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President Higgins honours Sally O’Neill and Irish missionary Pat Clarke

21 November 2019

Former Trócaire staff member Sally O’Neill and Fr. Pat Clarke in Brazil are recipients of this year’s Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad

Sally O'Neill with President Michael D Higgins and Sabina Higgins

President Michael D Higgins and Sabina Higgins with Sally O'Neill in Áras An Uachtarain, Dublin on Thursday 26 March 2015, after Sally's retirement from Trócaire. Picture Credit: Maxwell’s Picture Agency.

Former Trócaire staff member, Sally O’Neill, who tragically passed away earlier this year, and Irish priest Fr. Pat Clarke, who has worked in Brazil for decades, are both among the ten recipients of this year’s Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad.

Trócaire CEO Caoimhe de Barra welcomed the awards, saying “Trócaire is delighted to see the work of two exceptional Irish abroad recognised and awarded today by President Michael D. Higgins.”

“Sally O’Neill tragically passed away earlier this year, and it is a fitting honour for her to receive this award posthumously. She worked tirelessly with Trócaire for 37 years, dedicating her life to improving the lives of others. She was a courageous and passionate advocate for justice and human rights.”

Caoimhe also speaks warmly of Fr. Pat Clarke, welcoming him receiving today’s award. “‘Padre Patrick’ -as he is known to the local community, continues his tireless work with the marginalised and disempowered in the favelas of Sao Paulo, despite now being in his 80s. His commitment to walking together with communities on their journey, working on empowerment and rights, and campaigning against social exclusion and marginalisation is nothing short of inspirational”.

“Trócaire is proud to have supported Fr. Patrick’s work over many decades, and are delighted to see him recognised today by President Higgins today with this well-earned award.” said de Barra.

Sally O’Neill – a tireless aid worker who tragically passed away

Sally O’Neill, worked for Trócaire for 37 years, and tragically died earlier this year in April following a road accident in Guatemala.

From Dungannon, Co. Tyrone, Sally joined Trócaire in 1978 and dedicated her life to working with the poor, the marginalised and victims of human rights abuses.

Sally worked primarily on Trócaire projects in Latin America but she was also involved in providing famine relief in Ethiopia in the mid-1980s and established Trócaire’s programme in Somalia in the early 1990s in response to a famine there. Prior to her retirement, Sally was Trócaire’s Head of Region for Latin America based in Honduras.

At Sally O’Neill’s memorial service earlier this year, President Higgins spoke, praising her lifetime of dedication to working with the marginalised and oppressed. “She was the greatest gift that Ireland gave to the Latin world in contemporary times,” President Higgins said.

“Sally did not just speak of how we should treat our fellow citizens with dignity and respect, she showed so many how to do it” said President Higgins.

President Michael D. Higgins was among the hundreds of colleagues, friends and family including former President Mary Robinson who gathered in Maynooth in May to celebrate the life of Sally O'Neill. Photo : Garry Walsh / Trócaire.

Fr. Pat Clarke – a lifetime of working in solidarity

Trócaire has supported Fr. Pat Clarke, a Spiritan missionary, since the 1990s. Born in Dublin’s liberties area, he has been working tirelessly, and fearlessly, with and alongside the poor, since 1977 in the favelas (slums) of Sao Paulo.

The mission of ‘Movement for the Defence of Favela Residents’ (MDF), the partner Trócaire supports through Fr. Pat Clarke, is to support, defend and promote the rights of slum dwellers living in four 'favelas' of Sao Paulo.

For 35 years, MDF has worked to improve living conditions in the favelas, and to organise the residents to campaign for their rights to good housing, sanitation, water, waste disposal, and other services. They do this by mobilising residents, including the youth, to lobby for their rights, which includes education, the arts and cultural expression.

Fr Pat Clarke meets children on an educational/environmental day in the City of Angels nature reserve. Photo : Irish Independent

Our current work with Fr. Clarke involves delivering a programme of recycling, composting, rainwater storage, community gardens and other environmental projects, involving children, adolescents and young people as well as adults.

Fr. Clarke knew Sally O’Neill well, through her decades of service to Latin America and her work with Trócaire, and described her as an ‘irreplaceable legend’. When she passed away, Fr. Clarke wrote this poem about her:

To Sally
You walked with us
As a partner ...
In times of peace,
And in times of war,
In times of hope
And in times of despair .....
And like Romero,
Your life given,
Wholeheartedly ....

Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Mr Simon Coveney, T.D., praised all the recipients of the awards, saying : “In their own separate ways, each of these individuals have made a remarkable contribution to Ireland and our international reputation. I am deeply grateful for their service and commitment to this country.”

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