By Sarah Mac Donald - 09 April, 2019
Tributes have been pouring in for former Trócaire worker Sally O’Neill who was killed in a car crash on Monday in Guatemala.
President Michael D. Higgins, who personally knew the former aid worker, said in a statement, “To have known Sally O’Neill Sanchez was a privilege. To have been with her in some of the places of conflict, distress and human suffering was to see the brilliance, compassion, and limitless courage she brought to her engagement with the poor, the oppressed, and the displaced.”
Trócaire’s CEO, Caoimhe de Barra, reflected the shock within the Catholic bishops’ development agency, tweeting: “There are no words to express our grief. Sally was and will always be our hero, our inspiration and our light in the work for justice.”
Climate campaigner Lorna Gold described it as “an incredibly sad day”.
“One of the leading lights in the fight for human rights development has suddenly been taken from us. We are in shock in the big Trócaire family. Sally was fearless woman with a huge heart. A role model who leaves an enduring legacy.”
The head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh described news of Sally O’Neill’s death as “very sad” and said his thoughts and prayers were with her family and friends at Trócaire.
He described the Co Tyrone-born aid worker, who worked for Trócaire for 37 years, as “a true missionary of mercy and justice”.
She is survived by her husband Roger Sanchez and their children, Roger, Rhona and Xiao.
The chair of Trócaire, Bishop William Crean said, “Sally’s untimely death has shocked so many people who loved her dearly. Sally’s passing has led to an outpouring of grief amongst all who knew her. As chair of Trócaire, I know the profound impact Sally has had on the lives of the most marginalised of our sisters and brothers.”
He echoed the tribute of Archbishop Eamon Martin who described Sally as “a true missionary of mercy and justice”.
“Through Sally’s work with marginalised and vulnerable communities around the world, and particularly in her beloved Latin America, Sally has left an enormous legacy. Sally was driven by an irrepressible passion for human rights and justice – a passion that never waned. This was exemplified in that, despite having retired from Trócaire four years ago, Sally continued working with communities in Central America to improve their lives.”
“At this heart-breaking time, I know that I speak for all the bishops of Ireland when I express my deepest sympathies to Sally’s family, friends and former colleagues at Trócaire. Ár dheis Dé go raibh a h-Anam uasal.”
In his statement, President Higgins recalled that Sally O’Neill joined Trócaire in 1978. “[She] distinguished herself for four decades through her commitment and unstinting belief in the dignity and inherent equality of all human beings. Her work placed her at the front line during some of the most significant global humanitarian crises.”
The President described her early work in Central America as ground-breaking and he highlighted how she had acted as translator for Archbishop St Oscar Romero just six weeks before he was brutally slain.
“She would go on to engage with all those suffering in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.”
“I was with her in El Salvador in 1982 when the news of the massacre of the citizens of El Mozote was breaking. Many years later when I visited Central America as President of Ireland in October 2013 she was present to hear the massacre, long denied, recognised as genocide. She was pleased to see the names of the dead remembered, and to meet the relatives of those killed.”
President Higgins also recalled her work during the famine in Somalia which he witnessed at first hand. A decade earlier she had worked on the famine in Ethiopia.
“Sally understood the importance of combining tangible assistance and practical compassion with the pursuit of long-term solutions to the root causes of poverty, marginalisation and oppression. Through her work she empowered countless people and she was relentless in calling on those with power to bring their influence to bear on the policies and politics that affected those most vulnerable.
“With the same professionalism, ease and conviction as Sally O’Neill Sanchez led delegations of politicians and bishops to witness the suffering of marginalised communities throughout Central America, she was able to bring those previously without a voice to the corridors of power at international conferences.”
President Higgins said he was privileged to have her as a friend and that he would never forget the brilliant guidance and assistance she provided on so many occasions and in so many places.
“I thank her for her work, in most recent years, as a member of the High-Level Panel for the Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad.”
Expressing Trócaire’s shock and devastation at the news, 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.”
Ms De Barra had met up with Ms O’Neill only last week while she was visiting some of Trócaire’s projects 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,” Ms de Barra said.
“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 O’Neill 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.
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, where they saw the suffering of people first-hand.
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.
She 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 O’Neill 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 University 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.