Sally O’Neill obituary: Trócaire activist who worked tirelessly for human rights

Co Tyrone woman directed the charity’s activities in Latin America and beyond

Sally O’Neill: she was Trócaire’s ‘go-to person for difficult situations in different parts of the world’

Sally O’Neill: she was Trócaire’s ‘go-to person for difficult situations in different parts of the world’


Sally O’Neill
Born: 9th April, 1950
Died: 7th April, 2019

It was very characteristic of the life of Sally O’Neill, who has died aged 68 following a horrific motor accident in Guatemala, that six weeks before St Óscar Romero was murdered while celebrating Mass in the cathedral in El Salvador’s capital, San Salvador, in 1980, she had been working for him as a translator.

This story typified O’Neill’s work for the charity Trócaire, which she joined as head of programmes, aged just 28, in 1978, and which saw her engage in a consistent commitment to human development and human rights in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and Asia, in a career which lasted until her retirement in 2015. Deeply engaged with, especially, Central America, she married Honduran marine scientist Roger Sanchez in the mid-1980s, and in recent years had continued her advocacy, lecturing at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras in Tecugigalpa, where she was based from 1995 with her family, and from where she directed Trócaire’s activities in all of Latin America until her retirement.

At the time of the accident which took her life and that of three others, she was once again on a mission related to human rights, with colleagues from the Global Fund for Human Rights, and the Mayan People’s Congress of Guatemala.

O’Neill greeted and guided an Oireachteas delegation to El Salvador in 1982

Following Óscar Romero’s murder, O’Neill had become a central figure in an international attempt to draw attention to the gross abuses of human rights in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua, each of which had descended into civil war. These abuses were symbolised by the notorious massacre in 1981 at the village of El Mozote in El Salvador, when US-trained Salvadorean Army troops killed over 800 civilians during a counter-insurgency operation against guerrillas supporting the leftist alternative government, the FMNL, which had been recognised as legitimate by France and Mexico, and, after pressure from Trócaire, by Ireland also.

Media attention

O’Neill greeted and guided an Oireachteas delegation to El Salvador in 1982, which included Labour Party TD Michael D Higgins, now President, and Niall Andrews of Fianna Fáil. The accompanying media attention which followed included articles in the New York Times and the Washington Post, which helped to bring the issues involved to an international audience.

President Higgins maintained a close friendship with O’Neill thereafter, and her retirement was marked by a special luncheon party at Áras an Uachtaráin.

Sally O’Neill showing Digna a picture of herself on a Trócaire box. Photograph: David Stephenson
Sally O’Neill showing Digna a picture of herself on a Trócaire box. Photograph: David Stephenson

O’Neill was back at the forefront of Trócaire’s operations again in 1984, when, with others, she organised and led the charity’s response to the catastrophic famine in Ethiopia that year. This African experience was reprised in 1992, when, with Joe Feeney, Trócaire’s emergency officer, she managed the charity’s first entry into Somalia, amidst the chaos into which that country had fallen after the overthrow of its dictatorial government the previous year. O’Neill and Feeney set up operations in the Gedo district, near the border with Ethiopia, an operation which continues to the present day. This was extremely dangerous work, with warlords controlling different parts of the country and no functioning central authority. It included greeting then-president Mary Robinson, who visited Somalia in that year to show her support for Trócaire’s work.

O’Neill in this way became – as her sister, Kate Lewis, described it this week to The Irish Times – the “go-to person for difficult situations in different parts of the world” for Trócaire, her work taking her also to Vietnam and Cambodia.

Indigenous peoples

O’Neill’s focus from the mid-1990s was mainly on Latin America. One of her central concerns, dating from her El Salvador and Guatemala experience, remained justice for the indigenous peoples of these regions, and she was especially pleased in 2013 to witness, at last, the successful prosecution of Guatemalan general Ríos Montt, who had been that country’s president in 1982-83, and during whose rule genocide of indigenous people took place – although Montt was later released on grounds of infirmity (he was by then in his late 80s) after an appeal to Guatemala’s Constitutional Court.

In terms of her modus operandi, O’Neill was very down-to-earth

In this later period of her career, O’Neill was very involved with other aid agencies in providing initial and long-term support to the people of Haiti, where more than 160,000 people died and millions were left homeless following the earthquake in 2010. She drew on her experiences of working in Honduras when Hurricane Mitch struck in October 1998, killing 7,000 people and causing massive and widespread damage.

In terms of her modus operandi, O’Neill was very down-to-earth. Kate Lewis remembers that when visiting embassies in Central America to garner support for Trócaire’s work, her sister, then with young children of her own, would often carry the youngest of them on her hip during her visits to the chancelleries, breast-feeding while waiting to be received by the diplomats.

Farming family

Ms Lewis says of this approach that her sister was “happiest when rolling up her sleeves and working . . . it wasn’t [about] standing on a platform.”

O’Neill was born in 1950 into a farming family near Coalisland, Co Tyrone, one of eight children of Charles and Mary O’Neill. After secondary education at St Patrick’s Academy in Dungannon, where she excelled at languages and debating, she completed a course in Home Economics at Garnerville College in Belfast, specialising in nutritional studies. This in turn brought her to South America, where a chance encounter with Trócaire staff working with indigenous people in a remote part of the Peruvian Amazon convinced her that she had at last found her true vocation.

Sally O’Neill is survived by her husband, their daughters Xiomara and Rhona and their son Roger, and by her siblings Patrick, Thomas, John, Kate, Anne, Gemma and Margaret.