Trócaire has expressed its profound shock and devastation at the news that Sally O’Neill, who worked for the organisation for 37 years, has died following a road accident in Guatemala.
Trócaire CEO Caoimhe de Barra said:
“We are heartbroken by this news. Sally was the heartbeat of Trócaire for almost 40 years. She was a truly remarkable person. Trócaire was only five years old when Sally joined. Sally built the foundations of the organisation. She embodied our values and through her courage and commitment to human rights touched the lives of so many people.
“I was with Sally last week in Guatemala. Despite having officially retired, she remained a driving force for human rights in Central America. Her drive, passion and commitment was as strong as ever. Sally was much beloved by communities and human rights activists throughout Central America. She dedicated her life to improving the lives of others. Her legacy will live on through the thousands of people whose lives she helped to improve.
“Our hearts go out to Sally’s family, particularly her children Roger, Rhona and Xio, and her husband, Roger. Although we still cannot believe she is gone, we know that she left an incredible footprint on the world.”
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. She retired from Trócaire in April 2015 after 37 years of service.
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.
Throughout her career, Sally worked on the frontline during some of the most significant global humanitarian crises.
She worked in Central America at a time when civil wars were being fought in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. She oversaw humanitarian aid to more than two million refugees in the Central American region during those conflicts years.
Sally led delegations of politicians and bishops to Central America, so they could see the suffering, translating for Archbishop Oscar Romero six weeks before he was murdered.
In 1982, Sally and Michael D Higgins (who was then a TD) visited El Salvador to investigate reports of a massacre in the village of El Mozote. They were initially refused entry into the country but were eventually granted access. They uncovered evidence of a massacre of civilians and their report from El Mozote made its way onto the pages of the international media, including the New York Times and Washington Post.
Sally also worked in Ethiopia during the famine in the mid-eighties and played a central role in Trócaire’s response to the famine in Somalia in the early 1990s, establishing its programme in Gedo, which still operates today.
Sally was appointed by the President of Ireland as a member of the High Level Panel for the Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad in 2012 and awarded the Hugh O´Flaherty Humanitarian Award in 2011. In July 2017 she was conferred with an honorary Doctor of Law degree by the Univerity of Ulster.
Following her retirement, Sally continued to work in a voluntary capacity as a facilitator with prisoners and migrants in Honduras, where she lived. As well as her ongoing work with human rights organisations in Central America, she lectured in Development Studies in the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Honduras in Tegucigalpa.