Tribute to Mary O'Neill

  • John O'Neill

Mary O'Neill died in Welwyn Garden City in January at the age of 99. Her funeral was on 12 February at her parish of Holy Family. Here her son pays tribute to a woman who was a long-time CAFOD volunteer and participant in Catholic People's Weeks.

Faith, family, friends - a tribute to Mum

I had a number of quite jokey conversations over the years with mum about what I would say at her funeral. And I'll disappoint you all by saying none of the jokes. We can leave them for another time. I want to start with a conversation I had with mum about what were the most important things in her life. It was a lovely day in 14 Sloansway - and it was sadly, for her and for me, soon after she had been diagnosed with dementia which we both knew would develop. So we sat down with pen and paper to talk about what mattered to her most in her life so that whatever happened we could keep them going, keep her doing the things she wanted most to do and continue to be the person she wanted to be. So, I asked what were the most important things in her life. Her answer was a very simple and straightforward one - my faith, my family, my friends. And I promised her that we would make sure that all three stayed central to her life. And with the support of lots of people they did right to the end. Faith, family and friends, they are all here today in church. Her family are here. Mum was a wonderful mum, gran and aunt. Her friends are here. They include new friends, in particular the brilliant carers who looked after her so well when she was at home and at Elizabeth House. They become our friends too. They include her old friends, in the church, in CAFOD and her neighbours. Thank you for being here. You were all so generous and open when we brought Mum to Mass.

The last three times we were here with Mum were all memorable occasions. The last time was on Christmas Eve for the children's mass. Mum was very happy seeing the children perform the nativity scene and singing carols. The time before that was for a Mass said for her 99th birthday - when everyone sang happy birthday to her. I'm really sorry she won't be here for her 100th which would have been some party. Again it meant a lot to us that you knew and cared for her so much. And the time before that was when all her old friends in the CAFOD group received blessings from the Pope. Her work for CAFOD was central to her life. In April 2017 Mum received her own papal blessing for her work for CAFOD. She was very happy that day - she knew the occasion was for her. But during the service she said to me a few times 'what have I done?'. That was in part due to her loss of memory. But she could have said the same thing at other times. Mum was very modest about her own achievements and very proud of those of people she loved - which was just as well for the rest of us as otherwise we would have all lived in her shade.

I'll start with my own experience. Mum came from a large family in Liverpool. She had 5 brothers and 4 sisters. Her early life was tough. Her Dad died when she was young and our gran was left with a large family to look after which she did with the help of her relatives. Like most working class children in those days Mum left school at 14 before going briefly into service with some nuns - which didn't last long due to her ability to break the china. She went into a variety of jobs after that before joining the ATS during the war. When I was doing O levels and A levels, despite leaving school at 14, she decided she would do some too. She did them before me. We had the same English teacher. Needless to say she got a grade A for her A-level. I only managed to scrape a B. Thanks very much mum!

You could say similar things about dad. She joined the ATS in the war. Dad joined what he thought was the cavalry just before the war although it turned out to be a tank regiment. He made it to lance corporal. Mum in ways she never explained and always treated with humour made it to sergeant major. Dad would joke about her superior rank - but it never bothered him. There were other ways in which Mum was achieving things quietly which he was really proud of and that was in her campaigns working for justice and care for people across the world. Mum and dad had met through the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists - and that more or less set the stage for our family life. Our holidays each year would be in one of two places. The first was every other year at the conference of the Transport and General Workers Union at different British holiday resorts - Blackpool, Scarborough, Bournemouth - dad in the conference all day, us down on the beach with the sandwiches and then in the evening watching the delights of artists such as Bruce Forsyth, Frank Ifield and Dana. The second was to Catholic People's Weeks which we went to in countryside locations. Mum and Dad continued to go to them after we left home - the last being mum on her own with the nuns at Hyning Hall in 2012. Mum and dad loved all the conversations they had there - serious and not so serious. They also enjoyed all their conversations with the prayer groups here in the parish. Mum supported dad in his work for the council and as leader of the council and for Shelter working for the homeless.

But it was in her work for CAFOD campaigning for justice and care for the vulnerable and poor across the world that Mum really came into her own. And it was then that Dad was so proud of her as we all were. Dad was always the radical, working in the peace and labour movements. But when Mum become more involved in CAFOD she showed her own commitment for justice and peace. We had a lovely message from Clare Dixon at CAFOD last week. She said this: 'When I was in El Salvador I got the news from Tony of Mary's death and so was able to hold her very close at Mass in a number of places that would have been very meaningful for her: at the chapel of the Divine Providence cancer hospital in San Salvador where Archbishop, now Saint Oscar Romero was killed in 1980, in the Cathedral where we celebrated Mass next to Saint Romero's tomb, and in the chapel of the UCA - Central American University - where the six Jesuits who were killed in 1989 are buried. Also in some of the rural villages and urban communities where CAFOD's work through local partners makes such a change in the lives of the poorest. These places and events were the kind of things that inspired Mary to work tirelessly for justice and dignity. I always remember her determination and "let's get on with it" attitude and always too, the tremendous relationship and support that she shared with her husband Bill.' Clare's memories chime with my own. I remember the campaigning work Mum did around El Salvador and the conversations with dad about it. And one of my favourite memories is dad turning around to me and saying 'John, your mum, she's getting more radical than me'. But she did all this work in a quiet way - in a "let's get on with it" way as Clare says.

Mum loved and cared for people. She did this in her work for CAFOD but also in her everyday life. She fostered children. She looked out for her neighbours. She cared for her children, me, Margaret, Judith and David. She was a wonderful gran to our children. Where she put us all in her shadow was in the extent of her love and care for others.

My greatest difficulty dealing with Mum's death is that she is not here to console me - to put her arm around me and say just the right thing. When things got really difficult she was there for you in an open way. So many people have said to me over the years - both in the family and outside - when something traumatic happened in their lives - a death of a loved one, a break up or break down -mum was there to say just the right things. The problem with the loss of Mum is she's not here now just when you need her most. So we'll have to make do with each other - and the love that Mum had for others has really been apparent in all the love that has been shown to us. Mum loved and was loved. Being without mum will take a lot of coming to terms with - she was there for us all our lives. I'll miss her dry sense of humour. I'll miss her songs and singing with her. I know some others here will miss that too. I'm not sure anyone else will miss my singing with her. We'll miss her smile. We'll miss her hugs and consolation. She nearly made it to 100. She made it to 99 with a number of near misses as the priests will tell you.

I said at the start that there were three things that Mum said were most important to her - her faith, her family, her friends. They were the things that remained with her to the end. Mum at the end of her life had lost much of her memory. But the last things she held onto were songs and her prayers. Her friends new and old still knew and loved her. She had a smile for them and for us her family. Family and friends were with her to the very end.

In my tribute to dad at his funeral I finished by quoting Dad's words at Auntie Flo's funeral. He'd said how Flo would always have a kettle on the Aga stove and how whenever he'd turn up she'd always say to him - 'Eee, our Bill, you've come a long way, come in and have a nice cup of tea' - and when he died he'd turn up at the gates and there would be Flo waiting with the kettle on saying 'Eee, our Bill, you've come a long way, come in and have a nice cup of tea'. It would be lovely to leave you with a picture of dad saying the same 'Mary - you've come a long way - come in and have a nice cup of tea' and with a wonderful image of Dad making mum a cup of tea. But I know that just wouldn't be the way the conversation would go. After a long journey if you were desperate for a cup of tea, Dad wouldn't be the person you'd want to make it. Among Dad's many skills making a quick cup of tea wasn't one of them. He would take an age - heating the pot and carefully cleaning and heating each cup. If you really needed a cup of tea mum would be the one making it. 'Pass me the pot' she'd say 'I'll make it'. That is what love is like. Love is shown in everyday acts of care, like making a cup of tea and making time for people. I want to thank all the people here for those everyday small ways in which they showed their love and care for mum. And I want to say thanks to Mum for all the love and care she showed for us. Thank you mum for everything - for being the wonderful person you were - we love you and will miss you.

Tags: Mary O'Neill, CAFOD, Tribute

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