Dungannon lady, Sally O’Neill, returned to Ireland recently from her home in Honduras to discuss her life’s work as a leading human rights activist at the World Meeting of Families.
Born in Dungannon, Sally lived in the area until she was 18 when she left to go to college in Belfast, later taking a job in Latin America. It was there that she came across the work of Irish development agency Trócaire, starting a career with the charity that spanned almost 40 years.
“I was actually introduced to the work of Trócaire purely by chance in a very remote area of Peru,” explained Sally. “I was working on a project and travelling up the Amazon River when we had to pull over to a small indigenous village due to rough rapids. A charity was working there on a health programme and I remember being instantly impressed with the work they were doing and the vital help they were giving to this really remote and vulnerable group of people. I didn’t believe in destiny until then but when I heard that the charity was from home – Trócaire - I knew this was where I was meant to be.”
Sally then joined Trócaire in 1978 and during her career, she worked on the frontline during some of the most significant humanitarian crises across the world.
“Within weeks of joining Trócaire, three brutal civil wars broke out in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua so it was a very challenging time. Part of my role was to bring delegations of Irish politicians and bishops to Central America so they could witness the atrocities that were happening and raise the issues within the EU. That delegation included Bishops from Derry and Armagh – which of course was during the height of the troubles – so they understood instinctively the problems people were facing in the Central American region and their support was invaluable.”
With Trócaire, Sally oversaw humanitarian aid to more than two million refugees in the region and was an activist for human rights during a very difficult time.
“The human rights abuses I witnessed in Latin America and the killing of some incredible people just because of the work they were doing is still very difficult to comprehend,” she said.
This included Archbishop Oscar Romero who was assassinated while saying mass in El Salvador in 1980. “I worked with him closely during my time with Trócaire on a number of projects and translated for him just six weeks before he was murdered. He was an inspiration – very humble and very committed to speaking out against the brutal human rights violations that were happening. Sadly, along with many others in the church at the time, he paid for his work with his life.”
Oscar Romero is due to be declared a saint in October and Sally is looking forward to being there. “I am delighted to have just received an invitation to be in Rome on the day of his canonization,” she said. “It was a fantastic experience to have known and worked with someone of his calibre so it will be a very special day for me.”
During her career, Sally also worked in Ethiopia during the famine in the mid-eighties and played a central role in Trócaire’s response to the famine and civil war in Somalia in the early 1990’s.
“There is nothing more shocking than going into enormous camps in the middle of a famine and seeing people who are starving to death – that is something I will never get over. Somalia was especially challenging and was the most dangerous place I have ever worked. There was no functioning government and every district was controlled by different warlords so it was very difficult to get supplies in and to setup our much-needed programme there. But that is one of the reasons I am so proud of Trócaire - the charity doesn’t run away from the difficult issues and helps where help is really needed. To this day Trócaire still has a programme in Somalia. Despite the challenges still faced in the country, the education and health projects they have are outstanding successes.”
Sally retired from Trócaire in 2015 but continues to work in human rights in Honduras. “I love being able to return to Ireland and was delighted to have been invited to take part in the World Meeting of Families. While I still have family in Dungannon and am very close to them, there is still a lot of work to do in Latin America and so I don’t see myself moving home just yet!”
“I would however like to take the opportunity to thank everyone in Northern Ireland who has supported the vital work that is being done in the developing world by charities such as Trócaire. The level of change that can be brought about even by supporting small projects is immense and I have seen for myself how lives can be transformed.”
Last year Trócaire supported 2.8 million people around the world. The charity works in 20 countries in the developing world, helping people to grow food, protect their human rights and supporting people living through humanitarian emergencies. For more information, visit www.trocaire.org