‘We are immensely proud of her in a quiet way,’ Sally O’Neill’s sister says

‘Her courage and fearlessness were outstanding’ - tributes to Trócaire figure

Sally O’Neill, the veteran Trócaire figure who died in a car crash in Guatamala on Sunday, was one of Ireland’s most high-profile humanitarians, with a career that took in many of the world’s troubled spots.

However, she was also a modest and kind woman who loved the company of children, her family has said, as well as a feminist who believed in the empowerment and emancipation of women.

“Sally was friendly, always good for a laugh, a chatty person, but she was someone that never really sought the limelight, and she would be mortified at all the marvellous tributes being paid to her,” Ms O’Neill’s sister, Kate Lewis, told The Irish Times. “Although she had lived away for 40 years she was still very much at the heart of our family.”

One of eight children, Ms Lewis remembered her sister as always being very interested in world affairs at school, where she proved herself a “fiesty debater” with a “terrific facility for languages”. She studied in Spain for a year in order to strengthen her Spanish, before leaving for Latin America after graduating from home economics college in the early 1970s. She worked as a volunteer on nutrition projects, and from that practical grounding, her sister says, a broader world view and mission emerged.


“It started off with that very practical side of things with nutrition, and when she went to Latin America, she was really taken by the problems particularly that women experienced being marginalised,” Ms Lewis said. She added that her upbringing with parents with a strong set of community values grounded her, “but Sally had a much more global vision”.

She remembered her sister’s energy, as someone who would always be up early in the morning and communicating with people all over the world, even if she had enjoyed a favoured glass of good wine the previous evening. “I used to think ‘where the hell is she hiding those Duracell batteries’ – she never stopped”.

Honorary degree

Ms Lewis remembered the recent awarding of an honorary degree from the University of Ulster to her sister, and the words she spoke to the students assembled on that day.

“What she was saying was ‘I was you long ago, and every one of you can go out in the world and achieve your dreams and be everything you want to be’. I was bursting with pride when she said that.” Ms Lewis said the three people who died alongside Ms O’Neill on Sunday, and their families, were very much in her and her family’s thoughts.

“We are immensely proud of her in a quiet way – that was our family way,” said Ms Lewis.

Ms O'Neill worked with Trócaire for 37 years and was head of region for Latin America until her retirement in 2015. President Michael D Higgins was among those who led tributes to Ms O'Neill, having worked with her to expose human rights abuses in El Salvador in 1982.

Speaking to The Irish Times this afternoon, Trócaire chief executive Caoimhe de Barra said Ms O’Neill was at the forefront of the charity’s work in some of the most dangerous global trouble spots for years, and embodied Trócaire’s approach to charity work.

She would “never shy away from calling out the politics of what was happening, and what looked just like natural disasters to the rest of the world”, Ms de Barra said.

“Sally was someone who had a complex analysis of contemporary politics in every era.”

She said Ms O’Neill was unafraid to discuss the political elements of conflict and disaster, for example proxy wars in so-called “frontline countries” which bordered on apartheid South Africa. These countries, such as Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Angola, were often the focus of attempts by the apartheid governments to undermine non-white governments.

“It was not just about how we can come to the rescue of these people, but how we expose the truth of South African armed forces undermining the viability of black run states in Africa.”

Groundbreaking work

Ms O’Neill co-ordinated some of the groundbreaking work the charity was involved in, including when it was the first charity to have workers on the ground in Cambodia after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. “Sally was the kind of person who was fearless in her own right, and part of her great gift was instilling a confidence in others,” Ms de Barra said.

This included organising relief efforts after Hurricane Mitch struck Honduras, where she was living, in 1998. She was “a rapid organiser, nothing fazed her - she worked every hour that she could”. Her work did not end at the site of hardship or disaster, as she went on to work on behalf of indigenous peoples whose land was threatened by corporations, and on the cause of debt relief for impoverished countries.

“Sally was very much someone who spoke truth to power. Often this was contentious and not smiled upon, but Sally was determined to make the world know what was happening in the countries in Central America, and also that the world was aware about the US role in, for example, training the Contras in Nicaragua,” Ms de Barra said on Tuesday morning.

“For this she was sometimes someone who was looked on as somewhat of a troublemaker, but Sally had human rights at the heart of everything she did. Her integrity shone through, and her courage and her fearlessness were just outstanding,” she said.

Ms O’Neill was in “wonderful form” when the pair last met, just ten days ago, in Honduras, Ms de Barra said. “I was passing through and we spent an evening together. She spoke warmly of her ongoing work. She continued to work on human rights and social justice in central America after she retired from trócaire four years ago, and her passion for human rights was extraordinary”.

“She managed to take generation after generation of people in trócaire and support and encourage people to become leaders, particularly young women, and there are many people who have a lot to thank Sally O’Neill for,” Ms de Barra said.

“She was always lively, asking what work trócaire was doing. She was talking about her own work. Sally lived life to the very, very fullest.

“She is a terrible loss but her legacy lives on.”

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times