We’ve lost a great Irish woman who made a lasting difference

Dave O'Connell
Dave O'Connell

A Different View with Dave O’Connell

A couple of times in your life if you’re lucky, you encounter a person who can only be described as a force of nature; Sally O’Neill was more of a tsunami – one woman with the energy of a thousand and the drive of a small country.

Sally died this week – killed in a car crash with three others in Guatemala – and a light went out; a human dynamo shut down, doing to the end what she always did, devoting her time to others.

Sally O’Neill didn’t just work for Trocaire; she was Trocaire – or at least she embodied all that is best about this extraordinary development agency that shines what is often the only light on some of the world’s poorest places.

Sally worked for Trocaire for almost as long as Trocaire existed. And even when she retired, she didn’t stop; she was still working for the oppressed, the poor, the prisoners … the ones few others bother with, in her adopted Central America.

I was lucky to know Sally O’Neill, that human whirlwind, a hard taskmaster with the softest heart. When I first met her in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, she headed up the organisation’s team in that land mass between South America and the US.

Hurricane Mitch had wreaked havoc in Honduras in 1998, claiming over 7,000 lives and ravaging the land. The following year it was the focus of Trocaire’s Lenten campaign and a small group of press were to see the devastation first-hand.

Landing in Tegucigalpa is something you’ll never forget, because the runway is right beside a busy motorway and there are short odds on either cars or planes overshooting their particular stretch to the considerable detriment of the other.

And that was just the beginning.

Waiting on the other side of customs was Sally O’Neill, a small woman with a strong Tyrone accent, who had little time for small talk.

Within the hour we were in Campo Cielo (literally Field in the Sky), standing among the shacks clinging to the side of a mountain overlooking the capital; the rest was a cliff devoid of life – because Hurricane Mitch had washed one half of this barrio into the sea.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.

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