Trócaire’s regional manager for Latin America, Sally O’Neill tells Mags Gargan that Christmas is a time for togetherness
Christmas for Trócaire’s Sally O’Neil no longer means the snowy hills of County Tyrone, but the tropical heat and humidity of Honduras in Central America.
”I don’t miss having a white Christmas,” she says, ”I have even gone for a swim on Christmas Day after talking to my family in Ireland on Skype. They would be lighting up the plum pudding in front of the peat fire, while I’m in my swimsuit!”
Currently working as Trócaire’s regional manager for Latin America, based in the Honduran capital Tegucigalpa, Sally has been at the heart of Trócaire’s overseas operations for more than 30 years.
In this time she lived through three civil wars in Central America in the 1970s, campaigning for awareness of the situation at home, and translated for Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador when he met with a delegation of Irish bishops in 1980, just six weeks before he was murdered by a military death squad.
During her time as deputy director and head of Trócaire’s international department, Sally was responsible for a joint programme by 14 Catholic development agencies in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
She was also active in Africa, spending time in Ethiopia during the famine in the 1980s and Somalia in the early 1990s.
In 1995, she returned to Central America to establish Trócaire’s new field-based programme and to oversee the expansion of the agency’s work in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
Sally recently returned to Ireland to be presented with the Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty International Humanitarian Award in recognition of her tireless work tackling poverty and inequality.
Msgr Hugh O’Flaherty is famous for saving over 6,500 lives in Italy during World War II, and is remembered through the Hugh O’Flaherty Memorial Committee in his home town of Killarney, Co. Kerry.
”I was really thrilled with the award — it is fantastic to be associated with his name,” she says. ”Many Irish people have never heard of the fantastic work Msgr Hugh O’Flaherty did.
”I was in Haiti when I heard the news of my nomination and he was the Papal Nuncio there in the 1930s. When he left Haiti, the government made him an honorary citizen for work he did for famine victims.
(Pictured: Sally O’Neill wioth Digna Portilla the girl who featured on the 2010 Trócaire Lenten box. Photo: David Stephenson)
”I’m delighted that the people of Killarney have set up something to honour him and I have made it part of my mission to get information out about him.”
Sally is now back in Honduras spending Christmas with her family in Tegucigalpa, where she says Christmas is very much a community celebration.
”There is a fantastic community spirit here around Christmas,” she says. ”They don’t have much in terms of money or food or Christmas gifts, but there is a very strong tradition of being together. There is no consumerism — it is a joyful atmosphere, with lots of music, dancing and community spirit.
”The main celebration is on Christmas Eve night, when people would enact the story in the Gospels. Even in urban communities each street would choose a house and set up a light to represent where Christ was born and all the neighbours are invited to gather.
”It is a very lively street gathering — a community celebration. It wouldn’t involve food, just children acting out the nativity scene and then everyone goes home at midnight,” she says.
”Latin America is very family orientated. They always make an attempt to get home at Christmas and never eat before midnight. The typical foods are nothing as elaborate as the turkey and ham we have in Ireland. It is usually tamale (a corn dish) and hot chocolate. The family gathers together, stays up all night and watches the dawn rise on Christmas Day.”
That sense of family and community is all the more important when people are at their lowest, which is why the Christmas of 1999, when the country was recovering from the devastating effects of Hurricane Mitch, stands out in Sally’s memory.
”5,000 people were killed in Tegucigalpa and there was $3bn worth of damage — the country was wrecked,” she says.
”Trócaire had mounted a huge recovery and we couldn’t stop at Christmas. We worked 12 hour shifts, through the night, and there was a fantastic response from the Irish public.
”Animals the people had been fattening up for Christmas had been swept away and there was nothing that year.
”I was working on food distribution with Sorca Fennell from Galway and we were trying to do something more special for Christmas. Sorca decided to organise activities for the kids and we begged for food to make it special.
”My children’s school was closed so my whole family got involved. We each took a different shift in these camps to try and bring some sense of Christmas spirit.
”It was a time of grief — living in overcrowded camps, surrounded by flood waters — it was the most miserable Christmas.
”But I also remember the hope; people said to me that when I think back to the message of Christmas, Christ was born with nothing and He transformed the world — we can go on.”
Last January, Trócaire brought a group of diocesan representatives to Honduras to see firsthand the difference that their fundraising has made.
”Some of them did tremendous work at the time of Hurricane Mitch and they were knocked out to hear the stories and see the results of the support of the Irish people.
”Global Gifts for housing didn’t just rebuild houses but whole communities, and it was really moving to see that you can make a difference,” Sally says.
This Christmas Trócaire offered nine Global Gifts, including fruits trees in Honduras, and Sally knows more than anyone the difference this gift can make.
”I have a packet of cashew nuts in my pocket from a little cashew producing co-op, largely run by women in the community of El Triunfo. This is a tropical land, sometimes with no rain for seven months; we were looking for some fruit that would grow in these conditions, and cashews don’t need much water.
”They waited three years for the nuts to grow. They learned how to toast and roast them in a tiny oven, using solar energy because they have no electricity, and we got €3,000 from a parish in Cashel to create the packaging,” she says.
”We did a poverty survey in El Triunfo which showed that more than 80 per cent of families had incomes of less than $0.70 a day.
”Now three years later, with a contract with a supermarket, their lives have improved 150 times and one small producer got an award for best entrepreneurial idea — small ideas can make an enormous difference,” Sally says.
”We tell the communities who benefit all about the Global Gifts and for them they find it fascinating that instead of spending money on their own families, Irish people would spend it on someone they will never see or know.”