Northern Ireland born priest Desmond Curran — whose death was reported last week — was a Cambridge educated barrister who gave up a comfortable life in Belfast to live among the very poor in South Africa.
It was my privilege to visit Father Curran at his tiny home in the sprawling Khayelitsha township of ramshackle huts outside Cape Town in April 2001.
The tall, distinguished looking silver-haired priest, then 74, was known to his poor parishioners as Isabane — ‘The Lamp’ — a kindly, gentle figure who had passionately opposed apartheid.
Back in Northern Ireland he was known as an older brother of 19-year-old Queen’s University student Patricia Curran who was found brutally murdered in the grounds of her family’s Whiteabbey home, Glen House in November 1952.
Scottish journalist John Linklater and myself travelled to Cape Town in 2001 to interview Desmond about the murder which had been wrongly blamed on a young Scots RAF serviceman called Iain Hay Gordon until his name was finally cleared at Belfast’s High Court in December 2000.
John Linklater, who had been part of Iain Hay Gordon’s legal team, had studied thousands of police documents from the case and interviewed numerous surviving witnesses. He firmly believed Patricia had been killed in a fit of rage by her mother Lady Doris Curran and that her husband Sir Lancelot Curran — a senior judge and Unionist MP — led a conspiracy to protect his troubled, distraught wife.
It was John’s view that the Currans allowed poor ‘patsy’ Iain Hay Gordon to take the blame for a crime he did not commit.
But no matter how hurtful the allegations may have been to Fr Curran, he remained friendly, courteous and good humoured throughout the three days he spent in the company of John Linklater and myself — enjoying meals out with us each night after interviews.
Having previously said he believed Gordon was guilty and that he believed there was an element of “diabolical possession” to the murder, he changed his mind after reading the 2000 Belfast verdict but was resolute that his family had not been involved in the killing or any sort of cover up.
I was struck by the poverty of his surroundings. At the time around 450,000 people lived in Khayelitsha, mostly in huts made from scraps of sheet metal and wood. Fr Curran had lived in his little three-roomed brick house from 1990 and had no electricity until 1995. He had no TV or radio and his bathroom had an ancient camp toilet.
Desmond, who won a first in classics at Cambridge before studying law at Queen’s, had converted from Presbyterianism to Catholicism and given up a legal career for the priesthood. He had no regrets about giving up a comfortable middle-class life for Khayelitsha.
“I enjoy it. I think it was I am cut out for. I could live in a church property outside the parish if I wanted to. It’s not just a sense of duty. I actually enjoy the place where I live,“ he told me.
“I feel very at home in the African community.”
Watching him taking Mass in a rickety, wooden church; dancing to the beautiful African songs of his choir and enjoying the company of his congregation, you couldn’t doubt for a second that he had found joy in Khayelitsha.
To some who were suspicious of the Currans, his life of poverty smacked of an act of atonement.
And he admitted he suffered feelings of guilt over his sister’s murder as he had introduced Patricia to Iain Hay Gordon who he met through a religious group called Moral Rearmament. He said he felt for years he had been indirectly to blame for his sister’s death.
But he dismissed any suggestion that his sister’s death had anything to do with his conversion or decision to become a priest.
He was matter of fact about his conversion, saying there “isn’t such a tremendous change” between Presbyterianism and Catholicism, adding that he had discovered that his great grandfather had been baptised a Catholic.
He said the family, including his Unionist MP father, were supportive of his conversion.
“My father was not a narrow kind of unionist,” he said.
Expressing sadness at Father Curran’s death, the Catholic Welfare and Development Community posted a message on Facebook on August 25 describing him as a friend and generous supporter.
In Northern Ireland news of his death has inevitably raised the subject of his sister’s murder which has become the stuff of novels and TV dramas in recent years.
Some believe Fr Curran took the secret of who really killed his sister to the grave.
If Desmond was keeping a terrible family secret he wasn’t giving much away when I met him in Cape Town.
What was very clear though was that Desmond Curran was an intelligent, generous, tolerant and intriguing man who was deeply loved by his flock in Khayelitsha, a place he truly loved.