Speech at a Mass in Memory of Sally O’Neill Sanchez
St Patrick's College Maynooth, Friday, 10th May, 2019
Is mór an onóir a bheith in ann labhairt in ómós do Sally O’Neill, oibrí iontach ar son an cheartais, a raibh dea-thionchar mór ag a saol ar saolta daoine eile, ach go háirithe daoine imeallaithe, daoine brúite faoi chois, daoine a bhfuil cearta bainte díobh, daoine a bhfuil a gcuid talún bainte díobh, daoine a bhfuil saoirse bainte díobh.
[It is a great honour to have an opportunity to pay tribute to Sally O’Neill, a remarkable worker for justice whose life made an enormous and positive difference to the lives of so many others, particularly those at the base of society, the excluded, the disenfranchised, deprived of their land their rights, their freedoms.]
Sally worked in solidarity with them, working with courage and limitless empathy. It has been written of Oscar Romero that he was ‘el obispo que anda con la gente’ - ‘The Bishop who walked with the people’. It can be written of Sally that her every breath was in work for the tasks of justice affecting the poor. She did indeed walk with the people in struggle.
That is what Sally did, travelling to places of conflict, distress and human suffering throughout almost four decades of dedicated work with Trócaire, often placing herself right at the front line during some of the most significant of global humanitarian crises. Sally did not just speak of how we should treat our fellow citizens with dignity and respect, she showed so many how to do it, and she required it of those whom she met and worked with.
She was a woman of bravery and integrity whose great sense of not just shared humanity, but its possibilities, which drove her to seek the creation of an inclusive world - one that recognised the dignity and inherent equality of all human beings.
Her early work in Central America was ground breaking. Having translated for Oscar Romero just six weeks before his murder, she went on to engage with those in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala who were suffering such great abuse of their human rights.
I was with her in El Salvador when the news of the massacre of many hundreds of citizens of El Mozote was breaking. I was also part of an Oireachtas delegation to El Salvador the following year, which was met and guided by Sally, and which helped to bring the issues which had led to this immense tragedy to international attention. She brought us to the rubbish dumps in San Salvador at 6:00 in the morning where the bodies of those murdered were dumped, and on to the morgue where relatives showed us photos of the missing.
At a different level she prepared for our meeting together with Ambassador Negroponte who believed the Jesuits, who would later be murdered, were spreading communism.
It was a time that saw the beginnings of what would be our long and deep friendship, a friendship I look back on with a great sense of privilege and of having the joy of so much shared in a very social way. There are few people who touched as many lives as Sally did, whose hand of friendship and support reached out so generously across so many oceans and miles and boundaries and barriers.
I have seen, at first hand, the great compassion and limitless courage she brought to her engagement with those who were persecuted,exiled and exploited. I have witnessed her struggles to empower those people and the relentless way she called on those in more comfortable positions of power to bring their influence to bear on the policies and politics that affected those most vulnerable. Anybody would have to be impressed by her instinctive understanding of the need to combine compassion and practical assistance with the pursuit of justice and of long-term solutions to the root causes of poverty, marginalisation and oppression.
Sally never tired in her struggle to place human rights at the centre of the agendas of high-level discussions at international conferences. She brought the voices of the oppressed and the suffering to the table.
She not only bore witness to that suffering but ensured others did too, leading delegations of politicians and bishops in order that they might observe and understand the great abuse of human rights being inflicted on fellow global citizens in marginalised communities throughout Central America. She was the greatest gift that Ireland gave to the Latin world in contemporary times.
Sally’s concern for the poor and the weak came from her own experiences and formation and would be the constant thread in a life that saw her fighting for the rights fof indigenous people, leading responses to the devastating famines in Ethiopia and in Somalia which I witnessed at first hand in Mandera, Mogadishu, and Baidoa. She established training and development programmes for vulnerable and marginalised groups, provided support to victims of earthquakes, hurricanes and other catastrophes and in so many ways worked to create a better and more just world for all the people with whom she shared this planet.
Following her retirement from Trócaire in 2015 she continued to work selflessly to reduce the great suffering, the loss, the diminished lives of so many members of our shared human family, including as a voluntary facilitator with prisoners and migrants in Honduras.
As a researcher on measuring global poverty and as a lecturer in Development Studies at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Honduras she continued to test and provoke taken for granted views on development. During my State Visit to Cuba in 2017 it was a great pleasure to meet up with Sally when I addressed the Society for Irish Latin American Studies.
It was one of our rare outings that didn’t have something to do with conflict. To witness, once again, Sally’s great commitment to transcend boundaries and celebrate all that humanity shares in common, with her wry humour, was wonderful.
Ba mhór an onóir go raibh Sally ina cara agam. Cronaím í, ach ní dhéanfaidh mé dearmad go deo ar an treoir a chuir sí ar fáil dom, nó an comhairle agus an cabhair a thug sí dom go minic in iliomad láithreacha.
[I was honoured to have Sally as a friend. I miss her but will never forget the brilliant guidance and assistance she offered me on so many occasions and in so many places.]
I thank her for being such an inspirational presence in my life including, in recent years, as a member of the High-Level Panel for the Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad.
The greatest tribute that can be paid to Sally is to ensure that her work of solidarity and her spirit of courage carry on. Her legacy is beyond words and her untimely death has left an immeasurable gap. She will be greatly missed by all those who were fortunate to have known her but most acutely by her family, her friends and her former colleagues in Trócaire.
It has been a great honor to take part in this celebration of Sally’s life, a life which has truly made this world a better place to be. She will be greatly missed by all those who were fortunate to know her. Again, I extend, in particular, my deepest sympathies to Roger and their children Roger, Rhona and Xiao.