Sr Mairéad Butterly: Missionary and advocate for women

Born: May 29th, 1946. Died: October 22nd, 2017

Sr Mairéad Butterly’s work as an advocate for the women of Kenya was among the high points of her career.

Sr Mairéad Butterly’s work as an advocate for the women of Kenya was among the high points of her career.


Sr Mairéad Butterly, who served with the Medical Missionaries of Mary in six countries including Kenya, Nigeria and Malawi ( as well as Ireland, Britain and the United States), had a lifelong love of sport, with horse racing, Leinster rugby, and Dublin Gaelic football among her passions.

“She eventually said goodbye to Africa after getting malaria, typhoid and lockjaw in Malawi. She was in hospital for three months after she came home,” recalled her brother, public relations consultant John Butterly.

Illness may have cut short her time in Africa, but her work as an advocate for the women of Kenya was among the high points of her career.

As co-ordinator of women’s development in Kitale in the dioceses of Eldoret in Kenya in the early 1970s, she battled to improve the quality of life of local women. “These women were desperately oppressed and basically spent their time drawing water. Many were illiterate but Mairéad really improved things for them,” recalled her friend and colleague Sr Isabelle Smyth.


“She was a feminist before her time,” said John Butterly, who pointed out that throughout her life his sister, who qualified as a social worker in the 1960s, continued to learn new skills. She got her masters in community health at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine in the 1970s and later got a communications degree at Iona College in New York.

Her flair for communications may have come from her father, also named John, a journalist with Independent Newspapers, best known as a columnist with the Evening Herald. Her passion for sport was not surprising given that her mother, Sheila (née Hodgins) was a Dublin All-Ireland camogie player, and family members recall Sr Butterly being fiercely competitive, even when it came to cards and Scrabble.

Long after her work on a variety of healthcare and women’s projects in Africa, Sr Butterly, who was raised in the Dublin suburb of Churchtown, was assigned to the Brentwood diocese in east London, where she helped to develop refugee services.

She served as a communications expert with her order for many years, working on a variety of magazines, newsletters and other promotional publications. She also served as personal assistant to then general secretary of the Conference of Religious in Ireland, Fr Joe Dargan, for a number of years from the late 1980s.

Zest for life

Her final appointment was with St Francis Hospice in Raheny, but more than a decade ago her own health began to deteriorate, and ultimately motor neurone disease and Parkinson’s quieted her body but not her zest for life. In 2009 she was admitted to the Áras Mhuire nursing facility attached to the her order’s motherhouse in Drogheda, where, mourners heard, she regularly organised sweepstakes to coincide with big racing events such as the Grand National.

She was fickle. Her devotion to rugby hero Johnny Sexton was such that she had a picture of him proudly displayed on her wall. But in the past year that image was replaced by a poster of young Joey Carbery, the New Zealand -born international who was so memorably involved in Ireland’s historic defeat of the All Blacks in Chicago last year.

A wheelchair user for many years, she was always up for an outing with her nursing-home cronies, whether a shopping trip to Dublin, a foray to a heritage site or an afternoon at the slot machines in Bettystown.

According to to Sr Isabelle Smyth she might have been deprived of her ability to walk, even to type and eventually to speak, but she never lost her love of life and her good humour. In a Facebook tribute a niece, Fran Legg wrote: “You could not speak in your last days but your eyes lit up the room.”

Predeceased by her brothers Martin, Kieran and Thurlo, she is survived by her brothers John and Brian and by her sister Sheila.