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Those We Lost

By Mary Gallagher, Assistant Editor
May / June 2019

Bill O’Donnell
(1935 – 2019)

Former newspaper reporter Bill O’Donnell died in April, aged 84. A beloved and dedicated member of the Irish community in Boston, O’Donnell proudly held dual citizenship in Ireland and the U.S., and offered a great example of the strong connection between Ireland and the United States.

O’Donnell was born and raised in Boston, and after attending Saint Clement’s School in Medford, he went on to Somerville High School, Suffolk University, and then Boston State College. He later served in the Marines during the Korean War, though he refused military honors when planning his funeral service, telling his family, “I never got shot at!”

After his family, Bill’s priorities in life were Boston’s Irish community and respecting his heritage. He visited Ireland a number of times, and kept his community informed on the events of the Troubles during his tenure as the editor of Boston’s Irish Echo in the 1980s. Journalism proved to be his life’s work, as he went on to offer a monthly column in the Boston Irish Reporter in the 20 years before his death. Outside of his work, he was a president of the Eire Society of Boston and a member of the Irish Cultural Center and the Charitable Irish Society.

“I was truly amazed by his knowledge of Ireland and the complexities of our politics,” Ann Mullan, a friend of Bill’s who immigrated to Boston from Ireland in the 1980s, told the Reporter. “Bill’s example taught me as an Irish-born person to admire and respect Americans of Irish descent.”

O’Donnell is predeceased by his brother Steven and his parents, William, Sr., and Anne O’Donnell (née Flaherty). He leaves behind his wife of 50 years, Jeanie, and daughter Erin.

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Lyra McKee
(1990 – 2019)

Belfast investigative journalist Lyra McKee died in April, aged 29. While covering riots in Derry for a piece on the perils of frontline reporting, McKee was caught in the fire of dissident New IRA members, who claimed they were aiming at police. She was well-respected for her thoughtful, in-depth studies on the effects of the Troubles and IRA ceasefires in the current millennium in Ireland.

McKee was born and raised in the ’90s in North Belfast’s “killing fields,” where roughly one-fourth of the violent fatalities took place during that grief-filled period. Her close proximity to the violence made her a witness to its effects and fueled her determination to see them brought to the limelight. While attending St. Gemma’s High School in Belfast, she began publishing at 14 with an article in the school paper.

She would become known for her research pieces, including “Suicide Among the Ceasefire Babies,” published by Mosaic in 2016, revealing that suicides in Northern Ireland had increased at an astonishing rate since the last IRA ceasefire – more in the 16 years since than in the three previous decades of brutality altogether. A book that McKee was working on, The Lost Boys, focuses on young males who were abducted and killed during the Troubles, and the killers who are still at large. The book will be published posthumously.

“Her life was a shining light in everyone else’s life,” said her partner, Sara Canning, at a vigil held for Lyra in Derry.

“Her legacy will live on in the light she’s left behind.” McKee is survived by Sara; her mother, Joan; and her five siblings, Gary, Joan, Nichola, David, and Mary.

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Laura Brennan
(1992 – 2019)

HPV vaccination advocate Laura Brennan, whose passionate activism was driven by her own experience with the disease, died in late March. Making the most of the time she had after her terminal prognosis of cervical cancer, Brennan launched a determined campaign in September 2017 to encourage vaccinations against the virus that caused it.

Brennan worked with Ireland’s Health Service Executive to spread awareness of the vaccine and its benefits, establishing an online video campaign and appearing on the Late Late Show with Ryan Tubridy.

“This illness is devastating, and it’s going to take my life, but the good news is there’s a vaccine you can get that prevents it,” Brennan said in her campaign, which helped bring HPV vaccinations up by 18 percent in less than 18 months.

She was invited by the World Health Organization to promote the vaccine throughout Europe, and her efforts saw her named Clare Person of the Year, honored by UCD, and the recipient of a mayoral reception from the Clare County Council.

County Clare mayor Michael Begley praised Brennan’s efforts to alert Irish parents to the dangers of the disease. “Telling one’s story to a public audience is often the most difficult thing to do. In doing just that, however, Laura opened a debate, gave a voice to the silenced, and generated a better understanding of what is a serious issue that affects so many.”

The Irish Republic’s Minister for Health Simon Harris spoke publicly on the effects of Brennan’s zealous campaign. “Thanks in no small part to her sheer determination, the uptake of the HPV vaccine has increased among young women. The State owes her a debt of gratitude,” he said. “Amazing doesn’t do justice to her or her courage.”

Brennan is survived by her parents, Bernie and Larry; brothers Fergal, Colin, and Kevin; and a grateful generation of young Irish women.

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Martin Nelis
(1963 – 2019)

Martin Nelis, the son of former Sinn Féin M.P. Mary Nelis, died in early May in a cycling accident at age 54. Beloved for his commitment to public service and volunteer work, Nelis was a pillar of his community in Pleasant Hill, California.

Born to parents Billy and Mary Nelis (née Elliott), young Martin was one of nine children growing up in Derry. After graduating from Queens University Belfast with a degree in engineering, he left Ireland in 1989 for the U.S., where he would work first as an IT technician, then briefly as a congressional aide before embarking on his long-term career as a public information officer in California – first in Suisun City, then in Pleasant Hill.

A love of community made Nelis an active resident of his adopted home. He took part in the Measure K campaign to raise money for a new library for the town, helped organize events, and launched the Summer By the Lake concert series – which was dedicated to his memory this year.

“There’s been a huge tear in the community fabric,” said Nelis’ friend and Pleasant Hill mayor Tim Flaherty. “He became so involved in virtually every public aspect, like community events. Martin was incredibly bright and witty, and a true Irishman.”

Nelis was predeceased by his father Billy and his brother Peter, who also died in a traffic accident. He is survived by his mother Mary; siblings Donncha, Liam, John, Patrick, Cathy, Declan, and Frank; and children Aidan, Fiona, and Deirdre.

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Tim Conway
(1922 – 2019)

Emmy Award-winning comedian Tim Conway died after a long illness at age 85. A veteran of classic TV sketch comedy The Carol Burnett Show, Conway had a talent for making people laugh with a movement or facial expression that earned him countless fans in the U.S. and abroad.

Tim was born in Willoughby, Ohio, to parents Dan and Sophia, immigrants from Ireland and Romania, respectively. In an interview on the Christopher Closeup podcast, he shared his experience growing up with dyslexia. “People couldn’t wait for me to get called on to read because I would put words into sentences that were never there. They thought I was being funny, I guess, so they would laugh at me. And I just continued that through life,” he said. “I still do.”

After a stint in the army – in which he “defended Seattle from 1956-1958” – Conway embarked on a career in entertainment and caught on quickly, becoming a regular on The Steve Allen Show. From there he moved on to McHale’s Navy (1962-1966), where he perfected an affectation of lovable incompetence as Ensign Charles Parker. He then launched two of his own short-lived series (Rango and The Tim Conway Show). He joined The Carol Burnett Show in 1975, making it his life’s mission to make his fellow cast members break into laughter, whether as vaguely foreign and harried boss Mr. Tudball or the painfully slow and put-upon Oldest Man.

In the foreword to Conway’s autobiography, What’s So Funny?: My Hilarious Life, Burnett praised his instinct for humor. “His sketches with Harvey Korman deserve a spot in whatever cultural time capsule we’re setting aside for future generations,” she wrote. “Maybe there are other performers as funny, but in my opinion I can’t think of anybody funnier.”

Conway shared his hopes for humanity on the Closeup podcast. “I hope a lot of people have the same opportunity to take the same route I did – to see life as humorous and enjoyable,” he said. “I think God has placed me in several positions, which I have found humorous. I find humor in life itself, and I can hardly wait to thank Him in person.”

Conway is survived by his wife Charlene; children Kelly, Corey, Jaime, Tim Jr., Jackie, Pat, and Shawn; and granddaughters Courtney and Sophia.

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Sally O’Neill Sanchez
(1950 – 2019)

Human rights activist Sally O’Neill Sanchez died in a car crash on a mission in Guatemala at age 68. Her dedication to furthering the cause of humanitarian development with the organization Trócaire made her a treasured friend to many.

One of eight children to Charles and Mary O’Neill, young Sally was raised in Coalisland, County Tyrone. Her powers of relating to others surfaced early on in her talent for languages and debate. While enrolled at Belfast’s Garnerville College, O’Neill traveled to South America. She encountered Trócaire workers assisting needy Peruvians in the Amazon, and embraced their work as her own.

O’Neill worked on the front lines of many human rights causes – among her most notable assignments was translating for Saint Óscar Romero six weeks before his death.

“She embodied our values and through her courage and commitment to human rights touched the lives of so many people,” said Trócaire chief executive Caoimhe de Barra. “I was with Sally last week in Guatemala. Despite having officially retired, she remained a driving force for human rights in Central America.” She added, “Although we still cannot believe she is gone, we know that she left an incredible footprint on the world.”

O’Neill was graced with the Hugh O’Flaherty Humanitarian Award in 2011, and in 2017 she received an honorary Doctor of Law degree from the University of Ulster.

O’Neill is survived by her husband, Roger; their children Xiomara, Rhona, and Roger; and by her siblings Patrick, Thomas, John, Kate, Anne, Gemma, and Margaret.  ♦

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