Justin O’Brien obituary: Campaigner for the most marginalised in society

He campaigned for homeless people and at-risk children, and later became preoccupied with the provision of residential childcare in Ireland

Born April 1st, 1951

Died March 30th, 2024

Justin O’Brien, who died two days short of his 73rd birthday, was a lifelong campaigner for the most marginalised people in society, especially homeless people and at-risk children. Among the many organisations he worked with were the Simon Community, Focus Ireland, Circle Housing Association and, in the last years of his life, the recently formed Children’s Residential and Aftercare Voluntary Association (CRAVA).

He was born on April 1st, 1951, the youngest of three children, to Michael and Lillie O’Brien, in Arklow, Co Wicklow. He never knew his father, who died four months before his birth.


He attended CBS Ardscoil Chaoimhin in Arklow, from where he won a scholarship to study in UCD but left before completing his degree. He went to work as a residential childcare worker at Scoil Ard Mhuire, now Oberstown Detention Campus for young offenders, Lusk. At the same time he volunteered with the Simon Community in 1971-1977, serving on its board in 1972-1973. As its chairman for two years, he developed a range of new services to meet the needs of homeless adults. In 1977 he undertook the new residential child care course organised by Sr Stanislaus Kennedy (Sr Stan), who became a life-long friend, at the Kilkenny School of Social Education she had co-founded. He then returned to Scoil Ard Mhuire and subsequently to UCD to complete his degree, graduating with a BA in history and geography.

He moved to the University of Glasgow to study for a diploma in social work. From 1981 until 1984 he worked as a community care based social worker with Strathclyde Regional Council in Greenock, Scotland. On his return to Ireland in 1984 he was appointed project leader with the Eastern Health Board, with the task of establishing a Family Resource Centre in Ballymun. In 1985 Sr Stan had founded Focus Point, and he joined it in 1986, working there for 17 years as it evolved into Focus Ireland.

It was there he met the woman who would become his wife, Rachel Collier, who had been involved with Sr Stan in setting up Focus Point. She told his funeral that it was when she saw his sensitive and attentive engagement with a vulnerable young homeless teenager that she realised she was in love with him.

He began research into what he found to be the transformation and privatisation of this care, and was concerned that this big shift in public policy was receiving very little public scrutiny

Aware of the urgent need for stable housing for the clients using the services of organisations such as Focus Point, he became the director of Focus Housing Association. In 2004 he established Circle Voluntary Housing Association in Ireland, an approved housing body (AHB), and worked as its chief executive until his retirement. By this time it had developed more than 1,000 housing units for single homeless people and families, with plans for hundreds more in the pipeline.

However, he had not lost his interest in history and politics, and on his retirement he completed a master’s in public history and cultural heritage at Trinity College Dublin. His dissertation was titled The Institutional Childcare Past of Ireland: How Might it Be Remembered? It examined the State’s response to the legacy of institutional childcare abuse, and specifically looked at three of the uncompleted recommendations of the 2009 Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse Report (the Ryan Report).

This marked a new phase in his life, when he became preoccupied with the provision of residential childcare in Ireland. He began research into what he found to be the transformation and privatisation of this care, and was concerned that this big shift in public policy was receiving very little public scrutiny. He became involved in campaigning for appropriate services for exceptionally vulnerable children and young people, whose needs meant they could not access regular foster care, and was instrumental in setting up the Children’s Residential and Aftercare Voluntary Association, which brings together nonprofit providers of residential care for children and young people.

Despite the intense demands of his work with vulnerable people, he took time to enjoy the company of his family and friends, meeting up on culture nights in Dublin, walking in the mountains of Dublin and Kerry, holidaying in various European countries, where he always took a keen interest in local culture and politics. He was remembered by his daughter Elisha as the “best ever pub quiz team-mate” due to his extensive knowledge of history, culture and politics, though, she added, “with us dead weights on his team he never came first”.

He is survived by his wife, Rachel, and children Elisha, Emma, Kevin and Joshua, his brothers Brian and Michael and niece and nephew Kiara and David. He was predeceased by his parents Michael and Lillie.