he once sat as a boy to marvel at the aircraft flying overhead.

Fr Des Reid is survived by his brother Benny, sister Joan Duggan, sister-in-law Catherine and brother-in-law Brendan, and extended family. He was predeceased by his siblings Jack, Mary Kernan, Brian, Don, Kathleen V (Lola) Davey and Pauline.